Partnering for mental health: ASU program helps families cope with divorce

August 21, 2015

ASU 'REACH' makes all the difference 

When Sam Coonts took his daughters, Emma, 10, and Ava, 7, to the Grand Canyon for a weekend camping trip, his youngest assumed they’d be hiking all the way to the bottom.  Grand Canyon Sam Coonts with his daughters, Emma (right) and Ava, at the Grand Canyon National Park. Download Full Image

“Ava is my nature girl,” said Coonts, chuckling. Last year, he had found a collection of rocks beneath her mattress while disassembling her bed to move it to their new home, in the aftermath of his divorce.

His daughters now live with him during the school year and spend summers with their mother on the East Coast, and the Grand Canyon trip is just one of many activities Emma and Ava regularly plan with their dad. 

They call it “Family Fun Time.” 

It’s an idea Coonts picked up from his participation in a program offered through Arizona State University to help parents and children cope after separation or divorce. 

Free of charge, the New Beginnings Program is one of several evidence-based prevention interventions developed by social scientists at the ASU REACH Institute to help children and families in stress. 

Coonts had learned about the program during a court-required one-hour parenting class. 

Space was limited, he recalled, so he put his name into a drawing.

“I got lucky,” he said. 

His first session of the program started March 4, 2014. It just so happened to be the day of his wedding anniversary.

New beginnings

The New Beginnings Program is a direct product of 30 years of research at ASU. 

Developed by ASU psychology professors Sharlene Wolchik and Irwin Sandler, the program is based on their studies of outcomes of children who undergo divorce. 

New Beginnings gives parents and youth ideas and skills to cope with the changes that come with family separation, and the program shows benefits to youth well into adulthood in terms of improved mental health and fewer behavior issues.

Coonts said the program has had a positive impact on his family and has helped them adjust to their new life. 

“My kids are happier, and I’m happier,” he said. “They’ve become more easy-going, more relaxed. I’m able to trust them more.”

Coonts’ story is reflective of the REACH Institute’s impact in the community.

Formerly known as the Prevention Research Center, the ASU REACH Institute (Research and Education Advancing Children’s Health) is entering its second year under a new name. 

The name change signals a point of departure from an old way of doing science, said Thomas Dishion, its founding director and developer of the Family Check-Up, one of the institute’s most widely disseminated programs.

“Evidence-based practices have the potential to make a meaningful public-health impact, but the problem is that a lot of organizations designed to help families and children aren’t using them,” said Dishion, who is also a professor in the Department of Psychology, within ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Dishion and his fellow researchers estimate that a whopping 90 percent of scientifically proven programs – programs supported by more than 25 years of NIH-funded research – are not being used.

“Many community agencies don’t have the resources, the training or the experts to help them develop their practice,” he said.

The disconnect Dishion sees between university research and the needs of the outside community has helped point him and his colleagues in a new direction.

“Our name stems from our new focus on outreach,” Dishion said. “We realized we needed to do a completely different kind of science with a new set of strategies. 

“We asked ourselves: ‘How can we connect with the outside world so they can make use of our science?’”

The question has become a guiding force for REACH, which now boasts a growing number of local, state and national partnerships, including one with the U.S. Air Force, which implemented the Family Check-Up last spring to help families cope with the unique challenges of military life.

Air Force service providers were trained by REACH staff in how to implement, evaluate and sustain the Family Check-Up program for its clients. Online tools for measuring data and monitoring clients were also provided by REACH, as well as access to their experts.

The institute has also forged partnerships with community health agencies, state court systems, primary care, schools and the State of Nevada. 

“Our research model needs to adapt to today’s needs, and REACH is helping do that,” Dishion said. “We’ve gone from a developer-inspired model to a user-inspired model. We’re looking at what’s working and what’s not working, and seeing how our research can be leveraged to help make decisions about mental health – decisions backed by decades of data.”

The institute’s new direction is well aligned with ASU’s focus on use-inspired research and community embeddedness – part of what drew Dishion to ASU in the first place.

“I’m inspired by the ASU story and the vision President Crow has for the role of the university,” he said.

'Prevention is possible'

The communication and parenting skills Coonts learned throughout the 10-week New Beginnings Program now feel natural to him, he said. The experience has also helped him learn more about his daughters, their personalities and quirks and, most importantly, their needs.

“The program gave me so many ideas and opportunities to really get to know them,” he said. “You get homework every week. You try out a new strategy and see what works. By the sixth week, everything was falling into place. I noticed a huge difference in my kids and also in my parenting.” 

“Catch ’Em Being Good” and “One-on-One Time” were among the strategies Coonts discovered worked well. The first involved consistently praising his children for good behavior and the latter offered 15 minutes of undivided attention to each child once a week. 

“Immediately, they were happy to have that attention,” Coonts said. “Particularly the younger one. She flourished with that and became a happy kid.”

The idea that mental-health disorders can be prevented, in the same way that one can prevent the onset of diabetes or heart disease, is relatively new. 

In fact, the history of prevention science is rooted at Arizona State University, where one of the earliest NIH-funded prevention research centers was founded in 1984 by Sandler. It was called the ASU Prevention Intervention Research Center, or the PIRC (“perk”) as faculty warmly called it. 

With continued NIH support, the center grew. New projects joined, and research directions changed, becoming more inclusive and relevant to diverse communities. 

By 2010, the question of whether preventing mental-health problems was possible had been answered to a scientific certainty. ASU researchers had found reduced rates of depression and substance abuse in young adults whose families had participated in ASU prevention programs as many as 15 years earlier.

“The last 30 years have been a golden age for prevention science,” Sandler said. “Along with many investigators nationally, we have conducted longitudinal studies with families and children that have demonstrated that well-constructed prevention programs make a major difference in children’s lives years later.”

“Prevention is possible,” he added. “Now, the question is how do you scale up?”

Coming together

The group of divorced fathers Coonts met with every Tuesday night at Mesa Community College, where the program was administered, became a close-knit community. 

“I was surprised by how open everyone was,” he said. “You get to hear their experiences. You get to know other people’s kids. The session would end, and we'd all walk out together and hang out for another half hour in the parking lot, share our frustrations and hopes. The feeling of community was a big deal.”

For Emma’s ninth birthday, her father gave her a graphic novel – a compilation of 1,000 pages of text and images she devoured in just 6 days. 

“We used to call those comic books in my day,” Coonts said. “Anyway, she loved it. And I knew she would. Emma is my reader.”

As for Ava, she would much rather be outside exploring, he said. 

“Emma is a lot like me, so I know what to expect,” he said. “But Ava is a total mystery. Ava amazes me. With her, I’ve learned to just stand back and let her do her thing.”

Britt Lewis

Communications Specialist, ASU Library

NSF award will expand scope, impact of ASU water research

August 21, 2015

In the grips of long-term drought, the Colorado River Basin and the cities that rely on its water face unprecedented challenges and significant uncertainty with a warming climate and large-scale land-use change. They are developing new water-resource policies for a future of increasing uncertainty.

Now, water managers and decision makers of cities of the Colorado River Basin will be able to take greater advantage of Arizona State University’s Decision Center for a Desert City (DCDC) thanks to a new $4.5 million National Science Foundation award. Lake Mead A new National Science Foundation grant will allow ASU to expand the geographic scope of Decision Center for a Desert City's work beyond Phoenix to include other cities dependent on Colorado River water sources, such as Lake Mead. Download Full Image

The four-year award, the third made to DCDC in its 10-year history, brings the total NSF investment in the center to $18 million. It will allow ASU to expand the geographic scope of DCDC’s work beyond Phoenix to include cities dependent upon Colorado River water in states like Colorado, Nevada and California to explore transformational changes that will be necessary to sustain water supplies well into the future.

Decision Center for a Desert City, which is a research unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU, conducts climate, water and decision research, and it develops innovative tools to bridge the boundary between scientists and decision makers.

DCDC researchers work closely with the Decision Theater Network to engage stakeholders using models and simulations that visualize alternative futures and to promote dialogue about sustainability solutions.

“It is an unprecedented time to conduct this type of use-inspired research for the Colorado River Basin region,” said Dave White, director of Decision Center for a Desert City and Global Security Initiative fellow. “It comes with a greater sense of urgency and a greater sense of understanding of the scale and scope of the changes that are likely necessary to transition the cities and the region into a more sustainable state over the next several decades.”

The work of the center's researchers is interdisciplinary, integrated across areas such as hydrology, water science, economics, anthropology, geography, policy and sustainability, White explained. A primary tool developed by DCDC is WaterSim 5.0, a “systems dynamics model” that can help drought-ravaged cities anticipate a range of possible future conditions and build capacity for sustainable water-resource management and climate adaptation. David Sampson, a research scientist with the center, developed the model.

WaterSim’s power lies in its ability to bring together the multifaceted issues faced by water users and suppliers and play out scenarios so to provide a clearer picture of what the future might hold. Until now WaterSim had integrated the needs and policies of the 33 cities that make up the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“At the center of everything is the question, ‘How do we make better decisions about the future and managing our resources in a sustainable way?’” said White, an associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development in ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions. To do that the center will conduct research across four integrated project areas.

One integrated project area will focus on the biophysical process models that simulate climate change, urbanization, land use and hydrological processes in the Colorado River Basin to produce a set of climate and land-use scenarios. The second integrated project area will focus on models of the social, economic and institutional considerations of the region, the third will focus on systems modeling and simulations and the fourth integrated project area will develop an inventory of transformational solutions to water governance.

The integrated project area teams will be led by co-investigators Kelli Larson (School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and School of Sustainability), Enrique Vivoni (School of Earth and Space Exploration), Michael Hanemann (W. P. Carey School of Business) and Amber Wutich (School of Human Evolution and Social Change).

“We are building on our strengths — water-resource management and climate-change adaptation — which we have been doing for 10 years now at DCDC,” White said. “Understanding how water is developed, supplied, delivered and managed and how those activities will be affected by climate change is central. We are building on the use of WaterSim and simulation modeling as a tool for science and policy integration and a tool for stakeholder engagement.”

Ray Quay, director of stakeholder relations at DCDC, leads the center’s efforts to connect university science with policy and decision-making.

White said a goal of the new NSF award is to explore alternatives that need to be considered to make the Colorado River Basin region more sustainable in an uncertain future.

“There is a growing sense that there needs to be a greater discussion about trade-offs,” he said. “The current system is set up based on legacy decisions, and we want to critically evaluate them. We want to inform a science-based public discourse about the situation as opposed to just accepting this as the way it is.”

Through the expanded use of DCDC and WaterSim, researchers will build a suite of robust alternatives for the cities that rely on Colorado River water to strengthen their positions and not be as vulnerable to unforeseen change.

“We want to get not only ahead of this current drought and crisis but to use this energy and opportunity to think about the next 30 years, or the next 100 years,” White said.

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications