Importance of “Connection to Self” in Clinical Settings

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Many experts in psychology and social work firmly believe that connection to self is the most important concept for therapists, counselors, social workers and other front line workers to grasp and master. In order to connect to clients and bring positive change as a result, one must first feel connected to themselves. The difficulty lies in instilling this ability in clinical workers and those in training. Understanding the concept and actually being connected are two very difficult tasks, especially in the society that exists today. Today’s world is constantly full of distraction and this has become the norm.

Imagine a 26 year old woman who recently finished her Masters in Social Work and is beginning a new clinical career. She’s anxious to excel in her new role, just broke up with her partner of 6 years, is having family problems and is looking for a place to live. How do we teach her to connect to herself when she is in a state of feeling overwhelmed with anxiety?

A colleague and dear friend of mine and I were discussing this and we recognized 3 things that seem to enhance one’s ability to be connected to themself:

  1. Live longer
  2. Do more shit
  3. Pay attention and reflect

Unfortunately these cannot be taught in an educational setting, with the exception of #3. Though we can modify training to include more aspects of self-reflection, rather than just clinical theory. Maybe cirricula should include more journaling, meditation, yoga and activities of this sort. Understanding abnormal psychology, interviewing techniques, cognition, etc. is extremely important, but many believe that connection to self is as important, if not moreso. As someone who has been through university and college in related fields, I definitely think there is more training required to foster this connection.

Connecting to oneself is especially difficult due to the abundance of distraction surrounding us all the time. Time not working is generally spent on cell phones, watching a new TV series or movie, reading, playing video games, or doing any other activity that takes you into a world other than your own. It seems that fewer and fewer people come home after work/school and discuss their day, eat dinner together, or reflect at all. This is a significant problem for clinical workers and clients alike.

My friend/colleague used to hold support groups for addicts in church basements and he provided some crucial insight into the concept of connection. Many of the addicts he worked with stated that leaving them alone with their ‘shit’ was literally the equivalent of leaving them alone in hell. When front line workers are learning to connect to themselves, it is also imperative that they learn how to safely establish this connection with their clients. If we push clients too hard in this area and don’t provide enough support and assistance, it will traumatize them and could do more harm than good. Understanding one’s past plays a major part in healing and recovery, but is one of the most difficult  and anxiety-provoking tasks to accomplish.

In a distracted world, it is more important now than ever that front line workers are taught the skills to become more connected to themselves. Therefore, cirricula and practical training for these careers need to reflect this. It is the only way to create effective helpers. How can someone connect with a client and teach self connection when they are not connected to themselves? Because self connection is of utmost importance, learning the concept, partaking in activities to foster connection, and generating ways to reduce distraction are logical first steps in training to become a clinical worker. The education system needs to establish safe and helpful ways to teach people self connection and improve treatment for clients in need.

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On posts about Caitlyn Jenner vs the “real” heroes

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It seems that every time I log onto Facebook, I see a post about Caitlyn Jenner and her public transition from male to female. I see this story as a victory for her and others who have experienced or are experiencing a similar situation. Unfortunately, it appears the general public does not feel the same (it’s also possible that I just have shitty friends on my social media). The number of posts and memes comparing Caitlyn to what one sees as a ‘real’ hero is outstanding. So many believe that the subject of being trans and whether it is considered brave is not important – that it is insignificant when compared with other world problems.

I cannot believe that the people making these posts and/or genuinely feel they are valid cannot understand that bravery is subjective. What is brave to you is most likely something that has significance in your life, something that has affected you. For example, if you or someone you love has had cancer, you most likely see cancer survivors as heroes, and understandably so. Anyone who knows or is a trans person, whether publicly or not, knows the insurmountable struggle they face every minute of every day in a world that has no place for them.

Is Terry Fox a hero? Of course. Are men and women in the military who fought for our country and freedom heroes? Of course. Does that mean Caitlyn Jenner and the trans population who have stood up for their rights are not heroes? Definitely fucking not. If one cannot sit back for one minute and consider what it would be like to be a trans person in today’s world and recognize the lack of acknowledgement and validation and general hate towards these people, then a new perspective is needed.

I understand that many people haven’t thought about this as an issue, because it simply isn’t one for them. Many people live lives that are unaffected by the concept of gender, sex and sexual orientation. And good for you, if that is the case. But it does not give you the right to discredit and shame the people who have do live with the issues and who have had the guts to be proud of who they are. It’s very easy for a white heterosexual cisgendered person to say that Caitlyn is not a hero and there are ‘bigger problems.’ But I dare them to live one day in the life without being able to use a bathroom outside of their home, fill out a form virtually anywhere or live a day without judgement.

Many heroes have died so that we can have the world we do today. But how many trans people need to die from drugs, murder and suicide before they are allowed the same freedom?

The Importance of the Initial Counseling Session

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A few years ago, one of the closest people to me was going through a rough time in her life. She had moved downtown with her boyfriend in an expensive apartment close to her work. A few months later, she decided that she was not happy in major aspects of her life; her relationship was not working out how she wanted, she was struggling financially, and was very unhappy in her career. She decided to take the brave leap to change all of this – she ended her relationship, quit her job and went through a stressful hassle to get out of her apartment lease. Although this move was necessary for her to build a happier and more fulfilling life, it came with huge consequences. She was out of work without a back-up plan and had no choice but to move back to her parent’s house, which we all know is not easy.

She was naturally feeling depressed and uncertain, as anyone would during a significant life shift. I suggested that she look into getting a counselor or therapist to help her through this dark time. I didn’t feel that she did had a severe mental issue; the depression seemed completely situational. I figured that it couldn’t do any harm to bounce some feelings and ideas off a neutral party and possibly gain some insight on mood improvement and resources for assistance. I never thought she would go for it, as she is not one to express emotions freely or comfortably, even with me. Surprisingly, she set up an appointment with a therapist. I was convinced that this was a great step for her and would help her realize her potential and thrive in her new experiences.

Unfortunately, the complete opposite occurred. The therapist that she went to traumatized her and she will never return to any sort of counseling again. Counseling could have been beneficial and comforting for her if she was treated professionally and respectfully, as should be expected. In one session, the therapist managed to push her so far out of her comfort zone that accomplishing any progress became impossible. I am not a therapist not a counselor, but I understand that there are boundaries in counseling that need to be respected.

What occurred during that session may not seem like a big deal to many people. In fact, maybe most people would be open to complete the exercises I will discuss. The issue here is that she clearly stated she was uncomfortable and didn’t want to proceed and the therapist continued to insist.

On the day of her first counseling session, she was most likely feeling nervous and uncomfortable, not knowing what to expect and having to delve into personal issues with someone she was meeting for the first time. And understandably so – I would be nervous as hell. Throughout the session, the therapist asked her to partake in deep breathing, meditative exercises. She was asked to close her eyes and completely relax. This is something that one can learn to do over time, but it cannot be expected of anyone to be completely vulnerable around a person that they have never met. Deep breathing and relaxation techniques can be very helpful and have many health benefits, but only if relaxing is possible for the client. In this case, it was obviously not. Closing her eyes and trying to relax gave her extreme anxiety in this case because she had no relationship with the therapist.

It might be understandable for a therapist to probe or suggest such exercises to see if a client may be willing to try it. But it is not acceptable to pressure someone into doing something they have clearly stated they don’t want to do, especially in an initial session. This will deter a client from partaking in treatment at all, because there is no sense of safety or control. An initial counseling session should be simple. The therapist builds rapport with the client – ‘shoot the shit,’ for lack of a better term. The only goal of an initial counseling session is to gain a relationship and create comfort and safety for a client to be able to discuss whatever difficulties they are facing. Causing a client an additional difficulty/stressor is not what should happen.

She ended up leaving the office upset, even feeling violated. She cancelled all future appointments with this therapist. This was her first experience in a therapeutic setting, and it is now completely tainted. I completely understand why she would not want to return to counseling, as it was not only unhelpful, but it made her feel worse. I wonder what kind of progress she would have made had she seen a competent counselor.

If a client with more severe issues had seen this counselor and felt the same way, the consequences could be huge. For example, if the client was suicidal or homicidal and declined further treatment, this could lead to the loss of a life. It is crucial for counselors and people in similar roles to be aware of the impact that they have on their clients and be properly trained to find balance between making progress and respecting boundaries. The importance of the initial counseling session should not be underestimated. Maybe the counselor discussed here was new, nervous or just firmly believed in the benefits of relaxation. Regardless, it deterred someone from getting the help they needed, which is unacceptable and unprofessional. Was this a rare event or does this happen to many people seeking mental health treatment? I sincerely hope that this is not a regular occurrence and that counselors are getting the training required to help clients, regardless of their background, comfort level, personality or any other factor. Everyone deserves to have comfortable, professional treatment if required and, most importantly, to be respected throughout the treatment process.

Close Call, Celexa.

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I am one of the many that suffer from anxiety. Society today breeds worry – this is a sad truth of the world we live in. I have ‘dealt with’ excessive and utterly useless anxiety for over ten years. During this time, I have taken steps to better cope and improve my life. I have educated myself, gotten a degree in psychology and a diploma in community service work. I regularly partake in ‘self care’ – I get massage therapy, exercise and try to take time for myself whenever possible. A recent series of events sent me into a state of worry worse than ever before. I was in a place of utter despair and was so desperate that I made a decision that I firmly believed I would never make: I decided to get a referral to a psychiatrist. I was exhausted from feeling overwhelmed and was filled with hope that somehow my life could be better with the help of a professional.

I endured a painfully awkward interaction with my GP, in which I attempted to explain the unbearable worry I have been experiencing without crying uncontrollably. Before he could jump to the perfect prescription for my problem (which, may I add, he prescribed in the past and it was an epic failure), I requested to see a psychiatrist. He informed me that the minimum wait time would be one year (what the fuck?!?!), because I “only have anxiety.” I would be put at the bottom of the waiting list after those with acute depression and psychosis. Logically, this makes sense. I was not a threat to myself at that time and those who were should definitely have been prioritized. Regardless, this was a massive slap in the face. Talk about discrediting my experiences and the courage it took to disclose such personal information! I also found it interesting that he almost implied that I simply say that I have depression, although that was not the underlying problem.

Naturally, he then took the perfect opportunity to suggest that I try a drug, without a psychiatric assessment. I agreed, simply because it seemed to be my only option. Because I have taken benzos previously without any success of anxiety reduction, I proposed trying an SSRI. These are typically used to treat depression, but I have read that they often help to reduce anxiety as well. When I began explaining this reasoning to my doctor and discussing the research I had done, it became very apparent that he had no idea how SSRI’s work. He had no background knowledge of the drug whatsoever. In fact, he made the bold statement that “no one knows how they work.” SSRI’s are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. The name itself states how the drug works. It prevents Serotonin from being reabsorbed, so that it stays in your synapse longer, making you feel happier. Pretty simple, right? My mind was torn after I heard this statement. A part of me wanted to laugh hysterically, a part of me was sad and a part of me was terrified that this man can prescribe drugs that he knows nothing about. AND I have wait a year to see someone who has some comprehension of what they are prescribing and risk that comes with it. So, impulsively, I say “Sure, I’ll try one.” How much harm could it do?

I left the office with a bottle of 40mg Celexa pills. I later learn that this dosage is, simply put, stupid. Individuals who have never taken this drug should never be given 40mg pills. I was sad because I felt like I had failed at coping on my own, nervous because I had no idea how the drug would affect me and hopeful that my life would make a turn in the right direction. The following day was a Wednesday, my work from home day. I decided that this was a good opportunity to try the drug and see if I got side effects. At 10AM, I cut the pill in half and took the larger piece. Within an hour, I began to feel strange. It is very difficult to describe how I felt – just not like myself. I thought that I was just nervous and psyching myself out. As the day went on, things went from weird to insane.

Celexa’s effect on me was severe and debilitating. I was having mood swings like never before; I would go from completely fine to crying hysterically within a matter of seconds. I had severe dizziness, nausea, inability to focus, extreme anxiety (ironic), shaking, muscle tremors, insomnia, sweating, vision disturbances, abnormal and suicidal thoughts. I have my issues, but I have never felt ‘crazy’ until I took this drug. I felt like I had no control over myself physically or mentally. It was terrifying, to say the least. Possibly the scariest part of the experience was how long it lasted. I went to bed thinking and hoping I would feel better the next day. Unfortunately, this was not the case at all, as I couldn’t sleep. I got up the following morning with worsened symptoms, possibly due to the lack of sleep. Everything I read and everyone I asked stated that symptoms should subside within 24 hours, but they didn’t for me.

I called my mom, who was a nurse, and she decided to come pick me up and take me to the doctors. I definitely could not drive in the state I was in. The reaction I got from my GP was very neutral – it seemed almost careless. One would think that a doctor would have a reaction when a patient almost kills herself. He spent about 15 seconds listening to me before prescribing me a different SSRI. I felt like he would have gone through trial and error with these drugs until I did attempt suicide. I, on the other hand, went along with it knowing damn well that I would not be trying another one of those drugs, at least not without very careful supervision. It took about three days and chiropractic treatment until I felt somewhat myself again.

I researched the percentages of people who have side effects on Celexa and other similar drugs. What I found was horrifying. The percentages are much higher than for other drugs. Yet, SSRI’s are given out so easily without even an assessment or explanation of necessary precautions. 26% experienced headache, 20% dry mouth, 11% excess sweating, 8% tremors, 21% nausea; and the list goes on. More than one in ten Americans take anti-depressants. I do believe that SSRI’s are effective and beneficial for many people and am not bashing the drug entirely. I see a huge issue with the manner in which these drugs are prescribed and utilized. It is fantastic that people are able to cope and have great lives because of these medications, but scary that such potentially dangerous substances are prescribed without any analysis, even when analysis is requested by the patient.

Taking Celexa was definitely one of the worst and scariest experiences of my life. The medical system needs to change to properly assess individuals before putting them at such high risk. It is clear that these drugs make a lot of profit, but that does not justify the risk that the drug poses. Should GP’s be permitted to prescribe anti-depressants to people that have never taken such drugs? Do all GP’s have enough knowledge on these drugs to be entirely aware of the effects and risks? Doubtful, in my mind. Is it possible that these drugs can induce further psychiatric issues, thus causing a need for more prescriptions? From my personal experiences, it seems that this may well be the case.

I am now feeling better than I ever have. I am exercising 3-5 days per week, monitoring and improving what I eat and drink, realizing and assuring myself that I am thriving in my life. I have a great job and plenty of opportunity, a car, a loving family and spouse, a dog and a home. Anxiety will always be a struggle in my life. I will continue to do all I can to make my life manageable and enjoyable and remind myself that I am lucky and capable. I will have more dark moments. I hope that I can get through them without medications. If I do decide that trying medication is the best option, I will be aware of the risk and ensure that I have people who care about me around.

People need to take charge of their health, do their research and take precautions when taking these drugs. Doctors will not do this for us. I have read that the side effects of Celexa dissipate in two weeks. This is great, if the patient lives to see this. It is a sad truth that so many individuals die in an attempt to want to live. I believe that patients should be monitored if they are prescribed these drugs. At the very least, they should be given advice on what to do if extreme side effects occur and where to go for help. Anxiety and other mental disorders are scary and difficult to deal with, but the medications used to treat these problems can generate a bigger and scarier issue.

The Central Nervous System for Dummies

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The human nervous system is incredibly complex and controls all aspects of how we experience our lives (behaviour, development, emotions, etc.). Despite the multitude of research that has been and is being performed, there is so much that is unknown. The information we do have constantly changes and evolves as research unveils new theories. The human nervous system includes the central nervous system (CNS) as well as the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. I will review the CNS only in this article, which consists of the brain and spinal cord. The brain is studied via two main methods: 1) experimental ablation, which involves damaging specific areas of the brain and observing effects on behaviour; and 2) electrical stimulation, which involves stimulating parts of the brain with electrodes and similarly observing the effects.

There are two main types of nerve cells in the CNS: neurons and glia. Neurons send electrical signals to convey messages to other neurons, muscles, or glands. Glia mainly provide structural support, but other types of glia also perform different functions. For example, some remove waste and debris, some build myelin sheath, and others guide migration and growth of axons and dendrites during embryonic development. Recent studies have revealed that glia are also involved in conducting electrical impulses along the neurons. The structure of a neuron includes then soma, dendrites and axon (reference image below). The soma is the cell body that contains the nucleus and other cellular structures. The dendrites are narrowing tree-like branches off the soma that receive messages from other neurons. The greater their surface area, the more information they receive. The axon is a thin fibre of constant diameter and is usually longer than the dendrites. It conveys impulses to other neurons. A neuron has multiple dendrites, but only one axon. All three of these structures are lined with synaptic receptors. The axon is covered with a fatty myelin sheath which increases the speed of conduction of the electrical impulses. This sheath is segmented – it has gaps, which are called Nodes of Ranvier. The signal jumps from node to node, resulting in increased speed – this is called saltatory conduction. There are two types of axons: efferent axons carry information away from a structure, while afferent axons carry information into a structure.

The blood-brain barrier protects the CNS from infection. It keeps the majority of chemicals out of the brain. Most substances that enter the bloodstream cannot enter the brain. This is a safety system that prevents viruses from accessing the brain. If a virus does successfully enter, it will most likely stay with that individual for the rest of their life. Only small, uncharged molecules (eg. oxygen and carbon dioxide) and molecules that dissolve in the fats of the membrane (eg. vitamins A and D, heroin, marijana, and antidepressants) cross the barrier.

The membrane of a neuron maintains an electrical gradient, which is a difference in electrical charge between the inside and outside of the cell.  There is a slightly negative charge inside the membrane in comparison with the outside. There is a high concentration of sodium ions outside the cell and a high concentration of potassium ions inside the cell. Stimulation of a neuron causes an action potential to occur, in which the negative proteins from inside rush out and the positive proteins from outside rush in, in order to keep the balance of the charge. This is how messages are sent throughout our nervous system.  The voltage of a resting cell is approximately -70mV. An action potential occurs when the neuron is stimulated to -55mV, called the threshold of excitation. If this threshold is not reached, an action potential will not occur. Once the threshold is reached, a rapid depolarization up to +40Mv occurs – known as an action potential. The neuron then goes back down to resting state, but overshoots. This is known as the refractory period, which lasts about one millisecond. During this period, there is an absence of action potentials. The cell must return to resting stated (-70mV) before another action potential can occur. The graph below illustrates this process.

If the threshold of excitation is reached and an action potential occurs, this is known generally as excitation. On the other hand, if an action potential does not occur, this is known as inhibition, as the message will not be passed on. Action potentials are based on the all-or-none law, meaning that the intensity of the stimulus does not affect the intensity of the action potential. Rather, if a stimulus is intense, the number of action potentials will be greater.

Synapses are gaps between neurons, the location at which electrical signals are passed on to the next cell. There are three types of axons: axo-axonic, axo-dendritic, and axo-somatic. The neuron that delivers the message is called the pre-synaptic neuron, while the neuron that receives the message is called the post-synaptic neuron. Inhibition is necessary and crucial because if neurons are constantly excited, a seizure results. The chemicals that transmit the specific message to another neuron are called neurotransmitters. Over 100 types of neurotransmitters have been identified to date, and each one conveys a different message. Neurotransmitters are created and transported in vesicles in the pre-synaptic cell. An action potential causes the membrane of the vesicle to fuse with the membrane of the cell, dumping the neurotransmitter into the synaptic cleft (see image below). The neurotransmitter attaches onto receptor sites on the post-synaptic cell. Different neurotransmitters fit into corresponding receptor sites like a lock and key.

Drugs produce effects by altering these neurotransmitters. There are two types of drugs: agonists, which increase the effects of neurotransmitters; and antagonists, which block the effects. Most drugs affect the neurotransmitter Dopamine, which makes one feel pleasure. Methamphetamine increases the release of Dopamine into the synapse, cocaine blocks the reuptake of Dopamine to leave it in the synapse longer, and hallucinogens act by stimulating certain types of Serotonin receptors.

There are three sections in the human brain: the hindbrain, midbrain and forebrain. The hindbrain is the posterior part and consists of the medulla, pons and cerebellum. The medulla is an extension of the spinal cord and controls biological processes such as breathing, heart rate and salivation. The pons is the location where the cranial nerves cross to the opposite side of the brain (this is why the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa). The cerebellum controls movement and balance. The midbrain, obviously located in the middle of the brain, contains the superior and inferior colliculi and the substantia nigra. The superior colliculus is involved in vision and the inferior colliculus is involved in audition. The substantia nigra gives rise to Dopamine-containing pathways. The forebrain is the largest part of the brain and has two hemispheres and four lobes.

The occipital lobe is known as the primary visual cortex as it receives visual input. The parietal lobe is the primary somatosensory cortex, as it is the primary target for touch sensations and information from muscle-stretch receptors and joint receptors. It also processes spatial and numerical information. The temporal lobe is the primary target for auditory information. It also processes more complex aspects of vision, such as the perception of movement and face recognition. The left temporal lobe is essential for understanding spoken language. The frontal lobe contains the primary motor cortex and the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for higher-order processes such as planning for the future and organization. This is the area that is affected by schizophrenia – the area develops in the late teens to early twenties, the same time as the onset of schizophrenia. Many sub-cortical structures play an equally large role in human life. The thalamus is the main relay station – virtually every message passing through the brain goes to the thalamus first. The basal ganglia plays a large role in movement. The limbic system is responsible for emotion. The hypothalamus conveys messages to the pituitary gland, which alters the release of hormones. The brain has four ventricles that are filled with cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid supports and cushions the brain and provides buoyancy, nutrition and hormones. The corpus callosum is a bundle of axons that separates the two hemispheres. Lastly, the convolutions in the brain allow for a large amount of tissue to fit into the skull. Generally, the more convoluted the brain, the more intelligent a species is. Humans have the most highly convoluted brain (as you may have guessed). The hill of a convolution is called a gyrus and the valley is call a sulcus.

Virtually all psychological disorders have been linked to an abnormality in brain functioning. Addiction causes changes in the nucleus accumbens. This area releases Dopamine and controls our feeling of “wanting.” Drugs affect this area by increasing sensitivity which, in turn, increases one’s desire for a certain drug. Depression has a strong family link, especially for relatives of women with early-onset depression. It is associated with decreased activity in the left hemisphere. All anti-depressants increase Serotonin activity in some way (eg., increasing release or decreasing reuptake). Schizophrenia has a strong genetic predisposition. Studies suggest that it is caused either by genes or difficulties early in life that impair brain development in ways that lead to behavioural abnormalities beginning in adulthood. Another possible cause is a childhood infection in which a parasite invades the brain. Schizophrenics show mild brain abnormalities, especially in the temporal and frontal lobes. The prefrontal cortex is very slow to mature and the symptoms of the disorder are caused by excess Dopamine. As a result, patients are prescribed antipsychotic medications, which block Dopamine.

It is clear that a tremendous amount of research has been devoted to the CNS; specifically, the various parts of the brain and their functions. I believe that further research should focus on how these specific individual parts influence one another to produce a combined perception of one’s world (this is known as the “binding problem”). Another area of focus should be on the role of glial cells in transmission of electrical impulses and how central they are to this process relative to neurons.

The more the CNS is studied, the more complex it is recognized to be. We are only at the tip of the iceberg in understanding these complexities. It may take decades before a full or, at least, more comprehensive understanding has been attained. It is clear that the CNS is more than just the sum of the individual cells and, hopefully, we will soon be able to comprehend the details of its interactive functions.

Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony

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Eyewitness testimony has been relied upon for decades by the police and the courts. It is used to determine details about crimes and guilt or innocence of suspected perpetrators. Unfortunately, it has been show that eyewitness testimony is not as accurate as it is portrayed to be, and this inaccuracy seems to be hidden from the public. This subject has been a major topic of study in the field of Psychology – Cattell, Binet, Ceci, Bruck and Stern have all contributed to research in this area. Many studies and theories   have shown that the human memory frequently fails and that memories are often distorted. The extent of the role that eyewitness testimony should play in our legal system is questionable.

Human memory consists of five stages, all of which play a large part in eyewitness testimony. In sequential order, these five stages are: 1) the perception/attention stage, in which one simply perceives a stimulus; 2) the encoding stage, in which one pays attention to details in the environment; 3) short-term memory, which has a limit of approximately two minutes; 4) long-term memory, where stored information can be accessed/retrieved as needed, and; 5) retrieval stage, in which an individual actively remembers information from their long-term memory. Memory can be affected in any of these five stages and, as a result, might not be passed on to the subsequent stage or be passed on inaccurately. For example, many details from short-term memory will not enter one’s long-term memory store and will be forgotten within a couple of minutes. Human memory can potentially make many mistakes and be incomplete, yet our continuous use of and dependence on eyewitness testimony in our legal system suggests otherwise.

It has been shown that one’s own pre-existing schemas and comprehension processes influence how one perceives reality. This can affect accuracy when distinguishing between what actually happened in a particular event versus what we think happened. Leading questions are often used by the police when discussing what happened with eyewitnesses. Ashcraft stated that leading questions “tend to suggest to the subject what answer is appropriate.” Studies have shown that such questions influence the subject’s memory of what happened and how they respond. The most popular study that illustrated this was performed by Elizabeth Loftus. A group of students were shown a video of a car crash. They were then asked how fast they believed the car was going when it either smashed into, collided with, bumped into, or contacted the other car. When stronger verbs were used (eg., smashed), the subjects estimated the car was moving at a higher speed. The way the question was asked led the subjects to biased answers. Leading questions often result in memory impairments, which Ashcraft defines as “genuine changes or alterations in memory of an experienced event as a function of some later event.” In the example of the Loftus study, many of the subjects who heard the word smashed also had a false memory of broken glass at the scene. Those who were told the other descriptive words did not recall broken glass. It is known that children are especially susceptible to suggestive questioning.

It is clear that the human memory is not fully accurate and this has been proven to be especially true in situations that require technical accuracy. Individuals often incorrectly claim to remember false information – this is called the misinformation effect. Not only is the information incorrect, but people are often very confident in remembering such events. If another person gives the subject false information which is believed, this is called misinformation acceptance. Ashcraft defines this as when people “accept additional information as having been part of an earlier experience without actually remembering that information.” People also have ‘false memories’ which are simply memories of something that did not happen. Another downfall of human memory that causes issues within the legal system is called source misattribution, which is a confusion in memory where one cannot remember the source of information.

Another flaw in memory that affects eyewitness testimony is the hindsight bias. Weitnen & McCann define this as “the tendency to mould our interpretation of the past to fit how events actually turned out.” People believe that they ‘knew it all along’ when explaining events that would actually be difficult to foresee. Many people are overly confident when identifying a perpetrator in a lineup, even when the perpetrator is not present. Lineup identification is one of the most common methods of identifying a culprit. Unfortunately, many of these lineups are considered unfair. A fair lineup is one in which the suspect does not stand out from the foils/distractors (people who are known to be innocent). There are three main types of bias when forming a lineup: the foil bias is when the suspect is the only member in the lineup who matches the description of the culprit, the clothing bias is when the suspect is the only lineup member wearing similar clothing to that worn by the culprit, and the instruction bias, which involves the police failing to inform the witness that the culprit may not be present. Photo arrays are more commonly used than live lineups and multiple identifications increase the likelihood that the selection is correct. Voice identification is also used – accuracy is higher with longer voice samples and whispering significantly decreases accuracy.

Confidence tends to raise even higher when subjects are told they chose the right suspect. Also, it has been shown that jurors tend to believe confident eyewitnesses moreso than witnesses that appear less confident. In reality, there is only a low correlation between confidence and accuracy of recall. It is possible that such confidence is fueled by the failure to seek disconfirming evidence – the individual cannot think of any reason why they would be wrong, do they assume they must be right. Studies also show that witnesses remember faces of their own race with greater accuracy than those of other races, which is known as the cross-race effect. One is less likely to remember details about the culprit and environment if there is a weapon present. A weapon is considered unusual and threatening. As a result, an individual will focus more on the weapon than on other factors.

Police interrogation is often a procedure aimed at obtaining the answers the police want rather than what may be true and complete. They use many techniques to lead eyewitnesses to say only what is wanted. For example, police officers often interrupt eyewitnesses when they are re-telling their experiences. The police often limit the information provided by the witness by distracting them (eg., asking questions) and preventing them from speaking. Police tend to ask short, specific and sometimes irrelevant questions. They may also ask questions in a random order that is inconsistent with the information witnesses are providing at the time. Police often evoke emotional arousal in eyewitnesses, which has been proven to affect the accuracy of testimony – as emotional arousal increases, attentional capacity decreases. Eyewitnesses are usually asked to testify long after the incident took place (often six months later or more). This will have an obvious affect on one’s memory. The graph below illustrates the ‘forgetting curve,’ which is the decrease in memory capacity as time elapses.

forgetting-curve

Pozzulo, Bennell and Forth outlined four recommendations to increase the accuracy of lineup or photo array identification. The first states that the person who conducts the lineup or photo array should not know which person is the suspect – this reduces the potential for bias. Secondly, eyewitnesses should be told explicitly that the criminal may not be present in the lineup and, therefore, witnesses should not feel that they must make an identification. The third recommendation states that the suspect should not stand out in the lineup as being different from the foils/distractors based on the eyewitness’ previous description of the criminal or other factors that would draw extra attention to the suspect. Finally, a clear statement should be taken from the witness at the time of the identification and prior to feedback on his or her confidence on the selection made. It is possible that abiding by these recommendations would decrease the number of wrongful convictions made.

It has been well-demonstrated by researchers that fundamental errors are being made when using eyewitness testimony in a legal context. It seems that we are guilty of overestimating identification accuracy, not fully understanding the influence of situational factors and ignoring system variables that may alter accuracy. The public needs to be more informed about how our legal system works and it’s limitations. Eyewitness testimony is commonly used and relied upon in determining guilt or innocence, despite it’s risk of inaccuracy. It is time for this to be re-visited and modified in order to prevent innocent people being locked away and potentially dangerous criminals roaming free.

Abnormal Psychology – Says Who?

Standard

Abnormal psychology is a subject that has been studied extensively and has taken the interest of many individuals throughout the world, myself included. I am an average, young girl, with a decent corporate job who has a piece of paper that says I know some stuff about Psychology. I am not a psychologist by any means, but I do have a passion for learning about the human mind and how humans can progress and, ultimately, change our world and society to a more desirable state. On a smaller scale, I have come to realize that I am not a fan of the term ‘abnormal psychology.’ In fact, I strongly dislike it. Lying in bed ranting to my (lucky) boyfriend one night, I discovered that I see many things wrong with the term ‘abnormal.’

What does it mean to be ‘normal’? In university I learned that ‘normal’ is a subjective term, depending on many factors such as age, culture and personal preference. Ironically, at the same university, I took (and loved) a course called ‘abnormal psychology,’ seemingly an objective and defined concept. Of course, we have bell curves and standard deviation and other mathematical tools that induce migraines in individuals such as myself. But once we have these bell curves, how is it decided where the line is crossed at which point one has a mental disorder? Who makes this decision? Who is considered qualified to do so? Obviously, the smaller the section of the curve that is considered ‘normal’ leaves a larger section for those considered ‘abnormal.’ The higher the percentage of the population that is deemed ‘abnormal,’ is positively correlated the number of mental health diagnoses, prescriptions for corresponding medications and profit for drug companies. Do drug companies have a say in these statistics? If so, how much? If this conflict of interest exists, to whatever extent, it would play a roll in those deemed ‘abnormal.’

abnormal_psychology

A primary focus in the past few years in psychology- and social services-related fields has been reducing stigma associated with mental illness. This is crucial and many organizations are doing great things to attempt to peel away at this burden in our society. I wonder if/how the term ‘abnormal psychology’ affects such stigma. Those with a diagnosed mental illness are labelled as abnormal – how does this make them feel? Do people notice this label or care? One must wonder if this term makes individuals feel outcasted, strange, or that they don’t fit in. If so, this is opposing everything we have been working towards in the mental health field – a huge problem. My biggest concern is the potential for this label to prevent individuals who may be suffering from a mental issue from addressing their needs and getting help. Regardless of whether the person in question is suffering from a diagnosable illness or not, it is always worth asking the question and then taking appropriate precautions. We should and are morally obligated to encourage people to do so; we should not make them feel different, strange or inferior for questioning if they are suffering or if they could be living a better life. 

Let’s assume for a second that the term ‘abnormal’ does create or add to feelings of being an outcast. Would such feelings affect one’s disorder? I believe that it is possible that such feelings may decrease self esteem and exacerbate the very problem that is trying to be improved. If the disorder is affected by feelings of isolation, will this in turn affect how one heals? It may make healing a more difficult and/or longer process, which is once again the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.

Is it possible that I have over-analyzed an insignificant term? Yes, perhaps. But is it possible that the well-being of some people could be improved if we chose a better, less offensive, more accurate term to describe this area of study? I believe it just might. I have not yet identified such a term, but I believe one could be. This is something that should be seriously considered/modified by psychology professionals, as it could help in the goal to reduce stigma and, most importantly, enhance the lives of people that make up the society we live in.