American Psychological Foundation

Rezarta Bilali, PhD, knows conflict. Growing up in Albania, she witnessed civil unrest as the repressive communist regime collapsed and democratic forces struggled to govern the country. Now, as an assistant professor at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts, her goal is to help groups with a history of violence, human rights violations or other injustices to acknowledge the harm that was done and learn how to prevent it from happening again.

With $19,600 from an APF visionary grant and the Drs. Rosalee G. and Raymond A. Weiss Research and Program Innovation Grant, Bilali is planning research to test ways to encourage national or ethnic groups to accept responsibility for wrongdoings, even when carried out by past generations.

Bilali is one of four psychologists chosen to receive a 2012 APF Visionary Grant, which recognizes innovation in using psychology to solve complex social problems. The grants award up to $20,000 annually to research aimed at preventing violence and understanding the connection between behavior and health, reducing stigma and prejudice and meeting individual and community needs in the aftermath of a disaster.

"When psychologists want to apply their creativity and scientific rigor toward making positive change, the foundation's aim is to be poised to give them the support they need," says Elisabeth R. Straus, APF's executive vice president and executive director.

According to Bilali, people who closely identify with violence or wrongdoing in the history of their country or ethnic background may see themselves in a negative light. As a result, they may deny responsibility or dissociate from the group. "The idea is to have these group members acknowledge responsibility by addressing the mechanisms that lead to denial or justification of such injustices," says Bilali.

Bilali's study participants will read newspaper or other mass-media articles that document the injustices committed by their racial or ethnic group. Participants then will offer their views and interpretations of the readings in online or in-person surveys. Among the questions they'll answer is whether they think reparations for or public acknowledgement of the wrongdoings should be made.

Bilali's team will also work with non-governmental organizations that conduct projects on confronting history to get insights about strategies that practitioners use in their work.

She will conduct research in the United States, as well as abroad, assisted by researchers at other universities. In the United States, her work will focus on such historical injustices as slavery and violence against Native Americans. In Turkey, her studies will examine the Armenian genocide during and after World War I. Her research in Albania will explore crimes committed by the fallen communist regime and in Serbia, she hopes to look at atrocities committed during the Bosnian war.

Promoting caring behaviors

Another 2012 Visionary Grantee is E. Scott Geller, PhD, Alumni Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, who is using his $19,858 grant to develop and evaluate an innovative positive-psychology approach to prevent interpersonal bullying in educational settings.

Geller and his students adapted an intervention used to promote Actively Caring for People (AC4P) behavior after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. In the aftermath of the tragedy, they distributed AC4P green wristbands and instructed people to pass them on to anyone they saw performing a caring act for another person. Wristband recipients were encouraged to document their AC4P experiences on a website the students developed. Each wristband has its own identification number, enabling worldwide tracking of AC4P behavior.

Because the shooter was bullied throughout his schooling, Geller and his students developed a positive-reinforcement approach to bullying prevention in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools.

For their bullying-prevention intervention in elementary schools, teachers ask students to write stories about AC4P acts they've observed. Based on the stories, teachers then select two "Actively Caring heroes" to wear the AC4P wristband for the day. The next day, the teachers read three more AC4P stories submitted by their students, and select two other students to wear the AC4P wristband for the day.

For two elementary schools in Virginia, "Observed bullying by others, bullying by oneself and victimization due to bullying decreased by more than 50 percent," during the seven-week intervention, Geller said. The AC4P application in middle schools included the development of lesson plans and workbooks for teachers and students that emphasized interpersonal cooperation, courage, compassion and coaching. A key component of this plan is to teach high-school students to become AC4P coaches for middle-school students.

Now, four local middle schools are using this AC4P approach. Geller hopes the AC4P principles and applications will eventually lead to more interpersonal compassion in educational settings, and beyond. He and his students have published a book, "Actively Caring for People: Cultivating a Culture of Compassion," that explains the AC4P principles from behavioral and psychological science, and demonstrates specific applications of these principles in schools, industries, and throughout communities.

Stress and health

At the University of Louisville, Tamara Newton, PhD, an associate professor of psychology, received a $19,558 visionary grant to examine the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

One hypothesis in the field involves cytokines — the small proteins that send messages between cells. They're present in blood and saliva, and some promote inflammation. Previous studies suggest that psychological stress triggers the production of certain hormones that in turn activate proinflammatory cytokines that contribute to some chronic medical conditions.

Some scientists have proposed a cause-and-effect relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic disease, but Newton's work examines whether they merely co-exist. She is exploring rumination as a potential link between traumatic stress and mental and physical health — a theory that's never been studied, she says.

With her grant, Newton will recruit 120 adults to participate in tests that will expose them to stressful situations. After they have thought about the experiences, she will then measure levels of proinflammatory cytokines in their oral fluids. If she can establish that rumination is linked with chronic disease development, Newton says her work "may inform ways of promoting faster, more complete and more enduring recovery — both mental and physical."

Stigma and mental health

With his $19,017 Visionary Grant, David Vogel, PhD, is exploring ways to reduce the stigma associated with mental health care. Vogel, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, is recruiting U.S. active-duty military personnel and veterans to participate in a study that will evaluate whether website content about traumatic stress, depression and other psychological conditions may decrease stigma and encourage service personnel with mental health problems to seek treatment.

"There is no empirical research on ways to assist military personnel to make health decisions with regard to their mental health," says Vogel.

He is collaborating on the study with the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, to study new technologies that could help service personnel recover from mental health conditions and traumatic brain injuries. Participants will be randomly assigned to three groups: one that views the website content, another that takes part in a writing exercise that covers stigma and mental health, or one with no intervention. Questionnaires they fill out a month later will help Vogel determine whether the website destigmatized mental health problems and encouraged treatment more effectively than the writing exercise or no intervention.

His research could lead to the development of new websites and mobile apps for consumers and patients in civilian health care facilities, Vogel says.

Rebecca Voelker is a writer in Chicago.