Dr. Kristy vanMarle studies the mathematical abilities of infants and toddlers, seeking new insights into how the human brain develops, formats, and represents concepts of quantity. Basic cognitive quantifying abilities progress into ideas of number, time, and space, and are crucial to the everyday tasks that our adult brains perform. “Babies,” Dr. vanMarle tells SyndicateMizzou, “give you a window into what kind of initial, foundational core [mathematical] capacities are there, how they get elaborated, and what kinds of experiences are necessary for different capacities to come online.”
A rainbow of feathers floats upward like a psychedelic butterfly. Fingers of color, violet and lime green, seem to flow outward from the tips of the wings. If you didn’t know better, you might assume it is a work of art. Beyond their beauty, for Shawn Christ these images taken at MU’s new Brain Imaging Center reveal the brain’s activity and connections. In his role as Assistant Professor of Psychology and Director of MU’s Clinical Neuropsychology Laboratory, Christ studies how the relationship between the brain and behavior changes as we develop. Christ chose a career in psychology because it would combine two passions— working with kids and solving puzzles.
As a child growing up in New Mexico, Christine VanPool remembers visiting museums and state parks with her family. By all accounts, VanPool was a normal kid who loved to ask questions. Living on the edge of the Mescalero Apache reservation, VanPool developed an appreciation for the rich cultural history of her Native American friends, which led naturally to her interest in anthropology.
We began this interview with the intent of focusing, as we usually do, on one person’s research. However, this query soon became—like the collaborative work it highlights—a joint project involving James R. Koller and Karen Weston of the Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education, two individuals working together to “think outside the box” by creating the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools, now affectionately called “the Center” by its members. “The Center was created in response to the rising number of students in need of mental health services today,” states its homepage. It was initiated “as a paradigm shift that recognizes prevention as a fundamental element in supporting our nation’s youth facing developmental challenges, psycho-social issues, and environmental stressors within the school system and community . . . with the whole thrust being a paradigmatic shift from mental illness to mental health.” Of course, “you’re never going to get away from mental illness,” admits Koller, “but instead of waiting until pathology occurs, the question posed to me was how we can do something different. How can we better prepare consumers at all levels to be better informed so that we can create a positive learning environment for each learner and increase her or his self-concept, while academic learning flourishes?”
VanPool talks about her undergraduate research at Eastern New Mexico University where she studied several cultural groups to understand their different birthing practices.
One of the Center’s new projects is funded through the Department of Health and Senior Services. This interdisciplinary effort is working across the state on community development, with a focus on children’s mental health.
Last July, the Center received a grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health. By holding focus groups with mental health professionals, the public schools, parents, child service workers, juvenile justice personnel, and so forth, they are seeking to address the question: “What could we do in schools and communities to help support healthy social and emotional development in children?”
In its mission to convince lay people and the professional community about the importance of early intervention, the Center has encountered several obstacles. Trying to modify teacher certification requirements to include coursework in this area, for example, has been like “trying to teach an old dog a new trick,” Koller recounts. For one thing, people tend to think that mental illness problems and substance abuse don’t exist in their own community. “There is a naiveté that befits the general society as well as the professional ones. We really have to work on shaping and re-shaping the mentality towards mental health; it is a systemic problem that is going to take a long time.”
The Center has been working with the School of Nursing and the College of Education at MU to provide mental health training for nurses, teachers, principals, and school counselors. Thanks to the collaboration with Vocational Rehabilitation, the Department of Health, the national centers on mental health, and other federal agencies, they have been able to do outreach, sharing, collaboration, and program development. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to surmount some of these issues,” Koller remarks. “Without that collaboration, we would not be where we are today.”
Weston describes several of the Center’s current projects. For instance, one of them seeks “to integrate mental health systems with education systems,” starting with the Moberly Public Schools, and eventually applying the model elsewhere. For this purpose, they have begun an organization called the Moberly Community Coalition for Children and Families to address children’s mental health. “It’s been a fantastic learning experience,” observes Weston. “They have really built awareness in the community around the need to address children’s mental health and to promote mental health. We take a preventative approach, arguing that we should be paying attention to children’s social and emotional development, that we should be promoting mental health the same way we promote physical health.”
Most of Jim Koller’s past research and practice as a licensed psychologist was directed toward pathology, that is, “abnormal behavior.” But he became disillusioned with the then-current state of affairs, realizing that “we have to do something different to stop the escalating incidence of mental illness vis-à-vis mental health problems in the country.” With the cooperation of the Missouri state legislature and the Department of Mental Health, the Center for the Advancement of Mental Health Practices in the Schools was conceived—“with the whole thrust being a paradigmatic shift from mental illness to mental health.”
Koller observes that one of the biggest obstacles is getting people to do more than just nod and agree that mental health is important. “Of course, it’s important: but what are we willing to do to encourage it in our youth?” he asks. “We have to do something that’s more proactive than reactive. Mental illness is continuing unabated in our society in particular,” thanks in part to high levels of stress and the drive to succeed. He perceives this challenge as an ethical and moral responsibility: “When you have a chance to do something about it, when you have people who are willing to look outside the box at a different world, why not take it? At least you can’t be judged that you didn’t try.”
Béa Gallimore will return to Rwanda periodically to meet with the ABASA women, check on the projects that Step Up has spearheaded, and determine what further steps need to be taken to help these women become financially independent. Their next priority is to build a counseling center, which is becoming increasingly urgent as primary school children, who were not alive during the genocide, are showing signs of trauma. They may be withdrawn, have difficulty with attendance and learning, report nightmares and sleep disturbances, and show signs of anxiety and distress. From studies of the children of the Holocaust survivors, we know that symptoms of trauma may be transmitted down through the generations. Step Up’s mission of improving mental health availability, therefore, is of vital importance. To learn how you can help, go to http://www.stepuprwandawomen.org/.