Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This I Believe: Why Psychology is Important to Me

Over the weekend I came across a website entitled This I Believe, a national media project that engages people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values and beliefs that guide them in their daily lives, which inspired me to do something a bit different in this week’s post. I have decided to share a personal account that heavily influenced my core values and ultimately impacted the decision to devote my life to the discipline of psychology.

A few weeks after my fourteenth birthday, I awoke to an intense sensation of pain in the right side of my abdominal region. That night I was rushed to the emergency room after I could no longer withstand the enduring agonizing pain. The doctors performed various tests and eventually determined that I had an uncommon form of hepatitis known as autoimmune hepatitis or AIH. AIH is a disease that can be described as the body “rejecting” its own liver. For unknown reasons, the immune system attacks healthy cells, which leads to the inflammation and scarring of the liver, which if left untreated results in cirrhosis, liver failure, and eventually death. As in all autoimmune diseases, the treatment is to suppress the immune system with the use of immunosuppressant drugs, to minimize the damage and allow for healing in the afflicted organ. Unfortunately for me, that is when things got even worse.

The lesser side effects of the drugs, such as lethargy, headaches, weight gain and complete hair loss, were hard on me as I tried to adjust to the new social pressures of high school, but I managed, with the support of family and friends. However, what was not expected was the complete eradication of my immune system. Without that to protect me from illness, I became gravely ill and was transported to UCLA Medical Center (pictured to the right). Over the next four months I would endure fevers as high as one hundred and six degrees, a spread of infection, major bleeding, excruciating pain, and three life-threatening surgeries. By the time I was released from the hospital, I was physically and emotionally numb from all of the suffering. As one horrific ordeal ended, another began. Confronted with my own mortality at such a young age, I became severely depressed and began to withdraw from friends and family. It was nearly impossible for me to get my life, goals, and priorities back in order and things only appeared to worsen. The physical scars that still cover much of my body were nothing compared to the emotional ones. My parents soon realized that they alone could not provide me with the adequate help I needed.

When my parents first approached me about seeing a psychologist I was extremely hesitant. I believed I could handle my problems by myself. Deep down, however, I knew I could not. I eventually agreed to meet with psychologist because I desired the guidance necessary to get my life back in order again. I would have never thought that simple decision would become one of the most significant and most influential decisions of my life. Over the next few months, I had my own personal forum in which I could discuss things that were of real significance to me. With the assistance of a mental health professional I quickly returned to my old self again. This is how my passion for psychology was instilled. I hope to one day be in that position to help others in the same way I was helped.

Often times we can be distracted with how psychology is portrayed in our culture through movies, television, soundbites and politics, but ultimately I believe that the fundamental goal of psychology is to help people achieve and maintain a strong and healthy state of mental wellbeing. As a physician treats physical wounds, a psychologist treats mental distress. In order to live a complete life, we need both a healthy body and a healthy mind.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Narcissism: Studies Claim it is a Problem for Generation Y

Have you ever watched an episode of Fox’s American Idol and wondered to yourself, “Is he serious!?” You know who I am referring to; the guy who steps on to the stage, opens his mouth, and completely butchers a perfectly good Sinatra song with his voice that sounds remarkably like the shrieks a dying hyena. What would make someone with such an obvious deficit in singing ability, think that they could honestly be America’s next big star? Well, according to Jean Twenge (seen below), a professor of San Diego State University and the author of Generation Me (seen to the left), the reason can be attributed to a large increase in the rate of narcissism in today’s youth, that was a direct result of being brought up in an environment, known as the "self-esteem movement" that emerged in the 1980s, in which children were constantly being told that they were “special” and that they should always “believe in themselves.” Now, according to the analysis examined by Twenge and colleagues, of the responses of 16,475 college students across the United States who filled out the Narcissistic Personality Inventory between 1982 and 2006, this generation of youths is facing a plethora of problems. Twenge noted that people high in narcissism lack empathy for others, are aggressive when insulted, seek public glory and favor self-enhancement over helping others look good. Narcissists are also more likely to be materialistic and to seek attention and fame. "Narcissism feels good and might be useful for meeting new people or auditioning on American Idol," said study co-author W. Keith Campbell, University of Georgia psychology professor and author of When You Love a Man Who Loves Himself. "Unfortunately, narcissism can also have very negative consequences for society, including the breakdown of close relationships with others."

As a current member of this “narcissistic” generation, I felt my insight could be of some worth. Personally, I strongly disagree with Professor Twenge’s argument. In my own experience I have not encountered the narcissism epidemic she describes. Most of the individuals that I know of this current generation are rational and objective young adults who are aware of their abilities and limitations. Obviously individuals vary, but collectively I see no obvious difference in narcissism from one generation to another. And to be honest, I am a bit suspect of any study not being published in a scientific journal subjected to peer review. Instead Professor Twenge publishes her findings in a press release and her blog, coincidently just in time to help promote the launch of her new book. As expected the media quickly jumps on the story and before you know it she is on the Today Show, Tucker Carlson, and various local radio shows plugging her new book. Does any of this necessarily refute her theory? Of course not, but it is something that should be kept in mind when considering her study and motives.

Now as far as examining more concrete facts, Professor Twenge states, “These findings make me very, very worried. I’m concerned we are heading to a society where people are going to treat each other badly, either on the street or in relationships.” First, as I mentioned earlier, Twenge’s findings are based upon a very specific group of the population; college freshmen. Every scientific researcher knows that in order to get an accurate representation of a population, one must collect data from a large random sample otherwise you are left with a sample that possesses some common variable that could be misleading. To make such extreme assumptions about the general population of youths of today based upon the sample provided in Twenge’s study would be erroneous. Second, the facts about today’s youth simply do not support Professor Twenge’s theory. Things viewed as obvious indexes to narcissism, such as violent crime, pregnancy, abortion, and drug abuse rates have all significantly dropped statistically in young people since the 1980s. Many surveys also indicate that today’s youth are very close to their parents and family. Record numbers claim they "share their parent’s values" or "have no problem with any family member." Increasingly many say they want to live near their parents later in life. This would seem very unlikely if parents and family members were left to deal with unruly, selfish, narcissistic teenagers.

Frankly, with all the misleading broad assumptions, I feel that Professor Jean Twenge ought to change the title of her book from Generation Me to Generalize Me.