Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pomp and circumstance - Is attending graduation worth the time and expense?

gradPSYCH Staff

Rory Stern, PsyD, finished his doctoral requirements from the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology in July 2006—a month after the school’s annual commencement ceremony. That meant that he’d have to wait nearly a year before donning a cap and gown, so Stern initially decided to opt out of the graduation ceremony.
“At the time, I knew I would have a postdoc [position],” he says. “I was already taking the next step.”

But as the year progressed, Stern’s friends and family convinced him to take a step back and celebrate his accomplishments. In June, with his wife and daughter in tow, Stern returned to campus to reflect on his accomplishments.

Every spring, about 5,000 psychology students face a similar dilemma. By the time graduation rolls around, many have already moved on to the next stage of their careers and closed the chapter on their graduate student lives without fanfare. But those who choose to “walk” report that graduation ceremonies offer a rare opportunity to take a moment from their fast-paced lives and celebrate.

“It was one of the most moving and powerful experiences I can remember,” Stern says.


At Northeastern University, about 40 percent of graduate students do not walk, says Luis Falcon, PhD, the school’s vice provost for graduate education. Their reasons are frequently financial, he says.

“Many have moved away to begin appointments elsewhere, and they find it hard to get back to campus to attend graduation,” Falcon notes.

That was the case for Chris Kaeppner, PhD, who was living in Ohio by the time he’d finished his graduate requirements. Returning to pick up a hood and gown at St. John’s University in New York didn’t seem worth the expense.

“Since then, I have occasionally regretted the decision,” he says.

For instance, Kaeppner suspects that having that hood in his closet might have served as a confidence-booster during times early in his career when he felt unsure about how to address complicated client issues.

While he regrets not walking, Kaeppner, who just started a private practice in Cincinnati, doesn’t think it hindered his career much.

Marco DiBonaventura, PhD, on the other hand, didn’t walk and doesn’t regret it, even though he was the first in his family to attend college.

DiBonaventura—who only lived about a mile from the Rutgers University campus—opted instead to visit his family in Connecticut.

“I am extremely proud of all that hard work that went into getting my degree, but I did not feel I needed an official provide closure to the experience,” he says.

That attitude has been with DiBonaventura since he was a teen. As a track athlete in high school, DiBonaventura hated the award ceremonies. The joy, he says, was in the running.


The process of going through graduate school—at least, toward the end of it—brought little joy to Nabil El-Ghoroury, PhD. As a student at Binghamton University, The State University of New York, El-Ghoroury struggled to write his dissertation. That difficulty reached a peak when his mother died during his internship year.

El-Ghoroury’s friends and family helped him cope with his grief and stay on track to complete his doctorate. To celebrate their support, El-Ghoroury took a road trip from Rochester to Binghamton, picking up his father, brother, stepmother and two friends on the way to attend his graduation. Before the ceremony, El-Ghoroury and his entourage toured the school, and he introduced his father to his thesis adviser. A photo of that moment now sits on El-Ghoroury’s desk, and it serves as a reminder of the many people who are there to support him when times get tough.

Graduation also reminded Jeannie Fiumara, PsyD, of her personal cheerleading section. Fiumara’s 13-person class at Xavier University in Cincinnati was the university’s first clinical psychology cohort in which every member got matched to an internship. Their success came, in part, because they all grew to be friends, Fiumara says.

After the ceremony, Fiumara and her classmates celebrated together and invited their families. In the four years since graduation, their bonds have only strengthened, Fiumara adds.

“I got married in April, and they all came to my wedding,” she says.

For his part, El-Ghoroury says he’ll never forget when his mentor stepped up in front of the entire university community and pinned a hood to his gown.

He recently used that hood for a Harry Potter costume. And Stern lost his during a move. But their graduation memories will be with them forever.

“It was the first time in my life I just sat and embraced something fully, without thinking, ‘Well, what is the next step?’” Stern says.

May is Mental Health Month

Mental illness can affect anyone

Posted by Nabil El-Ghoroury May 18, 2008 01:44AM

Family members. Neighbors. Co-workers. Children. Elderly. Rich. Poor. Black. White.

Mental illness can affect anyone -- no matter what age, sex, gender or ethnic background. And it strikes more people than cancer or diabetes. About 44 million Americans experience some type of mental disorder each year, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

Without proper treatment, individuals with mental illness can wind up in unnecessary situations, such as finding themselves unemployed or homeless. They may commit suicide or resort to substance abuse.

May marks Mental Health Month. It's important to bring mental health issues to the front burner and raise awareness that treatment and help is available. Psychologists can help those with mental illness by reducing the suffering that people experience and increasing the effectiveness with which they live. Research from the American Psychological Association shows that 50 percent of patients noticeably improve after eight therapy sessions.

Mental Health Month also is an opportunity to reach out to someone you know who may be suffering from mental health issues and encourage them to contact a mental health professional. The Ohio Psychological Association has an online referral network and self-help resources.

El-Ghoroury is a member of the Ohio Psychological Association.

Talking to Kids About the Economy

How to talk to your children about economic fears

By Diane Suchetka

The stock market is killing us.

We'll never be able to send the kids to college now.

If things get any worse, we'll be living on the streets.

They're throwaway lines a lot of us have been tossing around lately due to the crumbling economy. We shrug them off, or try to, with a laugh.

But our kids aren't laughing with us. They may be worried.

And if we can change our behavior, just a bit, we can save them from unnecessary stress that can disrupt their appetite, their sleep, their ability to connect with friends and teachers, to concentrate, to learn.

Start with two simple steps:

First, stop talking in doomsday terms. "Catastrophic language may make kids think they won't be living in a house next year when in reality they're just not going to go on vacation or you'll be driving instead of flying," says Dr. Nabil El-Ghoroury, a pediatric psychologist at Cleveland's MetroHealth Medical Center.

Then, have a talk with them. Explain the economic news on their level, so they know what's going on and how it will affect them, and answer whatever questions they have -- honestly.
As El-Ghoroury says: "Kids will come up with worse theories if you don't give them information."

Yes, we're stressed

Eight out of 10 Americans say the economy is a significant source of stress. That's up from 66 percent in April. Almost half of us say we're increasingly stressed about our ability to provide for our family's basic needs.

That's according to "Stress in America," a report released this month by the American Psychological Association.
The study also found:
• Women are more likely than men to say they're stressed about the economy.
• Nearly half of Americans say their stress level has increased in the past year.
• As many as 30 percent of us say our average stress level is extreme.

For details on stress, including warning signs and tips on how to manage it, go to If they're young, use simple, concrete terms. Explain, for example, that the family doesn't have as much money as it used to, and there will be fewer gifts during the holidays.
With older children, you can talk about concepts -- paper losses -- and how you regain those when the market recovers.

Even better, El-Ghoroury says, is using the bad news to teach.
You could cut your children's allowance a bit, from $10 to $8 a week for example, so they understand what it's like to live on less. Or insist that they save a portion of it, so they'll be ready for tough times and won't suffer as much as those who haven't saved.

David Palmiter, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Marywood University in Scranton, Pa., offers a few other pointers.

Maintain family rituals, he says.

If Friday night is pizza night and you go to church on Sunday, keep doing that.
"That says to kids that their basic assumptions about the universe are still intact."

And Palmiter always suggests looking for opportunity in pain.

With less money, why not cut back on video games and spend more time laughing over board games or going for walks?

But the best way parents can protect their children from stress is by protecting themselves.
"If you manage your own anxiety," El-Ghoroury says, "that will help you help your kids."
And how do you do that?

Start by limiting your exposure to bad news, El-Ghoroury says.

"Turn off MSNBC. Limit the time you look at it," he says. "Just look at it once, when you're calm."

Then make a plan for change.

If you start to do something about your financial situation, you'll relieve stress -- at least some of it -- immediately.

"Start simply," El-Ghoroury says. "Cutting out your $4 morning Starbucks latte will save you $4 a day, $20 a week, $80 a month, $1,000 a year. Small changes can make an impact."
Add other stress relievers to that, and you'll feel even better.

The American Psychological Association suggests meditation, exercise and talking with family and friends. Make sure you eat right, get enough sleep and take time for yourself even if it's just to read a good book or listen to your favorite music.

Palmiter sums it up like this:
"It's an act of love, on the part of the parent, to be well."

Citation in Cleveland's Plain Dealer on Autism

Monarch Teaching Technologies in Shaker Heights makes software for autistic children
Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Chris Seper
Plain Dealer Reporter

Need help teaching an autistic child struggling to understand emotions like excited and scared? There's a game for that -- and one that will put that child's face, voice and favorite colors into the game.

A customizable online autism library with tools like the emotion game is one of the key offerings in Vizzle, newly released Web-based software by Monarch Teaching Technologies in Shaker Heights.

Vizzle (short for "visual learning") builds customized, autism-specific flash cards, games and other interactive exercises for children. All these personalized materials can be placed online for other Vizzle users to borrow and adapt.

It's among a series of products capitalizing on the need for autism education. Google, for example, continues to adapt one of its free programs to help autism educators, and startups from Shaker Heights to Seattle now promise to cut the cost of teaching an autistic child.

"The key objective of our work is to bring a marriage of what's effective in treating autism with what's practical," said Terry Murphy, Monarch's chief executive.

Autism diagnoses have nearly doubled in the last 10 years. About six of every 1,000 children are now diagnosed with some form of autism, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There are about 300,000 students with autism in public schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education.

Treatment is expensive both for parents and schools. Rural areas rarely have enough autism resources, said Dr. James Ball, co-chairman of the Autism Society of America's panel of professional advisers. Complete treatment, which includes one-on-one therapy, can cost up to $65,000 a year, said Dr. Nabil El-Ghoroury, a pediatric psychologist at MetroHealth Medical Center who has studied autism for the last 17 years.

Vizzle tries to cut education costs while infusing the latest research. Its premise is that children with autism learn more through visual experiences. The software guides users to make books, flash cards and games that can include a series of images, sounds and videos.

One book already in the online database explains how to act when going to McDonald's on Tuesdays, and a matching game there teaches colors in English and Spanish. Another lesson explains that you read first and then get a cookie: A book slowly disappears to reveal the chocolate-chip cookie beneath.

Children with autism struggle with generalizations, said Lauren Stafford, who works at both the Monarch School and Monarch Teaching Technologies. Changing pictures, sounds and other parts of a lesson help teachers to determine whether a child has mastered the concepts of the lesson or grasped the task, she said.

"It allows the teacher to have control over what you want the child to learn," Stafford said.

Both the Monarch School and Monarch Teaching Technologies are owned in part by the nonprofit Bellefaire JCB and operate near one another on Bellefaire's Shaker Heights property. Vizzle is based on work from the Center for Communications Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston. Last month, Monarch received a National Institutes of Health grant to further develop the software.

Vizzle will cost $25 per month for families and $100 per month for clinicians. School districts could pay $940 per year for each teacher using the software, although that price varies based on the number of students.

Despite their lower costs, software companies admit they're struggling to dent the market share held by the service providers that do one-on-one interventions with school districts.

Chris Whalen, president of the Seattle autism software maker TeachTown, said districts rely on the service providers for recommendations on autism education. The providers resist suggesting software that could cut into the lucrative one-on-one approach, Whalen said.

Also, some experts think that most of the software out now is good enough. "For me, personally, there's nothing that's not already out there," said Ball, of the Autism Society of America. "You need to be an investigator and find it."

Yet applying software in autism education continues to flourish, as more researchers agree that children with autism learn better with visuals. Sometimes, the connections are coincidental.

The makers of SketchUp design software were stunned when they received letters about how well it helped autistic children. It started Project Spectrum to promote the software's free version to educators, and Google expanded that project after it purchased SketchUp in 2006 (

"SketchUp is something kids were naturally drawn to. What we didn't understand at the time is that people with autism tend to be visually and spatially gifted," said Tom Wyman, business development manager for SketchUp.

"It's taking what these kids' strengths are and using them. So often, these kids are reminded of their weaknesses."

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4169