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Book offers hope to parents of children who self-injure


By Susan Kelley for the Cornell Chronicle

"Healing Self-Injury" book coverParents who discover their children intentionally hurt themselves – by cutting, carving, scratching or burning their skin – often feel guilty and ashamed, assuming they somehow caused their children’s emotional distress.

A new book by experts in self-injury offers parents hope: assurance that they didn’t cause their child’s self-injuring, and guidance on how they can become key allies in helping their child heal.

“Having a child self-injure can be so hard and feel so dark at times. Our intention was to inform, encourage and support caretakers,” said Janis Whitlock, co-author of “Healing Self-Injury: A Compassionate Guide for Parents and Other Loved Ones” (Oxford University Press), available Feb. 4.

The book is based on extensive research – including Whitlock’s work as director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery. The book’s vivid anecdotes are drawn from the researchers’ in-depth interviews with real families in recovery from self-injury.

Co-written with Elizabeth Lloyd-Richardson of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, “Healing Self-Injury” focuses on life after parents or caregivers have discovered their child is involved in non-suicidal self-injury – self-injury that is not intended to end one’s life. The book covers the background and basics of self-injury, why people do it and, most importantly, how parents and loved ones can help their child, their families and themselves.

Commonly known as “cutting,” non-suicidal self-injury is best understood as a way of coping with stressful emotions and thoughts, the authors say. The relief from the physical pain of a self-injury essentially tricks the brain into perceiving relief from emotional pain too. Self-injury can include such behaviors as embedding objects in the skin and swallowing toxic substances. Most people who self-injure also deal with other mental health challenges. And it is far more common than most people know; between 12 and 37 percent of all teenagers and young adults have self-injured at some point in their lives.

Parenting is generally not the critical factor in causing a child to self-injure; it has more to do with how children perceive themselves and their environment.

portrait of Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock

“So much of self-injury is giving voice to emotional experiences. It’s a way to take an amorphous, emotional cloud of stuff and focus it and control it,” said Whitlock.

Parents are not only critical allies in setting the stage for a child’s ability to recover and thrive, but are also the most helpful confidants a self-injuring child has – even more useful than peers and therapists, said Whitlock.

“There’s an authentic self – a self that exists from the time the child arrives on the planet – that a parent or caretaker has some connection to,” she said. “There’s something about that relationship that can be a very healing agent in this process.”

She encourages parents to simply bear witness to a child’s perceived emotional wounds, rather than try to fix them. “That’s what a lot of kids in our research said: ‘When my parents can just listen, when they can just be present with me, it makes a big difference.’ It opens the door to a tremendous healing capacity.”

The book also encourages parents to get support for themselves, such as therapy or by confiding in a trusted friend. “We try to validate the number and depth of the hard emotions that will come up for a parent,” she said. “It’s very disconcerting to see wounds on your child’s body or see blood left on a sink.”

By taking care of themselves and finding healthy ways to deal with the emotions related to the child’s self-injury, parents are modeling how to deal with difficult issues – which is what the children must learn to do for themselves.

“Demonstrate to your child – even if it’s new to you – how to be authentic. That modeling of authenticity, even if it’s messy, awkward or really uncomfortable, is important,” Whitlock said. “It’s in these hard places where you can most easily find the experience of being an authentic person. It’s where the seeds of hope and growth are.”


Book offers hope to parents of children who self-injure - Cornell Chronicle

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Whitlock named BCTR associate director


portrait of Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock

BCTR researcher Janis Whitlock accepted a new position this summer as the center’s associate director for teaching and training.

Whitlock’s research focuses on using social media to detect and treat mental health problems, understanding self-injury and reducing sexual violence among young people. She is the director of the Cornell Project on Self-Injury and Recovery and she advises and mentors more than a dozen students each year.

BCTR Director Christopher Wildeman said Whitlock’s focus on teaching and training will benefit the center.

“I simply cannot imagine anyone who could lead us in that direction better than Janis, and so I am very much looking forward to seeing where we go under her leadership,” he said.

In Whitlock’s new position, she will support and advance BCTR’s role in providing educational opportunities that help researchers, students and the broader community understand the reciprocal relationship between social science and on-the-ground policy and practice. This includes continuing BCTR popular talk series, providing training forums for researchers within and outside of Cornell and teaching and mentoring students in areas related to translational research.

“I am delighted that I was offered this opportunity to support a central value inherent in the mission of the BCTR, College of Human Ecology, and Cornell as a whole: fortifying links between science, policy and practice in service of human development and wellbeing,” Whitlock said. “Deepening BCTR activity in this area and advancing collaboration with translation-minded programs and individuals on campus is something I’m very excited about.”

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Time in nature to improve kids’ health


Adapted from an article by David Nutt for the Cornell Chronicle

The Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s Academic Venture Fund (AVF) supports collaborations that cut across disciplines to address today’s greatest sustainability challenges. In 2018, the fund awarded $1.5 million to a range of projects that will provide sustainable solutions around the world, from the Finger Lakes to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia.

Among the 12 projects are efforts aimed at transforming nutrient-rich poultry waste into economically viable fertilizers; developing in-situ conservation strategies for African rice; boosting nature-based engagement for elementary schools in low-income communities; and connecting rural and urban areas across New York state through a public “Internet of Things” infrastructure.

portrait of Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock

Included in the 2018 funded projects is Opening the Door to Nature-Based Engagement, on which the BCTR's Janis Whitlock is a co-investigator.

Young people today show greater rates of stress and anxiety, a trend that coincides with a growing recognition of the threats to the natural environment. Employing a One Health approach, researchers will examine how curricular programing that provides students more time in nature can lead to healthier populations and environments. The project will specifically focus on elementary schools serving low-income communities in urban and rural areas, and will identify curricular best practices and generate data to inform programs and state policy for long-term social and environmental impact. The project also received a Engaged Cornell supplemental grant. Co-sponsored by MPH.

Investigators: Gen Meredith, population medicine and diagnostic sciences; Don Rakow, horticulture; Nancy Wells, design and environmental analysis; Janis Whitlock, Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research; Monika Safford, Weill Cornell Medicine; Samantha Hillson, Tompkins County Health Department.

Atkinson's Academic Venture Fund awards $1.5M to 12 projects - Cornell Chronicle

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Doing Translational Research podcast: Janis Whitlock, Sunday, September 15, 2019

portrait of Janis Whitlock View Media

Doing Translational Research podcast: Janis Whitlock

Cultivating "Broader, Better Human Beings"
January 22, 2018

Janis Whitlock
Cornell University


Cultivating "Broader, Better Human Beings"
January 22, 2018

Janis Whitlock
Cornell University

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Scholars train for research in real-world settings


Henriette Lundgren of Grange Partnership works with a small group on data visualization.
photo: Brian Maley

By Sheri Hall for the Cornell Chronicle

Thirty-three researchers from across the globe visited the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) last month to learn how to conduct research through community partnerships that will inform real-world practices and decisions.

The center’s first Translational Research Summer Institute, which took place June 20-22, offered intensive training, discussion and reflection on conducting research in real-world settings such as service agencies, health care institutions and community organizations. It covered two main topics: building constructive partnerships with community organizations and using data to tell a story.

The institute builds on the BCTR’s expanded efforts to teach researchers about translational research. In the past two years, the center launched a popular workshop series, “How to Do Research in Real-World Settings” and a podcast, “Doing Translational Research.”

Janis Whitlock addressing a room of conference attendees

Janis Whitlock addressing conference attendees
photo: Brian Maley

“We are thrilled to have found an effective forum for providing scholars interested in doing research in real-world settings with skills that come naturally to BCTR-linked faculty and staff,” said Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at BCTR and co-director of its summer institute. “This is the first of what we anticipate will be an annual institute that advances the capacity of scholars to meet real-world needs.”

Attendee Elizabeth Luth is a postdoctoral associate in behavioral geriatrics and palliative medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. She researches end-of-life care for people with dementia and their caregivers and also how psychosocial factors influence health disparities.

“The [institute] was helpful on so many levels,” Luth said. “I particularly liked the sessions that focused on building effective partnerships, participant recruitment and sharing results with various audiences. The faculty were outstanding and, moreover, available, approachable and engaged for the duration of the institute. The opportunity to connect and network with other researchers in the field was invaluable, both the seasoned researchers from Cornell and the more junior persons, like myself.”

Luth said her biggest lesson from the conference was the importance of creating an authentic connection with collaborators and research participants. “It keeps why we do this type of research – to make a difference in the real world – front and center in our work. If I can forge and sustain that type of connection, the rest will fall into place.”

Related:

Interactive workshop series teaches translational research skills

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Promoting good behavior online


Portraits of Janis Whitlock, Natalie Bazarova, and Drew Margolin

Janis Whitlock, Natalie Bazarova, and Drew Margolin

By Sheri Hall for the BCTR

BCTR research scientist Janis Whitlock is joining a new collaborative project at Cornell’s Institute for Social Sciences that will look at how technology influences pro-social and anti-social behaviors, and how to promote good behavior online.

The project is named "Pro-Social Behaviors in the Digital Age" and co-led by Natalie Bazarova and Drew Margolin, faculty members in Cornell’s Department of Communication. The central idea is to develop new information about the best ways to reduce negative interactions and promote positive interactions on social media platforms.

“Most of us are well aware of the way virtual social spaces can quickly become forums for base human exchange,” Whitlock said. “Understanding why this happens and, most importantly, how we might intervene as bystanders, developers, or policy makers is one of our primary goals with this project. We want to be part of the larger conversation about how to replace the worst of us with the best of us in online gathering places.”

The project team – which also includes Vanessa Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior and Renѐ Kizilcec, assistant professor of information science – will focus their research on four areas:

  • preventing the spread of fake news,
  • preventing cyberbullying,
  • promoting online support for mental distress, and
  • promoting online support for people in educational settings.

The project will receive funding from the Institute for Social Science for three academic years. In the second year, project team members including Whitlock will spend half of their working hours “in residence” at the institute to promote interdisciplinary collaboration. During the third year, they hope to publish work from the project and secure funding from an external source to keep the project going.

Whitlock brings nearly two decades of research experience on youth mental health. For this project, she will focus on online exchange related to mental health distress and well-being, as well as collaborating with project team members on their focus areas..

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Preventing sexual violence by addressing boys


Jane Powers, Mary Maley, Amanda Purington, and Janis Whitlock

Jane Powers, Mary Maley, Amanda Purington, and Janis Whitlock

By Sheri Hall for the BCTR

BCTR researchers are working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to evaluate a program for adolescent boys that aims to prevent them from becoming future perpetrators of sexual violence. Center researchers, coming together from across existing BCTR projects, will work together on the new Sexual Violence Prevention Project.

The partnership comes through the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), which was awarded a $1.8 million from the CDC over four years to investigate programs the prevent sexual assault. State public health officials are collaborating with the BCTR to conduct the research.

The team of BCTR researchers is collecting data from 12 sites in western New York who are offering the program over the next two years. In addition, the team is collecting data from 12 control sites, which are offering different types of youth programming for boys.

“We plan to enroll over 700 boys in the study, and our first groups launched this summer,” said Mary Maley, a BCTR extension associate for research synthesis and translation. “Participants complete questionnaires right before and after the program, and again three and six months later. We’re hoping to find that the boys in the intervention groups show improved attitudes and behaviors compared to the boys in the control groups. We’re very excited to be at the implementation phase of the project.”

Last month, the team visited the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to meet with CDC officials and other researchers across the country working on this issue for what they called a “reverse site visit.”

“This provided our team with a great opportunity to meet with a  number of CDC scientific officers and other researchers who are building the evidence base for effective sexual assault prevention programs,” said Jane Powers, senior extension associate and co-investigator. “We broadened our knowledge of the issues, learned about valuable CDC resources to support our work and expanded our network by meeting new colleagues and building partnerships.”

The program, Brothers as Allies, is based on the Council for Boys and Young Men developed by the One Circle Foundation. It enrolls boys ages 12 to 14 in small groups of 8 to 10 participants, which meet once a week with a male role model to focus on activities and discussions that define that it means to be a “real man.”  Boys in the program will learn how to step in when they observe bullying and work on developing empathy, communication, and relationship skills.

“The idea behind the program is entirely strength-based,” said Janis Whitlock, co-principal investigator and lead of the research team. “Boys are helped to build strong relationships with each other and with a positive adult role model as a means of understanding what positive relationships look and feel like. The male facilitators can then use these group bonds to encourage exploration and discussion of areas related to difficult topics, such as sexual violence.”

Many of the risk factors for sexual violence, such as hypermasculinity and endorsement of aggression, are based on attitudes and start to develop at this age through interactions with other boys and men, Whitlock said.

“This is a perfect time to be giving them a variety of models to choose from, because boys in particular face fairly narrow models of what it means to be a man,” she said.

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Using virtual reality to treat self-injury and anxiety


By Sheri Hall for the BCTR

news-whitlock-bazarova-won-inpost

Whitlock, Bazarova, and Won

BCTR Researcher Janis Whitlock is partnering with colleagues in the Department of Communications to create a new kind of treatment for people with self-injury or anxiety disorders: virtual reality sessions.

The concept is to create alternative worlds using virtual reality that will help people during moments of stress and encourage them to seek treatment with a therapist.

“People who self-injure tend to be focused on their body and responsive to external stimuli,” Whitlock said. “That means virtual reality has a lot of potential to help them. What if we could deliver a powerful intervention and mindfulness space through virtual reality? What if they could disappear into a world that is incredibly soothing?”

Whitlock is working with Andrea Won and Natalie Bazarova, both assistant professors of communications at Cornell, to develop and test this technology.  With a team of researchers, they are creating three different virtual reality worlds: a soothing world that focused on mindfulness, a euphoric world, and a control world.

They plan to conduct experiments to determine how the worlds affect the people who enter them – both physically and mentally.

“The question is, can we transport people into a space that may take the edge off their self-injury desire or anxiety?” Whitlock said.

Whitlock says that she hopes this work also helps to address more broad concepts about the intersection of technology and humankind. “There are larger questions of how this type of technology affects people,” she said. “What are the limitations of humans and what does that mean about how we use these kinds of devices?”

The project is currently funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Bazarova and Whitlock to explore how and why people disclose personal information in social media and develop interventions to encourage self-reflection and treatment.

You can learn more about Whitlock’s work at The Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery.

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Whitlock on self-injury and social media


Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock

By Sheri Hall for the BCTR

BCTR Researcher Janis Whitlock was featured earlier this year in a PBS news story about self-injury and social media.

Whitlock, director of the BCTR’s Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, studies the interaction between mental health and social media. She served as an expert in a PBS story about social media tools designed to reach out to people who post about self-harm on social media.

This year, the photo-sharing platform Instagram created a new tool to reach out to people who post about injuring themselves or eating disorders. Here is how it works: Instagram allows users to report posts that they feel suggest self-harm. If an Instagram staff member flags the post, the user receives a message that suggests they talk to a friend, contact a helpline, or read tips about coping. Facebook has a similar tool for people who post about harming themselves.

“One of the things that’s abundantly clear is that people will disclose in social media and internet-based venues things that a lot of other people don’t know — maybe nobody in their life knows,” Whitlock told PBS.

“I applaud [Instagram] for making an effort to really effectively interact, to identify and capture people at the moment of their crisis. For someone who self-injures, often times if they can just pause the urge for even just 15 minutes, then the urge to injure will pass.”

Can Instagram’s new tool really help users who self-harm? - PBS Newshour

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Researchers evaluate a program for boys to avert sexual violence


By Susan Kelley for the Cornell Chronicle

Jane Powers, Mary Maley, Amanda Purington, and Janis Whitlock

Jane Powers, Mary Maley, Amanda Purington, and Janis Whitlock

Cornell is helping to usher in new, more effective ways to prevent sexual violence.

A team from the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR) is evaluating a curriculum for boys aged 12-14 aimed at preventing sexual violence. The program is a shift from previous approaches, which generally focused on helping people avoid becoming victims of sexual assault.

Instead, this approach aims to keep boys and young men from committing sexual violence in the first place.

“If you want to stop perpetration, this may be the best tack to take,” said Mary Maley, extension associate for research synthesis and translation. “This is an innovative approach, because we’re looking at reducing risk for perpetration, not reducing risk for becoming a victim.”

BCTR is working in partnership with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), which recently was awarded a $1 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). New York state is one of five awardees nationwide to receive a CDC grant to evaluate various programs to prevent sexual assault.

BCTR is the research arm of the NYSDOH project. The team will spend this first year refining the methodology, developing research tools and protocols, and recruiting program sites and participants. Data collection will begin in the fall of 2017.

The BCTR team will be working with a curriculum, the Council for Boys and Young Men, developed by the One Circle Foundation, which provides training and curricula that promote resiliency and healthy relationships. The basic idea is that male facilitators will set up and lead “councils” which consist of eight to 10 boys in seven to nine urban upstate sites.

Much of the content focuses on prosocial behavior. Councils will meet a few hours a week for several months, focusing on activities, dialogue and self-expression that challenge myths about what it means to be a “real man.” They’ll learn behavior that prevents violence, such as how to step in when they see bullying. They’ll also work on activities that develop empathic behavior, communication and relationship skills, and the ability to respect difference. Another seven to nine sites will serve as study controls to enable the researchers to test the efficacy of the curriculum.

“The idea is that they’re building strong relationships with each other and with a positive adult role model, so they’re actually able to model what positive relationships can be,” said Janis Whitlock, co-principal investigator and lead of the research team.

The middle school years are a prime time to help boys develop these skills, she said. This is the age at which they start to tune in to broader ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman.

Many of the risk factors for sexual violence, such as hypermasculinity and endorsement of aggression, are attitudinal and start to develop at this age through many moments of interactions with other boys and men, Whitlock said.

“This is a perfect time to be giving them a variety of models to choose from, because boys in particular face fairly narrow models of what it means to be a man,” she said.

Evaluation of this type of program comes at an opportune time, Whitlock said, as the definition of sexual assault has greatly expanded in recent years. Historically, sexual violence has meant penetration only. Now it includes unwanted touch, comments, penetration in various ways, and negative online behavior.

That’s important, because middle school boys have the potential to be involved in minor forms of sexual violence, such as unwanted touch, sexting and sharing of others’ images online, Whitlock said.

In this environment, the CDC’s vision was to evaluate the most innovative programs available, Whitlock said. “They wanted to push the envelope so we can get some traction on this issue, because it’s not getting better.”

The project continues a long and fruitful partnership between NYSDOH and BCTR, according to co-investigator Jane Powers. Together the two entities have collaborated over two decades to strengthen community support for youth using research-based programs and practices, she said.

“Results of this research will potentially improve the health and wellbeing of youth in New York state and beyond,” Powers said.

Researchers evaluate a program for boys to avert sexual violence - Cornell Chronicle

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