Cohen on the Perils of Overmedication

Medicating Normal,” a new documentary about the widespread use and resulting harms of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, ADHD drugs and mood stabilizers, highlights research by Social Welfare Professor David Cohen, an authority on the benefits and risks of psychoactive drugs. The film notes that one in five Americans take these psychiatric medications daily but many are unaware of their potentially debilitating side effects. In the documentary and in online resources published by the filmmakers, Cohen weighs in on misconceptions about mental illness as brain damage; the challenges psychiatric patients face in providing fully informed consent; and the severe symptoms associated with withdrawal from benzodiazepines such as Xanax. He also spoke about the intense pressure on parents to medicalize their children’s problems, a break from previous generations. “You didn’t go to the doctor before if your kid misbehaved. You went to your sister-in-law or you went to your clergyman or you went to the Reader’s Digest,” Cohen said. “It’s hard right now in the contemporary world, in the 21st century, it’s hard for a parent to know, what should I do with my kid? … You get 20 different views on the internet, you are surrounded by opinions, and you’re supposed to do the right thing, the perfect thing.” Swayed by peer pressure, drug marketing and fear of making the wrong choice, many parents conclude that their children have a disorder and turn to medication, he said. “Medicating Normal,” which argues that profit-driven drug companies are concealing the harms caused by their products, was recently screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Career Inspiration for the Next Generation of Leaders

Nicholas Chow, a project manager with the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, shared how he found a career path combining STEM fields and policy during a panel for students from USC Hybrid High School in downtown Los Angeles. The event was sponsored by the nonprofit Pacific Council on International Policy as part of an educational outreach aimed at cultivating the next generation of global leaders. Freshman and sophomores from the school, which serves a predominantly minority population, heard from five speakers who explained the broad policy impact of their work in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Chow talked about his lifelong love of water, which spurred him to travel all over the world and ultimately led him to the Center for Innovation, where he manages water engineering projects. He earned his master’s in civil and environmental engineering at UCLA in 2016. The council’s report on the career panel noted that the students “heard and saw how people who look like them, have the same hair as them, or even grew up in the same kinds of neighborhoods as they did can succeed and thrive in STEM fields.”


How Public Parks Can Better Serve Diverse Users

New research released by the Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) at UCLA Luskin finds that the users of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area come from a broad swath of the surrounding region but tend to be less ethnically diverse than Los Angeles County as a whole. The report resulted from a partnership with the National Park Service during which LCI surveyed over 4,000 people at dozens of trailheads and park entrances spread throughout the vast area covered by the country’s largest urban national park. The findings have broad implications for officials working to implement the provisions of a 2016 ballot initiative in Los Angeles County (Measure A) that is providing funds to support local parks, beaches, open space and water resources. In the survey, diversity of park users had increased since a study conducted in 2002, although two-thirds (63%) of respondents in the 2018 study were white (compared to 26.1% of L.A. County residents). On the other hand, 74% of all ZIP codes in Los Angeles and Ventura counties had at least one survey respondent, and about one-third traveled from areas that have been identified as having a very high need for park access. The researchers’ suggestions to improve park equity include finding ways to reduce travel costs for people of color and expanding outreach efforts such as the Every Kid in a Park program.

View an album of photos taken during the research effort:

Luskin Center Santa Monica Mountains Trail Use Survey

Steinert-Threlkeld on Social Media Tracking as a Tool of War

Research by Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, assistant professor of public policy, measuring the political opinions of Russian-speakers in Ukraine at the time of Moscow’s 2014 incursion into Crimea has been published online by the journal Post Soviet Affairs. The study, co-authored by Steinert-Threlkeld and Jesse Driscoll of UC San Diego, uses a vast collection of social media data to demonstrate that many self-identified Russians living in Ukraine would not have favored a continued campaign to expand Russia’s borders. “Our supposition is that if Russian strategists were considering expansion beyond Crimea, they would have been able to use social media information to assess, with a great deal of precision and in real time, the reception that they would likely receive,” the authors wrote. While there is no evidence that Russian leaders took advantage of this type of analysis, the authors conclude that tapping into social media traffic could provide a useful source of intelligence for those planning military campaigns. “Social media data are straightforward to analyze systematically and can be collected at a relatively low cost,” wrote the authors, whose team, including research assistants in Kiev, used a data set of 6.8 million tweets to gauge social attitudes shared by Russian-speakers. “The prevalence of overtly political behaviors on social media provides important clues about the political dispositions within communities,” they said.

U.S. Lagging on Constitutional Rights, Study Finds

New research from the UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center shows that the United States is falling behind its global peers when it comes to guarantees for key constitutional rights. “The new decade begins with clear constitutional gaps that place the United States in a global minority” for failing to guarantee rights to healthcare and gender equality, said Jody Heymann, founder of the nonprofit policy research center. “Globally, the U.S. now lags 165 other nations with stronger constitutional protections for women. And the U.S. is absent from the 142 countries globally … that provide some degree of constitutional protection for the right to health,” said Heymann, a distinguished professor of public policy, medicine, and health policy and management at UCLA. Worldwide, the center’s researchers found a considerable expansion of protections over the past 50 years but noted that millions are still left without human rights guarantees, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination. Groups experiencing the greatest gaps in rights guarantees include migrants, people with disabilities and the LGBTQ community. To produce the report, researchers analyzed the constitutions of all 193 United Nations member states. “Constitutions help shape social norms and send clear messages about who matters and what nations value,” Heymann said. The report is now available as an online resource featuring policy briefs, maps and downloadable data as well as the book “Advancing Equality,” available for  download at UC Press. The book’s authors, Heymann, Amy Raub and Aleta Sprague, also wrote an op-ed for CNN arguing that it’s time for the United States to guarantee gender equality by enshrining the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

Understanding — and Preventing — Suicide

Students in UCLA Luskin’s undergraduate program came together Jan. 9 to gain a better understanding of suicide and practice ways to identify risk and offer a lifeline. Sandra Rodriguez of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services’ Suicide Prevention Center led the training session, part of the undergraduate program’s community impact requirement. Among Americans between ages 15 and 24, suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after car accidents, Rodriguez said. Despite the stigma that surrounds mental illness, many people contemplating suicide are relieved when asked to share their feelings, she added. Empathy is key when approaching someone exhibiting warning signs. “As helpers, we need to be able to sit in that dark place with them, to not judge those emotions, to not try to offer quick fixes,” she said. “Unless we really get in touch with why they want to die in the first place, we’re not going to get to the point where we’re turning them to the side of life.” Understanding suicide is valuable for those seeking careers in public health policy, research or outreach. For the students at the training session, it was also personal. Many said they knew someone who had committed suicide or made an attempt, and some shared their struggles with trying to provide real help to those in need. Rodriguez offered practical advice and stressed that people offering support should protect themselves by setting clear boundaries. She also shared several suicide prevention resources, including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Teens Helping Teens, Know the Signs and the My3 app.

Voting Rights Project Takes a Stand