Newtown: Horror and Tragedy

(Posted on APSAA website)

I happened to be working from home today when I received the first CNN. As the morning wore on, worst fears were realized. Again, unthinkable horror of children, teachers and staff being cut down by a shooter. I knew our association would need a response, but thinking of my own young children at school today immobilized me. I went grocery shopping to cope. I focused on a grocery list.

It wasn’t until I picked up my kids at school that I began to think again. I explained to them what had happened, and my 12 year old middle school daughter said she had heard. My seven year old twins had not.

Explaining this to our children or grandchildren is complex but must be done. One wants to be clear about what happened as the TV will make things not only clear but scary. Being truthful while assuring safety is the challenge for any parent, while taking age and development into account. My seven year old son responded, “Dad, I’m not afraid because we have lockdown drills. We know what to do.” I assured them that their school takes precautions with locked doors and drills and they are safe. When he asked why someone could do this, I hesitated. “We don’t know. We will find out what happened.”

It is true that we will find out through the media and hear about it throughout the holidays. Our helplessness, the worst of all possible human feelings, demands it. Our anger, disbelief and sadness will help us organize some story, psychoanalytic or not, in our minds after facts of the shooter’s life emerges.

But even finding out, even developing profiles, and greater school, mall, or workplace security, will not prevent such tragedies. Sadly, they are unpredictable and will continue to occur. I have always believed they will become worse with the the inaccessibility for mental health services for most Americans, a poor economy, the remaining stigma and resistance for getting appropriate help, easy access to guns, and something that goes wrong in our culture.

As an adult and child psychoanalyst I still can’t sort it out. After practicing over 40 years I have seen adolescents, and adults who I imagined would be capable of such violence. Although I work with students in an alternative high school, many of whom are in gangs, they are not necessarily the ones I think about when this kind of tragedy occurs. Gang culture is violent, and frightening but somehow more predictable than what happened today in Newtown.

No, its the students who have been quietly bullied for years, or seriously neglected at home, or subtly marginalized by the time they are young adults. I think of the ones who were not disruptive at school, but rather gradually socially withdrew during high school. I think of severely traumatized returning veterans who are no longer themselves when they arrive home and cannot get appropriate help. Overwhelming helplessness, isolation, and possibly access to weapons can compels one towards explosive violence.

We as psychoanalysts, as parents, grandparents, friends, and fellow citizens in our communities must pull together and help each other cope. Speaking to each other of this tragedy is a critical start. And we can’t forget. A dear friend, now 25 years later, still suffers the impact of having been in an elementary school as a student when such a shooting took place. Survival has meant reliving this trauma each time these tragedies occur. We cannot forget.

Helping survivors, helping our children, our communities, our schools, and our politicians, will not happen with quick answers or glib solutions. Rather, we must first share common pain and making our compassion known in word and action. We cannot immediately make sense of this, but we can try together.

I was walking across a parking lot later today with my son. I found myself not being able to let go of his hand, even once in the building. We should all hold each other a little more tightly tonight and for awhile.

“Psychoanalysis: Now More Than Ever”
Mark D. Smaller, Ph.D.
President-elect, American Psychoanalytic Association

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Corporate Influences on Children – NYT August 25, 2011

See post in NYT website

To the Editor:

As a father of six and a psychoanalyst, I share Joel Bakan’s concern about protecting our children from being “targets” of corporate interests. When it comes to healthy minds, diets, educations and souls, children are historically last on societies’ list of priorities. Add that to the impossible profession of parenting these days, and things look bleak.

Having returned from a driving and camping vacation with my younger children, a 10-year-old and 6-year-old twins, I was reminded of one powerful antidote to the poisons of our modern world. We did a lot of talking — in the car, around a campfire, hiking and staring at stars in the magnificent Michigan sky.

As an analyst, I should know that talking protects and connects us in meaningful ways. But even I forget that this might be the most powerful tool to help our children grow in healthy ways.

Chicago, Aug. 22, 2011

Read on NYT site

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The Plague of Violence in Our Communities and One Way to Stop It

The Plague of Violence in Our Communities and One Way to Stop It

We can solve the epidemic of violence in our communities


Six years ago I was almost dragged by a social worker from my comfortable Michigan Avenue office to an alternative public high school where he worked.  Students suspended from the regular high schools in Cicero, Ilinois ( the edge of Chicago) for violent behavior, drugs, and poor attendance, arrived at Morton Alternative for their last chance to stay in the school system.

The old converted warehouse, then functioning as the alternative school, greeted visitors with two Cicero Police security guards, a metal detector, a completely committed principal, and teachers trying to do their best with students they often imagined did not want to learn. Cicero has significantly changed since Martin Luther King marched for fair housing in the 1960’s.  Today the area houses many poor Hispanic and Black families struggling with a poor economy, family strife, and kids understandably seduced by gang promises for connection and respect.  The odds are against many of these kids who will not survive their twentieth birthday.

Once sitting in a group session with seven students, stereotypes of “violent gang members,” faded quickly.  These kids were no different than my own—teenage angst but also with ambitions, and traumatic states that needed understanding and responses by adults who could first be trusted and then who just might “get it.”

Looking back I realize that those students, as they allowed me to get to know them, became “my kids”.  After a year of visiting once a week, Dave and I created an in-school treatment and research program now finishing our fourth year.  Through individual psychoanalytic and group treatment, we have been able to significantly reduce levels of depression and anxiety that leads to unregulated aggression, depression, and dysfunction.

Yes, we deal with trauma, current and past, which most students have experienced.  But students have taught us that we cannot stop there if we are tol be useful in their educative and emotional development.   We focus on all students’ wish—that’s right, every student’s wish to move forward in his or her life and often under impossible circumstances.  If a student is coming to school and not doing school work, we don’t ask why they are not working.  We focus on what got them out of bed this morning and what was it that they need from us that brought them to school.  And, it’s not just teachers, principal and therapists that do this.  Security guards and administrative staff have also bought into and participate in this “forward edge” approach we have created.

Once students are genuinely understood in this way, violent behavior is hijacked by the wish to graduate and move forward in life.  Sometimes they are the first in their families to graduate high school much less go to college.  We are not always successful in our efforts.  What keeps us going?  Recently a parent stood up at a meeting to tearfully say, “My son would not be alive today had he not come to this school.”  Her son graduates in June.  Or, when one of our 16 year old girls became pregnant, the school rallied around her and her family in support.  She sometimes brings her new baby to school.  Nothing will interfere with her goal to graduate a year from now and someday become a nurse.  I have no doubt she will succeed.

Don’t get taken in by the media and political cynicism that the plague of violence in our communities cannot be overcome.  It can—one child at a time, and one child like yours and mine.

Written for Psychology Today – see post

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ASAP in the New York Times

Click Here to Donate to ASAP | Read the article with images – online at the NYT site

January 24, 2010


More Than Academics at Morton Alternative


A gritty industrial patch of a blue-collar Chicago suburb seems an unlikely setting for the pioneering curriculum at Morton Alternative High School. The program, which combines intensive psychotherapy with conventional studies to help gang members and emotionally troubled teenagers finish school, has reported promising results and has attracted the notice of educators nationwide.

José Moré/Chicago News Cooperative – Morton Alternative High School is the last chance for students who are expelled from Morton East High School and Morton West.

Dr. Mark Smaller, a Chicago psychoanalyst, started the program at Morton Alternative three-and-a-half years ago as a contrast to schools that take a strict disciplinary approach to youths with behavioral problems. Dr. Smaller and his team of social workers conduct weekly group and individual therapy sessions to help students deal with emotional problems and social pressures common to life in neighborhoods where families struggle with job losses, crime, violence and immigration issues.

Morton Alternative in Cicero is the last chance for students who are expelled from Morton East and Morton West High Schools. An average of about 100 students are at the school at any one time — those judged to have some chance for improvement — though they come and go throughout the academic year.

The students’ levels of anxiety, depression and self-esteem are tested in standardized surveys at the beginning and end of the school year. In 2007-8, the average depression level of students who had both group and individual therapy fell to 17.4 from 20.7 on a scale that measures severe depression at 16.

José Moré/Chicago News Cooperative – The staff at Morton Alternative listened to Dr. Mark Smaller, who started the school’s unconventional program.

“Based on clinical and qualitative data, we are actually having a significant impact,” Dr. Smaller said. “After a year of therapy, their anxiety and depression index goes way down and we are able to help troubled kids learn and hopefully graduate.”

Dr. Smaller estimates that 18 percent of the students return to traditional high schools each year. About 60 percent of those who stay at the alternative school graduate, and the rest leave school because of unacceptable behavior, poor attendance or failing grades.

A few students have gone on to Morton College, which has a two-year program, and to four-year colleges, school officials said. They said graduates often got good jobs because they improved their social skills and learned to present themselves favorably.

Experts in school violence say it is unusual to have an extensive psychotherapy program in a school. “It is a very exciting program that has helped many students turn their lives around,” said Dr. David Terman, director of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, which oversees the program with the school.

R. (initials are being used to protect the students’ privacy), an 18-year-old senior, was admitted to Morton Alternative his sophomore year after being expelled for writing gang graffiti in school. “Art can get you in trouble,” he said with a grin.

R. said he was in a gang, but left when a relative died because of gang violence. He said the counselors taught him to talk through his problems so he could decide, for example, that he did not need to fight to resolve an issue. He said he wanted to be a science teacher, and he helps teach a class, as do other students who excel in the program.

Dr. Smaller said he was originally reluctant to visit the school when David Myles, a social worker, invited him to attend a group counseling session six years ago. “To my dismay, I have been coming back ever since,” he said with a smile.

Mr. Myles said: “You get hooked. There is so much potential for these students and how much you could do with them.”

After two years, Dr. Smaller decided that students could be helped by more frequent psychotherapy sessions. He persuaded a private foundation and the American Psychoanalytic Foundation to provide money to hire him as the in-school psychoanalyst, as well as to bring on three part-time social workers.

“We needed to see what was going on inside these kids,” Dr. Smaller said, “not just their stupid behavior.”

The Morton program has won favorable notice in academic circles. Dr. Carla Solomon, director of the Peter Blos Center for Adolescents, which supports the George Jackson Academy in Manhattan, has asked Dr. Smaller to help develop a replica of his Morton Alternative program at the school for underprivileged boys. “I think his work very much needs to be done in a widespread way,” she said.

Dr. Smaller is also starting a pilot program in Saugatuck, Mich.

Stuart Twemlow, a professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and an expert on school bullying, said troubled students “need someone like Mark to have faith in them. If he can replicate the Cicero project in Michigan and New York City and train people in other schools to do this well, it will be dramatically effective,” he said.

José Moré/Chicago News Cooperative – A sign near the alternative school.

Dr. Smaller said the Cicero program owes much of its success to Rudy Hernandez, the principal of Morton Alternative. “He has an intuitive sense of what the kids needed, a responsiveness to whatever was going on internally,” Dr. Smaller said.

On Wednesdays, Mr. Hernandez meets with teachers, social workers and Dr. Smaller to discuss the students they are most concerned about. Recently, the focus was on girls who had been involved in shoving matches that had escalated into a fistfight.

“We explained we would not tolerate their behavior and would help them have more self-control,” said Sara Monner, a school counselor. Parents were invited to meetings at the school to help deal with the behavior.

Gangs are pervasive in the neighborhood and in the schools. One student, J., was transferred to Morton Alternative in his sophomore year after he was caught selling marijuana. At one time he lived on the border between rival gangs, and he said that when he was 9, he was shot at when he tried to “tag” a garage in a rival gang’s territory.

In a group therapy session, J. talked about his desire to turn his life around. “My parents wanted to teach me things, and I wasn’t around for it,” he said. “Now I want to learn what they wanted me to become.”

José Moré/Chicago News Cooperative – Dr. Mark Smaller.

Even with the school’s efforts, students still struggle. In March 2008, J.’s girlfriend gave birth to twin boys. A month later, he was charged in connection with an incident in which one son’s leg was broken; J. had pulled the child out of a car seat without removing one of the restraining straps. J. said it was an accident, and an orthopedic surgeon submitted a statement to a court that the child’s injury could have been unintentional. His case has not yet been resolved.

Despite his problems, J. graduated from the Morton Alternative High School last June.

“I never thought that because of this school I would one day walk in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t want my sons to need anything, just as my father wanted for us when he left Mexico.”

Matt Landa, a social worker who often conducts home visits to help his students, said, “Nobody here has a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ background.”

Sometimes, he said, the parents are involved with drugs or gangs or are in jail. What goes on outside strongly affects the students’ ability to focus on school and develop academically.

“But they are amazing to work with,” he added, “when I don’t feel like pulling out my hair.”

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