Tuesday, December 24, 2013

VIDEO: Do Your Kids Turn Into Greedy Monsters During The Holidays?

Is this what your kids are like on Christmas, only with presents?
I talked with 9 News yesterday about a phenomenon many parents know all too well: their otherwise happy, normal, caring children turning into greedy brats during the holiday season. Here is the video, explaining what is happening (spoiler alert--they aren't necessarily turning into awful people...they are just coming down from the huge build-up of excitement over the holidays):

Click here if the video does not appear above.

In order to keep your kids (and the rest of the family) sane on Christmas day, try planning some fun, low-key activities for the afternoon. Movies, baking, board games, arts and crafts, volunteering. Anything that allows the family to interact with one another in a positive way can help keep you from experiencing the "Christmas let-down."

Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas! --Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Domestic Violence: A Terribly Common Reality

Tom Martino, the infamous radio talk show host and consumer advocate in Denver, was arrested over the weekend for assault and disturbing the peace.

According to police documents, he and his wife were in their car when they started arguing over a mobile phone. His wife allegedly tried to get out of the car at a stoplight, at which point, Mr. Martino is accused of pulling her back into the car and punching her in the face. The two then drove home, where he was arrested. In an apology statement issued by Mr. Martino after he was released from jail, he admitted that both he and his wife were drunk at the time of the incident.

Here is a story about his arrest:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Aside from the issue of drinking and driving, for which Mr. Martino was not arrested, there is the issue of domestic violence. The majority of domestic violence incidents do not make the news. In fact, if news organizations covered every domestic violence arrest, there would be absolutely no time for anything else.

According to the National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 25% of women will experience a domestic violence incident at some point in their lives. They estimate that 1.3 million women are abused each year, with 20-24 year-old women being at the greatest level of risk. Most domestic abuse incidents are not reported to the police.

According to the National Safety Council, here are the five most dangerous activities in which a woman can engage:

1. Attempt suicide

2. Ride in a car

3. Expose herself to noxious vapors (like carbon monoxide from a faulty furnace)

4. Fall

5. Live with a man

Not the cheeriest of thoughts, is it?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

VIDEO: School Shootings: What Are The Odds?

In December of 2012, after the Newtown school shooting, I wrote a series of blog posts outlining the odds of a school shooting occurring in the US in any given year. In those posts, I calculated the odds of a shooting happening anywhere in the US, and I also calculated the odds of a shooting happening at a particular school.

The short version of the blog posts: It is almost a guarantee that at least one school shooting will take place in the US in any given year. In fact, the average number of school shootings per year in the US is just over 2.5. But, the odds of a shooting happening at your child's school are extremely low. If your child is in elementary school, the odds are about 1 in 141,000. If your child is in high school, the odds are still low: about 1 in 21,000.

Here are links to the 2012 blog posts:

School Shootings: What Are The Odds?
School Shootings: What Are The Odds, Part II?
School Shootings: What Are The Odds, Part III?

Yesterday, I spoke with 9 News about these numbers. Here is the video:

click here if you do not see the video above.

It is important to remember it is extremely likely your child will never experience a school shooting. However, it is also extremely likely somebody's child will experience a shooting in a school. Given the population of the United States, the number of public and private schools around the country, and the relative rarity of shootings in schools, do you think 2.5 shootings per year is an acceptable level of risk for our nation's kids?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Arapahoe High School Shooting: Signs That Your Kids May Be Struggling

In the wake of the Arapahoe High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado yesterday, I was on 9 News to talk about some of the struggles kids may have this weekend while processing what happened.

It is important to recognize that many students are going to be having extreme reactions over the next few days, but these stressors won't last. For most people, kids included, the stressors that come from a traumatic event dissipate on their own with no need for professional help. For a small number of people, the symptoms last for months and can eventually turn into PTSD. Fortunately, this is rare.

Some students will have absolutely no ill effects from the events yesterday. This is also rare. What is more typical is that students will be stressed, sad, angry, scared, and confused for a while--anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.

Parents and relatives need to understand their kids may need some extra attention during this time. It may be necessary to explain to them what is happening and why they are so upset. It can also help to explain to them that it is probably just temporary and that they need to reach out for help if their problems are not going away.

Most important is to be comforting. Sometimes, kids just need you to sit with them and listen to what they have to say. Or hug them while they are crying. Or lie down next to them at night when they are having nightmares. You don't have to 'solve' the problem for them--just let them know you are there to support them.

Also, do not be surprised if kids who were not at Arapahoe High School have problems with stress this weekend. You don't always have to be there to be hurt.

For those who are really struggling, regardless of age, the Arapah720-874-8620
oe County Sheriff's office has set up a mental health hotline:

Here is a link to some video from yesterday where I discuss these issues with Mark Koebrick and Cheryl Preheim:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mental Illness And The Death Penalty: Can The Aurora Theater Shooter Be Executed If He Is Mentally Ill?

In November of 2013, the defense team for the Aurora theater shooting suspect filed five separate motions with the court. These motions were written after the court had received the sanity evaluation from the state mental health hospital in Pueblo, Colorado. At the present time, the public does not know exactly what the sanity evaluation says. But, we have some clues.

For example, one of the defense motions requests that the death penalty be taken off the table because the shooter has a severe mental illness that would render execution a violation of his 8th Amendment Right against cruel and unusual punishment. So, although we do not know if the report suggests the shooter is insane, it is likely to document a significant mental illness--probably something like Schizophrenia.

The court will hear arguments on this motion soon, but there are two landmark US Supreme Court cases that will heavily affect the judge's ruling. Here they are:

Ford v. Wainwright (1986): In this case, the Supreme Court ruled it is unconstitutional for a person to be executed if he is insane at the time of the execution. In this case, insanity at the time of execution is different than insanity at the time of the crime. In order to be insane at the time of execution, a person with a mental illness must be 1. Unaware of the punishment he is about to face, and 2. Unaware of why he is about to receive his punishment.

So, if a person with a severe mental illness is aware he is about to be killed by the state because of the crime he committed, he would be deemed sane under the Ford v. Wainwright standard. His execution would then be legal.

Except, the Court further clarified its definition of insanity with the following case:

Panetti v. Quarterman (2007): In this case, the defendant understood he was about to be executed because the state said he killed someone. But, he was under the delusional belief that the government was actually executing him for political reasons.

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that even if a defendant can identify the punishment and the stated reason for the punishment, a mental illness could render him insane if it keeps him from comprehending the meaning and purpose of the execution.

Because of these two precedents, it is important for defense teams to understand if their client is sane at the time of execution after their client has been convicted. Typically, forensic psychologists will conduct an evaluation to determine if the person understands he is about to be killed, understands the stated reason for his execution, and comprehends to meaning and purpose of the execution. If he is found to be incapable in one of those three areas due to a mental illness, a Court should find him insane and rule he is ineligible for the death penalty.

If a severely mentally ill defendant is found to be competent in the three above-mentioned areas, he can be executed, despite his mental illness.

The problem, in my mind, with the Aurora shooter's defense team arguing his mental illness makes him ineligible for the death penalty at this point is that it is too soon. Presumably, he has not undergone a 'competency to be executed' evaluation yet. And, even if he is convicted, it will be years before he faces the death penalty. Many things can happen over such a long timespan, and a person with a severe mental illness can improve greatly over the course of time.

I am not a lawyer, and I am not the judge in the Aurora theater shooting case. I am also not a huge fan of the death penalty, nor am I a fan of the shooter. However, based on past case law, it seems to me that the judge will have no choice but to deny the defense's motion to remove the death penalty in this case at this time.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

VIDEO: Can A Person Really Black Out and Commit Murder?

Traci Cunningham, a 28 year-old woman from Aurora, Colorado, confessed to the murder of her mother in Eagle County earlier this week. From the arrest affidavit, she reportedly told investigators that she and her mother were arguing over her lack of cooperation in completing chores and housework. She went on to tell the police that she found her mother's gun in the trunk of her car and "everything goes black."

Is that possible? Can a person black out and commit murder without knowing what she is doing?

The short answer is, "Yes." The slightly longer answer is, "Yes, but it is extremely rare."

There are certain mental illnesses that can cause something called a dissociative state, where a person has the experience of leaving her body and losing control of her actions. This state often causes temporary amnesia--the person will not remember what she did while dissociating.

Interestingly, this is a very rare condition and happens to very few people with mental illness. However, it is one of the most common claims people make when they are talking to police about a murder they just committed. If they do not argue self defense, they often try to argue that they blacked out, which would then raise the issue of sanity at the time of the offense.

Here is Melissa Blasius's 9 News report on Traci Cunningham:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

What do you think? Is it possible for a person to black out and lose control of their actions (when drugs or alcohol is not involved)?

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

What Types of Gifts Will Make You Happiest This Holiday Season?

When this boy is an adult, will he tell his friends a story about this fishing
trip, or will he describe in detail the PS4 he got for Christmas in 2013?
I talked with 9 News yesterday about the psychology behind gift giving. There is a strong body of research showing that people tend to be much happier when they spend their money on experiences rather than material goods. Here is the video:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

The example I used in the video was a buying a television versus paying for an experience like a cruise or going out for dinner. The television is going to give you a lot of joy and excitement in the beginning. You will get a rush of endorphins and dopamine, and it will feel very good. A few weeks later, when you are sitting on your couch staring at the television, it will feel just like you are watching your old television. Nice, convenient, relaxing, but not much different.

The experience, however, will last a lifetime. Even if it is only dinner out with friends or family, it will add to the richness of your life in a way material goods cannot. Years later, you will benefit from the cumulative effect of all of the experiences you have purchased. And the
television that was new in 2013 will be in a landfill.

As a person who works for a news organization that broadcasts on television, I feel it is important to add the following statement: It is still possible to watch and enjoy 9 News on your old television. If your old one breaks, please buy a new one. If you don't absolutely need a new television, try saving up for a fantastic experience instead. ;)

When you think about giving gifts this year, think about whether you can give your friends and family experiences rather than 'stuff.'

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

VIDEO: Steering Clear of Tough Topics On The Holidays

If your family is like every other, you have relatives who do not agree with each other on big topics. And, they like to bring up those topics at the Thanksgiving table.

I spoke with 9 News yesterday about how best to avoid family arguments during the holidays. Here is the video:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Topics that are good to avoid are politics, religion, past family difficulties, finances, and diet. Here are a few tips you can use to make your Thanksgiving a little less stressful:

1. Before you say something about one of the above topics, think about whether someone might get offended. If the answer is 'yes' (or even 'possibly'), just shut up. Don't say it. Wait until you are around people who agree with you--then say what you have to say.

2. Remember, as frustrating as certain family members can be, there may be some relatives who think you are the frustrating relative. Try not to be the annoying person who won't shut up about the President.

3. If someone in your family brings up a topic you disagree with, try to ignore them. Don't take the bait. Just let it go.

4. You are absolutely not going to change anyone's mind by arguing during Thanksgiving dinner.

5. If a
relative says something truly offensive, you have a decision to make--you might want to let it go (see tip #4), or you might feel you need to address the issue. If so, keep your comments short and to the point. And, remember, it probably won't change the person's mind. But, you might be able to convince them to keep their offensive comments to themselves.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D. 

Saturday, November 16, 2013

VIDEO: How Millennial Are You?

The 9 News morning weather and traffic team 
Recently, the Pew Research Center released a study based on polling data of people who were born after 1980. Affectionately referred to as "millennials," this generation tends to be more diverse than previous generations, and it is characterized as highly wired to technology, tattooed, less religious, and concerned with social justice. They also tend to like their parents a lot more than previous generations.

In addition to the study, Pew created an online quiz to test how similar you are to someone in the millennial generation. Here is a 9 News story about the quiz:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Here is a link to the quiz (please keep in mind, if you are a millennial, you don't need a link provided to you--you know how to find it on your own): Pew Research Center Millennial Quiz

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Monday, November 11, 2013

VIDEO: Frontal Lobe Testing and Predicting Criminal Behavior

As a follow-up to my last post about brain testing and classifying criminal behavior, 9 News reporter Chris Vanderveen looked into it a little further. The results are entertaining!

Here is the video:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Thanks for watching-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Study Finds Brain Functioning Tests May Help Classify Criminal Behavior

Does this look like a good idea to you? If so, have you ever had your Executive Functions tested?

In 2013, a doctoral student in psychology published a dissertation titled Executive Function: Conduct Problems and Criminal Behavior. The goal of his study was to determine if a particular type of brain testing should be used as part of normal forensic psychological evaluations of offenders.

Specifically, he examined problems in the frontal and prefrontal cortices of our brains. These areas comprise the thin outer layer of the brain at the very front--imagine the part of your brain right under your forehead. This small part of the brain is in control of what psychologists refer to as "executive functioning," or the ability to plan out a series of actions, to control our emotions and impulses, and to guide our goal-directed behavior. People who have damaged the frontal cortex are susceptible to angry outbursts, a failure to think through and plan their behaviors, and an increase in risk taking.

The study's author compared the executive functioning abilities of a group of criminals to a group of non-criminals. The results are very interesting: By looking only at the brain test results, it was possible to sort the criminals from the non-criminals 73% of the time. This was due to the fact that there were strong correlations between executive functioning problems and antisocial and "rule breaking" behaviors. Further, poor performance on these brain tests predicted impulsivity and aggression.

One major caveat: Although a 73% success rate sounds good, you need to keep in mind that a coin could have correctly differentiated the criminals in this study from the non-criminals 50% of the time. When you only have two choices, it is relatively easy to distinguish between the two.

But, 73% is significantly above the level of random chance, and it is an indication that more research in this area needs to be done. It could very well be that examining individuals' executive functioning abilities in addition to looking at a number of other areas of their lives can greatly improve a psychologist's ability to predict (and possibly prevent) future violence and other types of criminal behavior.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Trausch, C. (2013). Executive Function: Conduct Problems and Criminal Behavior. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, Vol 73(9-B(e)), no pagination specified.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Marla Abling: Two Deaths In One Woman's Bedroom

Several of Marla Abling's 20+ mugshots
Colorado has something known as the "Make My Day" law. The law, passed in 1985, refers to Clint Eastwood's famous line from Dirty Harry, and it essentially shields people from criminal prosecution when they use deadly force on an intruder in their home. It is not exactly the same as a Stand Your Ground law, but it works in a similar manner--an individual can petition the court for "Make My Day" immunity, which, if granted, would keep the person from facing criminal charges after killing someone on his/her property.

Enter Marla Abling. This woman from Lamar, Colorado has a checkered history, and she is almost infamous in her town. She recently petitioned the court for Make My Day immunity after the strangulation death of her ex-boyfriend in her apartment. The court did not grant her the immunity, and she is now facing first-degree murder charges. Interestingly, a man died in Ms. Abling's bedroom several years prior to the current incident--the death was ruled an accidental drug overdose, but Ms. Abling did not call the police until 48 hours after the man's death, which gave her enough time to thoroughly scrub her entire apartment with bleach.

Keep in mind, Ms. Abling has not been convicted of first-degree murder in the strangulation case. The court merely ruled that the circumstances of the death did not warrant Make My Day Immunity. She should be considered innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It could very well be she is a victim of domestic violence (there was a protective order in place keeping her ex-boyfriend away from her), and she may have had a legitimate reason to use deadly force.

Here is a 9 Wants To Know story about Marla Abling:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Real Halloween Terror: Scary Adults!

Don't worry about psychopathic clowns on Halloween.
Be afraid of real adults with no common sense.
The news of the North Dakota woman who is going to be handing out candy to thin kids and letters to kids she deems "moderately obese" was all over social media yesterday. It doesn't take an expert to realize what a bad idea this is (think of the hurt it can inflict on kids, the anger it can arouse in parents, and the toilet paper it can elicit from teenagers). Nevertheless, here are my thoughts from yesterday's 9 News interview:

Click here if the video does not appear above.

Thanks for reading, and Happy Halloween-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Exhibitionism: When Is It Dangerous, And When Is It Just Annoying?

Narcissus, the mythical Greek who fell in love with himself.
At least he didn't show anyone his junk.
Last week, Will Ripley reported on a story out of Parker, Colorado where a man has been seen knocking on windows and then exposing himself to others.
Will interviewed me for the story.

Here is the video:

Click here if the video does not automatically appear.

In researching the phenomenon of exhibitionism for this story, I discovered a few interesting pieces of information:

1. Exhibitionism is considered a 'paraphilia,' a disorder where a person gets sexually aroused by an inappropriate action.
2. Exhibitionists typically engage in other paraphilic behaviors such as voyeurism.
3. People who engage in nonsexual crimes (like robbery, assault, etc.) and exhibitionism tend to be dangerous and may physically or sexually assault their victims.
4. People who only engage in the paraphilic behavior of exhibitionism are typically 'harmless,' in that they have no desire to attack their victims.
5. Exhibitionism is driven by narcissism and a lack of ability to appropriately express oneself. The act of exposing one's genitals to someone else is seen as a way of 'showing off.'

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Natural Disasters: Warning Signs for Emotional Distress

Several weeks ago, those of us who live in Colorado had to deal with a highly traumatic natural disaster. We are not used to floods, and the people and the terrain are not equipped to deal with the aftermath. In addition to roads and houses being destroyed, people lost their lives in the flooding. And, many people whose homes were badly damaged did not have flood insurance, leaving them with no way to pay for repairs.

From an emotional standpoint, most of us are going to be okay. Even those who were hardest hit will find a way to move on. But, in the midst of the tragedy and for some time after, it is not uncommon to experience mental health symptoms similar to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.

If people are experiencing symptoms of anxiety after the flood (or any natural disaster), they may be struggling with a phenomenon known as acute stress disorder. Here are some of the symptoms:

1. Intrusive thoughts: recurrent and involuntary thoughts about the traumatic event
2. Nightmares
3. Negative mood and inability to feel happy
4. An "altered sense of reality" like seeing yourself from someone else's perspective
5. Amnesia for the traumatic event, like not being able to remember what happened
6. Avoidance of all mention of the trauma
7. Sleep or appetite problems
8. Angry mood and behavior
9. Being hyperaware of your surroundings, almost like feeling paranoid
10. Problems with concentration
11. Exaggerated startle response

It is common for people to experience a few of these symptoms after a major trauma. The issues normally
go away on their own, But, if you or anyone you know is experiencing a majority of these symptoms, you may be under acute stress. The stress typically dissipates within about a month. If the symptoms last longer than that, you are at risk for developing a more permanent problem, such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. If that is the case, you should see your doctor and think about the possibility of medication or psychotherapy.

Here is a link to a 9 News video where I talk about some of the symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder:

Click here to watch the video if it does not immediately appear in this blog post.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

reference: The list of symptoms for Acute Stress Disorder came from the Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association

Thursday, October 3, 2013

One Potential Solution To The Gridlock In Washington: Chill Out

I think just about everybody in the US is angry right now. Democrats are angry at Republicans. Republicans are angry at Democrats. Progressives are angry at Conservatives. Conservatives are angry at Progressives. People hate the 1%. People hate the 47%. Billionaires are horrible people. Poor people suck.

It does not matter what your opinion is--At this very moment, you can find someone who agrees with you who is saying something awful about someone who disagrees with you. If you don't believe me, turn on a 24-hours news channel. Or just check Twitter.

Anger can be useful sometimes. It can be a clue that we really care about something. It can spur us to action. It can be a warning sign that we are masking other emotions.

But, it can also cause intransigence. In a 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers discovered something interesting. When they trained Israeli citizens to recognize, reassess, and regulate their negative emotions, they were much more willing to consider cooperating with Palestinians.

The researchers trained half the research participants in what they called "cognitive reappraisal," which is the emotion regulation process described above. The other half of the participants did not receive the training. The researchers then provided anger-inducing information about Palestinians to all of the Israeli participants.

Those Israelis who received the training were much more likely to want to work out their differences with the Palestinians, and those who did not receive the training were much more likely to want to respond to the anger-inducing information with aggression.

Interestingly, the effects of this one-time cognitive training lasted for at least five months. All of the research participants were reassessed at that time, and those who received the training were still much more likely to want to cooperate with Palestinians.

You have to hand it to the researchers--they really went for it. They could have examined the divide between Mounds and Almond Joy lovers, but instead they looked at one of the biggest conflicts in the world's most conflictual region. And they showed that chilling out helps.

Isn't there something in the Constitution about being
about to tar and feather politicians we don't like?
So, what does this mean for people in the United States? Maybe our real political problem is not that we have a certain president or that one side or the other is trying to ruin the economy. Maybe the real problem is that we all have been trained to be highly partisan and to see those who disagree with us as "the enemy." When the enemy does something we disagree with, we get very angry and we dig in our heels on issues that seem important to us.

The next time you notice this happening to you, stop for a moment and think about your anger. Think about how you are buying into a broken political system that needs to be changed. Take a few deep breaths. Calm yourself down. Recognize that the vast majority of Americans are not trying to sabotage anything. We disagree, but we all want the United States to succeed. Instead of stopping at the anger stage, think about why you are getting angry. Think about more constructive ways of dealing with that anger--educating someone who does not have the correct information, learning more about the issue yourself, looking for commonalities rather than focusing on differences, and so on.

If you do this, there is a good chance you will feel yourself wanting to cooperate with others. And others will want to cooperate with you.

If you need to win every argument, this will eventually
be you. At least you'll have a book to keep you company.
If you stop your emotional process with anger and then fire off a snarky tweet or an ill-worded Facebook post, you are not helping anyone. You won't change anyone's mind. You will feel miserable. And, you will be letting the emotionally immature people who currently run our political system play you for a fool. Stand up to them by refusing to get angry. If we can all just chill out a little bit and learn to cooperate, our elected officials will have no choice but to grow up and start cooperating, too.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

reference: Halperin, E., Porat, R., Tamir, M., & Gross, J. J. (2013). Can emotion regulation change political attitudes in intractible conflicts? From the laboratory to the field. Psychological Science, 24(1), 106-111.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Colorado Floods: What To Do If You Aren't Handling The Stress Well

Many parts of northern Colorado have received about half of their annual precipitation in the last 48 hours. There has been widespread flooding, damage to houses and cars, and the constant threat of evacuation. Phones are buzzing with flash flood warnings, and it is hard to miss seeing the devastation, either in person or on the news.

In addition to staying physically safe, it is important to protect yourself emotionally. This is an amazingly stressful time for residents, first responders, news reporters, and public officials. Symptoms of acute depression and anxiety are common. Here are a few warning signs:

1. Sadness and tearfulness
2. A strong feeling that you need to get up and go somewhere immediately (the "flight" response)
3. Anger
4. Lack of ability to focus or think clearly (all you can think about is the disaster)
5. Excessive worry
6. Racing heart, sweating, shaking, cold hands and feet
7. A need to know where your loved ones are at all times
8. Jumpiness and hyperarousal (for example, you jump and feel a rush of anxiety every time you hear a siren)
9. Nightmares about the disaster
10. An inability to do anything (almost like you are "frozen in place")
11. A change in eating or sleeping habits (you can't fall asleep, you lose your appetite, or vice versa)

These symptoms are fairly normal reactions to stressful situations. For most people, the feelings of depression and anxiety go away quickly. For a smaller number of people, the symptoms linger. For some people, it feels like the depression or anxiety will never abate, and disorders such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Agoraphobia (a fear of leaving the house), and Major Depressive Disorder can develop.

If you feel completely overwhelmed, or you are worried that your depression or anxiety is getting out of control, there is help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a disaster distress hotline. Here is how you get in contact with them:

PHONE: 1-800-985-5990
TEXT: "TalkWithUs" or "Hablanos" to 66746
SUICIDE LIFELINE: 1-800-273-8255

SAMHSA also has an excellent web page with a lot of detail about anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and panic reactions. I won't summarize it in this post, but I highly recommend you click on the following link if you are in distress. It is a great resource. It includes information about how to make it through the immediate crisis and how to deal with your emotions when the crisis is over:

Good luck, and stay safe, physically and emotionally.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Odd Bathroom Behavior: Mental Illness, Bizarre Behavior, and Refusing Help

9 News reporter Eric Egan reported on a story out of Centennial last night where he discovered a woman who has been acting strangely and refusing help for months.

Her neighbors became concerned when they discovered she had been defecating in her backyard. They also started seeing rats coming from the house and in surrounding backyards. They said she never leaves her house and has not answered the door when concerned citizens try to help. The health department has served her several warnings, but so far, nothing has worked.

This is a tragic story, because it is almost certain this woman has a serious mental illness (or a physical illness that has symptoms similar to mental illness), and she is not getting the help she needs. In fact, she is refusing all help. She won't even come to the door.

The neighbors feel lost, and they are conflicted--they want to help this woman, and they also want the unsanitary conditions to be remediated.

Here is Eric's story:

Click here to watch if the above video does not automatically appear.

Although it is not perfect, there is a law in Colorado that allows anyone who suspects a person is mentally ill and in danger to petition the probate court for a court-ordered mental health evaluation by a licensed professional. A few months ago, I wrote a blog post outlining the steps a person needs to take, and a link to it is here.

If her neighbors have not already tried, it could be helpful for someone to petition the court for a mental health evaluation by a professional who has the authority to place her on a 72-hour mental health hold and get her to a hospital, if necessary.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Teen Charged With Killing Mom: Bizarre Behavior In Court

18 year-old Isabella Guzman is accused of attacking her mother and stabbing her to death. She is charged with first-degree murder, and according to police documents, she allegedly stabbed her mother 79 times.

She appeared in court yesterday to formally hear the charges against her. She was scheduled to appear in the morning, but she refused to leave her jail cell. By the afternoon, she was cooperating, but a camera in the courtroom caught her doing a number of bizarre things. She stared directly at the camera on several occasions with a sassy and defiant look on her face. At one point, she pointed to both of her eyes while looking straight at the camera. In the raw footage, you can also see redness in her eyes, as though she were holding back tears.

I have not met with or talked to Isabella Guzman. I have certainly not conducted a psychological evaluation with her. I cannot diagnose her from watching a few minutes of courtroom video. But, I can say, in those few minutes, she reminded me of the troubled teens I worked with when I was in graduate school. These were teenagers, mostly girls, whose behavior was so out of control they were sent to a residential treatment facility. Many of them had legal charges. Some of them had mental illnesses. But, most of them were sad kids who were raised in terrible circumstances. Almost all of them had been physically or sexually abused. They put on a mask of bravado and toughness, but just under the surface, they were wounded and fragile.

With good treatment, most of those teens turned out okay. Some of them just outgrew their poor behavior as they aged and matured. Some of them, however, went on to develop full-blown personality disorders.

I don't know what Guzman's upbringing was like, and I do not want to make any excuses for her alleged actions. But, seeing her on camera makes me wonder if she is like those teenagers I used to work with--masking fragility and desperation with bluster and defiance.

Here is a link to the video of Isabella Guzman in court:

Click here to watch the video if it does not appear above.

As an aside, Guzman was charged with her crime about a month after her 18th birthday. If she were to be convicted of first-degree murder, she would be eligible for the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole. If she had committed the alleged murder just a few months earlier (i.e. when she was 17), neither of those sentences would be an option, even if she had been tried as an adult.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What Does Ariel Castro's Suicide Mean For His Victims?

Ariel Castro is back in the news, but not for much longer. The man who was convicted of more than 900 crimes in the kidnappings and sexual assaults of three Cleveland women has killed himself.

Castro was found hanging from a bedsheet in his cell in a prison in Ohio last night and pronounced dead about an hour later at a hospital.

In the news clip that follows, there is more information about the developments. And, I speak with 9 News anchor Gary Shapiro about the implications for the victims.

Here is the clip:

Click here to view the video if you are using a non-Flash enabled device.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

When a Domestic Abuser Kills, No One Should Be Surprised

On Friday morning, police were called to a south Denver neighborhood because neighbors heard shots fired. When they arrived on the scene, they found a man armed with at least one gun and several homemade bombs. He told the police to "bring it on," and then shot one of the bombs, detonating it. The police quickly shot the man in the shoulder, subduing him. He is now in critical condition in a local hospital, facing murder and bomb charges.

He is facing murder charges because, prior to the police arriving, he shot and killed a neighbor and shot and wounded his wife.

It turns out he had a long history of domestic violence, including hitting his wife with the butt of his gun and threatening to kill her multiple times. He also hit their dog, and he had previously been arrested for multiple felonies and misdemeanors.

Court documents revealed a pattern of anger problems, impulsivity, and physical violence in the man. When a gun is added to the mix, it seems almost inevitable that the situation will eventually turn deadly (NOTE: this is not meant to spark a gun control debate--there are millions of responsible gun owners in the U.S. This man is not one of them).

According to the US Department of Justice, approximately 1 in 250 women will experience intimate partner violence sometime in their lifetime. That statistic is shocking. Domestic violence is very common, and when a woman is murdered, she knows her murderer about 70% of the time.

This is a sad story, but it is not surprising. This Denver man, left unchecked, was bound to escalate his violence at some point. Unfortunately, that happened on Friday morning.

Here is a link to video where Cheryl Preheim interviews me about the situation on 9 News:

Click here to watch the video if you are attempting to view it on a non-Flash enabled device.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Friday, August 16, 2013

I'm Sorry: The Four Key Ingredients To A Successful Apology

The more you can look like this puppy,
the better your apology will be.
I am getting closer to finishing my book, How To Raise Boys, and every now and then, I run across information that is too good not to share.

Yesterday, I found a fascinating article published in 2012 in the journal Peace Psychology. A team of researchers examined the types of apologies that work and compared them to apologies that are less successful. Obviously, when you have messed up, you have little control over how the aggrieved person is going to react when you say you are sorry. But, there are four steps you can use to maximize the potential that the person will accept your apology. The researchers discovered these techniques are most important for really big mistakes, although they probably work for minor inconveniences, too.

Here is what you need to do:

1. Show genuine emotion during the apology. You can do this through your behaviors (e.g. crying, looking sad, adopting a conciliatory posture, etc.). Or, you can do this through your words (e.g. "I am really sad that I made you so upset the other day"). If you do not convey your emotion, the words you say will come across as less genuine and less believable.

2. Admit fault. Say, "It was my fault." Or, "I messed up." Or, "I was wrong." By doing this, you are letting the person know you are taking responsibility for your actions.

3. Actually say, "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." The person to whom you are apologizing needs to know you are apologizing. Thus, you need to explicitly say so.

4. Try to explain your behavior. This one is tricky. You don't want to come up with excuses or rationalizations. That will make it sound like you are not taking responsibility for what you have done. But, it can be helpful to give some context to your behavior so the person has a better understanding of why you did what you did. For example, you might say something like, "I was really frustrated because I didn't sleep well, and the traffic was terrible. When I finally got to the party, I was in a terrible mood. Then I snapped at you, which you didn't deserve. I wasn't actually mad at you--I was reacting to all of the crappy stuff that happened earlier in the day."

Keep in mind, Step 4 requires you to think reflectively about your behavior and why you acted the way you did. If you don't put any thought into it prior to your apology, this step will not go well.

Another thing to keep in mind: you need to genuinely feel remorse for what you've done for these steps to work. If you don't feel sorry, your apology will probably reflect your less-than-apologetic attitude.

I hope this helps!

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


Kirchhoff, J., Wagner, U., & Strack, M. (2012). Apologies: Words of magic? The role of verbal components, anger reduction, and offence severity. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 18(2), 109-130.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Treatment For PTSD: What Hannah Anderson Might Do To Overcome Her Kidnapping

There is no question that Hannah Anderson went through a traumatic ordeal. The teen was abducted, and she was in close range of her captor when he was shot and killed by authorities. She was then reunited with her father, only to learn that her mother and brother had been killed.

She is likely to be struggling with symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder, which can include anxiety, depression, anger, shame, nightmares, and hypervigilance to her surroundings. Most times, when a person has Acute Stress Disorder after a trauma, the symptoms go away on their own. But, when the trauma is severe enough, the symptoms remain. Sometimes they even get worse. It can eventually turn into Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Although Ms. Anderson's ordeal was indeed traumatic, it started and ended relatively quickly. That is a good sign for future recovery--the longer the trauma lasts, the harder it can be to work past it.

Ideally, Ms. Anderson will start meeting with a therapist soon. There is a particular type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that research has shown to be highly effective with individuals with PTSD and acute stress. It is referred to as Exposure Therapy. Essentially, the therapist works with the client to repeatedly "expose" her to her traumatic event, typically by having her describe it in detail. The therapist then helps the client quell her anxiety while she is discussing the trauma. Over time, the anxiety from the event diminishes and the trauma loses much of its destructive power over the individual. And, the sooner this type of therapy is initiated, the better the potential outcome.

My hope is that Ms. Anderson and her father both engage in psychotherapy soon in order to begin the healing process.

Here is a 9 News video where I discuss this issue with Kyle Clark:

Click here to watch the video if you are viewing this on a non-Flash enabled device.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Sex, Lies, and Cellphone Video: 43 Year-Old Man Allegedly Murders Two Teenagers in Adams County

Will Ripley interviewed me as part of his story that aired last night on 9 News.
9 News investigative reporter Will Ripley reported yesterday on a double homicide in Adams County. According to police affidavits, neighborhood teenagers would frequently spend time at 43 year-old Billy Otto's house, where he would offer them alcohol and gas money. One evening, Mr. Otto solicited one of the boys for oral sex, and a friend caught the solicitation on his cell phone.

Those two boys then decided to try to get some money from Mr. Otto. They allegedly told the man they needed $10,000 apiece in order to keep from going to the police with their incriminating video. At that point, Mr. Otto allegedly grabbed a gun from his bedroom, shot and killed the two teens, drove their bodies to rural Colorado, and buried them on his family's property.

The two teenage boys made a horrible decision, and what there were attempting to do was illegal. Nevertheless, they did not deserve to die for their mistake. My heart goes out to their family and friends, who are likely struggling to make sense of the gruesome details of their deaths.

What is truly heartbreaking is that those boys should never have been put in that position in the first place. According to Will Ripley's report, neighborhood teens all knew that Mr. Otto's house was a place to hang out and drink alcohol. Additionally, a number of adults in the neighborhood also knew this was happening.

When a 43 year-old man is willingly spending time with teenagers and buying them alcohol, there is something wrong. A normal man in his 40s does not want to be friends with young kids. It is quite possible Mr. Otto was emotionally immature and sexually attracted to the kids he was inviting over to his house. His behavior is similar to the behavior of sex offenders who "groom" their victims by being nice to them and slowly crossing inappropriate boundaries one step at a time. Although the teens who were hanging out with Mr. Otto didn't realize it, they were putting themselves in an extremely dangerous situation. They were dealing with a man who was likely impulsive, immature, and unpredictable.

Here is a link to Will Ripley's story. He interviewed me as part of his investigation into the matter:

Click here to watch the video if you are reading this on a non-Flash enabled device.

Although the majority of adults who hang out with teenagers, invite them into their houses, and supply them with alcohol are not going to kill anyone, it is still extremely important to understand how dangerous those individuals might be. At best, they are emotionally immature. At worst, they are impulsive and flirting with the idea of crossing major boundaries with their teenaged "friends." As soon as parents or friends discover such a person is in their neighborhood, they should report the situation to the police. There is nothing cool about a grown man luring kids into his house with alcohol, and the authorities need to deal with that person immediately.

Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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