My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘mental illness in the news’

Children’s Bodies, Children’s Minds

I read recently that the Duchess of Cambridge was visiting a series of schools to mark Children’s Mental Health Week. The duchess is the royal patron of Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity. The article said that this year’s theme for Mental Health Week would be “Healthy: Inside and Out, focusing on the connection between physical and mental health.”

The article explained, “The charity works with more than 280 primary and secondary schools across England, Scotland and Wales, providing support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff.” 

The duchess, it says, would be meeting with members of the school community to discuss students’ school readiness, teacher welfare, the wellbeing of the school community, and the importance of being active; and also talk with parents about good routines and habits around sleep, screen time, healthy eating, and exercise.

All of which sounds fine and worthy. But does anyone else see something missing from this public relations tour? Maybe it’s just me, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual emphasis on children’s mental health.

Yes, we know that the body and the mind are intimately connected. Yes, we know that children need a sense of wellbeing. Yes, we know that being active and eating healthy are important for kids. And we know that parents, teachers, and school communities have important roles to play in students’ healthy development. We also know that sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are good for people with mental illnesses. Hell, they’re good for everyone.

But there’s a lot more to mental health than physical fitness and a sense of wellbeing. If that was all it took, we could just eat kale and kiwis, meditate, and send the therapists home.

Of course, the article was short and seemed to focus on the duchess’s meetings with the youngest kids, who after all the most photogenic. Maybe the charity and the duchess also educate about the thornier aspects of mental health. Maybe they promote dialogue about self-harm, suicide prevention, childhood depression, and other conditions. I would like to think that they do.

But the article and many others like it focus on the physical and feel-good aspects of mental health and not the mental and emotional. Bubble baths for self-care! Pets as the best therapists! Super foods for regulating moods!

Memes are not the answer. And the physical aspects of mental health are certainly important. But we’re talking about mental illness and mood disorders here. Can’t we at least spend time talking about the mind and the emotions?  Maybe even have a dialogue about what happens when something goes wrong with them? Stress the importance of seeking help when one is confused, overwhelmed, and despairing?

I think society at large is still uncomfortable talking about mental illness and twice as uncomfortable talking about mental illness in children. Many of us are still laboring under the illusion that childhood is a uniformly happy time. In fact, many kids suffer from serious mental illnesses. If the statistics give any indication, 20% to 25% of them will experience a mental health problem at some time in their lives.

We should talk about this and ultimately do something about it. Something more than emphasizing good physical health and getting celebrities to do 30-second spots about how they too experience depression, though these are indeed good things.

I’ve written before about what I think a mental health curriculum in schools should look like (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Hl). I suppose that first we need to be aware that children can and do have mental health problems – that it may not be “just a phase they’re going through” or something they’ll “just get over.” It’s a serious problem and requires serious attention, not to mention serious actions.

Whatever else we do, let’s put the mental back into mental health.

 

 

Self-Medicating: Bipolar and Booze

Self-medicating – using alcohol or drugs to dull the emotional pain of a mood disorder – is pretty common among people with bipolar and other mental disorders, particularly the undiagnosed.

It’s a dangerous thing to do. People with major depression are said to be twice as likely to develop a drinking problem if they self-medicate with alcohol a lot. Then there’s the possible interaction between alcohol or drugs with a person’s prescribed meds.

To be perfectly honest, there were times in my life when I self-medicated with wine, beer, or liquor. During one particularly dark time, when I had been prescribed benzos for a physical ailment, that was thrown into the mix. And, again with the honesty, I still sometimes have wine or beer with dinner, though I know I shouldn’t. I could say that I know how much I can drink without it affecting my reaction to my meds, but the fact is that I just shouldn’t.

Recently, however, a study was published in the journal Nature Communications which said that “getting drunk causes the same molecular changes in the brain as taking rapid antidepressants.” Here are the basics.

It was a study done on mice, which means it’s a long way yet from applying to human beings. The set-up was this: Mice were given alcohol, then placed in a container of water. Being passive and willing to drown was taken as an indication that the hapless creature was depressed. Sure enough, the mice that were given alcohol proved to be more active and energetic in trying to swim, which was taken as a sign of not being depressed.

The study did not end happily for any of the mice, however. Their brains were examined to determine how the alcohol achieved its antidepressant effects.  The scientists say that changes in the boozy mouse brains showed that alcohol has effects on neurotransmitters that were similar to the way antidepressants affect the brain. That’s a long way from saying that alcohol is good for the depressed, though.

The premise of the experiment sounds a little shaky to me. I mean, assuming the swimming mice to be less depressed than the drowning mice strikes me as just a wee bit anthropomorphic. Plus, the mice seem to have been situationally depressed (by being left to drown), rather than chronically, as in clinical depression. However, the brain study seems more interesting to me. After all, it compared the effects of alcohol directly with the effects that antidepressants have on neurotransmitters and said that the former “mimicked” the latter.

What’s the takeaway from all this? Well, first of all, it’s hardly blanket permission for the depressed to go out and indulge indiscriminately. Further experiments are needed, presumably ones that will work their way up the animal kingdom until they come to depressed humans, though one hopes that they are not thrown into water to sink or swim.

If those further studies go the same way as the mouse study, I rather imagine the result will be something like the medical advice that you can take a glass of red wine to stave off heart disease – not a blanket approval, but the use of a potentially hazardous thing to ward off a potentially worse thing. Of course, that will not apply to alcoholics or others who must avoid the substance altogether for any of a variety of reasons.

I also note that the study focused on the effects of alcohol in relation to depression only. The manic phase of bipolar disorder was not part of the study and drinking while manic is well known to be a really bad, though often occurring, thing. Of course the same can be said of drinking and depression.

For now, the best advice is simply not to drink if you are depressed or bipolar. Don’t use me as an example. I’m not sharing this to encourage anyone to indulge in potentially destructive, even lethal, behavior. As always, Your Mileage May Vary, especially when compared with that of drunken, depressed, or dead mice. But drinking is still far from a good idea for the bipolar.  And don’t mix it with benzos either.  Trust me on this. It’s a slippery slope.

 

Men, Women, and Mental Health

My husband is no stranger to situational depression. He experienced it when his father died, when a beloved pet passed unexpectedly, and when his job turned suddenly more stressful and meaningless.

But he didn’t understand clinical, chronic depression. “What would it be like if those feelings lasted for months at a time, or even years?” I asked. He said he couldn’t even picture it. “That’s the way my life is,” I explained. Then he lost his job, and after a brief period of relief from the stress, he finally experienced depression that lasted more than two weeks – two years, in fact, during which he was unable to work.

He did not seek help for it until his best friend and I both proactively encouraged (i.e., nagged) him to do something about it. He’s been on an SSRI ever since and has occasionally seen a psychologist.

Lately, there has been a movement to educate men about mental illness and mental health. Primary among its goals is to help men understand that mental illness is a thing that can affect them and that there is no shame in asking for help.

Certainly, the statistics bear out that the majority of mental health consumers are women. Psychology Today reports: “Research suggests that women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They’re twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men. It’s easy to write off this epidemic of mental illness among women as the result of hormonal issues and genetic gender differences, or even to argue that women are simply more ’emotional’ than men. The truth, though, is that psychiatrists aren’t really sure why mental illness is more common among women.” Perhaps the answer is that seeking treatment for mental illness is more common in women.

Prevention magazine says that there are four mental health conditions that affect women more than men: depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders. That PTSD is twice as common in women may surprise you, though the stats about eating disorders are not likely to. The fact is that, although few women experience the traumas that soldiers do, they are much more likely to experience other sorts of trauma, such as rape, which can also lead to PTSD.

But men experience societal and psychological barriers to getting help when they need it. Among the excuses you hear are these:

  • I don’t really need help.
  • I can handle this myself.
  • I don’t want to appear weak.
  • I might lose my job if anyone finds out.

In other words, a lot of bullshit that boils down to “I’m a man and mental illness is not manly. Asking for help is not manly. Talking about emotional problems is not manly. Taking medication for a personal problem is not manly. Not being able to deal with my problems, especially emotional problems, is not manly. Therefore I have no mental problems and don’t need treatment for them because I’m a man.”

Or, looked at another way, the campaigns against stigma around mental illness have been less than effective for most men. Now the attention to that problem, which is surely needed, is beginning to be heard and, one hopes, acted upon.

Still, it’s important to remember that mental illness is not just a men’s problem or a women’s problem. It is a human problem, affecting both genders (and all ages and races) if not equally, then without discriminating.

It is important to get men the mental and emotional help they need, in a timelier and more comprehensive fashion.  I would have liked to see my husband be willing to recognize when he needed to get help and to get it without being pushed. But it would be wrong to push the needs of women aside to accomplish this. This is a societal problem, and while right now spreading the word to men is particularly important, our goal should be to make sure that all people are aware of the prevalence of mental illness, the fact that it can happen to them, and that there are places to get help. That message, at least, is not gender-specific.

The Fire and the Window

fire orange emergency burning

Photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.com

When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.

“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”

That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.

Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.

The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.

The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.

The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.

Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.

The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.

My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.

I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.

But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.

The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.

 

If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Mental Illness and Voting

people standing with signage on street

Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

No, I’m not going to tell you how to vote. And I’m not going to say the country is bipolar just because we’re so divided. What I am going to do is talk about the issues you should be concerned with during these mid-term elections and what you need to do in order to make your vote count.

Despite the fact that mid-term elections are usually boring, plagued by low turn-outs and minor local issues, this time they are likely to have national significance. This time we are voting on people – representatives, senators, and governors – who will make the policy for our states and our nation, including policies that affect the mentally ill.

Health policy. We’re not voting directly on national health policy, but we are voting for or against the people who make those policies. Those policies include support for the ACA (Obamacare), especially its protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

This has become a hot-button issue this year and you will likely hear and see ads that tout the various candidates’ support for insurance that covers pre-existing conditions. The key here is to do a tiny bit of research. Whatever a candidate says now, has he or she always supported coverage for pre-existing conditions? Or does the candidate have a history of trying to do away with such insurance coverage? Promises are not the point here. Past actions are. Given the choice between an incumbent and a newcomer, I personally will go for the newcomer if the incumbent has a track record of trying to dismantle coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Another important issue for the mentally ill is safety net programs, particularly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Many people with mental illness depend on these programs to cover their basic living and medical expenses. Believe a candidate who wants to gut these programs. Many of them see the people who benefit from these programs, particularly SSDI, as “moochers,” “freeloaders,” and drags on society. If you or a loved one needs this kind of assistance, vote accordingly.

There may also be local issues regarding police training, housing, and the homeless that are relevant to persons with mental illness. Spend a few minutes researching before you vote. Some Internet sites such as BallotReady.org and Vote411.org can help.

Your vote. Your vote only counts if you actually cast it and that can be a problem for those with mental or emotional disorders. Going to the polls can seem an impossible feat. But given the significance of the coming elections, spending some spoons to do so can have long-term repercussions.

If you have trouble getting to the polls, first make sure you know where your polling place is this year. It may have changed since the last time you voted. Then ask around. Some cities, like mine, are offering free bus rides to polling places and some services like Uber are offering discounted fees. Neighbors who go to the same polling place or members of support groups you belong to can potentially provide transport. Don’t forget to ask friends and family, if you can. They may not realize how important voting is to you or the difficulty you have getting to the polls.

If your difficulty is not getting to the polling places, but being at them, plan ahead. There are likely to be crowds this year and you may want to have a support person with you, especially one who also plans to vote. You may even be able to call the polling place ahead of time and find out when their peak voting times are so you can avoid them. If possible, avoid the noon rush, when many people take a voting break from work, and just after local businesses close for the day.

You may have heard rumors of intimidation at the polls this year. These are likely exaggerated, as are predictions of civil unrest after the results are known.  If anyone tries to interfere with or influence your voting, find an official poll worker or ask for a provisional ballot, which is your legal right. Call the police if you have to. Rely on a support person to help you get through the process.

Remember that this year’s elections are important. If at all possible, VOTE.

 

What Schools Are – and Aren’t – Doing About Mental Health

I believe that mental health education belongs in schools. I’ve written about that (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw). There’s good news about the subject and there’s less-good news. I’ll let you sort out which is which.

First, two U.S. states are now required by law to include mental health in their curriculum – New York and Virginia.

New York’s law mandates teaching the subject as part of the K-12 health curriculum, which has only two other specifically required topics: alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse and the prevention and detection of certain cancers. According to the law, the new education requirements seek to “open up dialogue about mental health and combat the stigma around the topic.” Free resources for New York schools, such as teacher training, are available online. These include lesson plans, though schools and teachers are free to design their own curricula.

In Virginia, mental health education is required only in grades 9-10. Huffington Post reports that the legislation came about “after state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) saw that three high school students had researched, developed and presented the proposed legislation, which struck close to home for the legislator, who had lost his son to suicide in 2013.”

Indeed, those laws are good things, though one could wish that the other 48 states would take note and do likewise. They are, of course, not forbidden to teach mental health education, and many do, especially around the topics of drug and alcohol prevention and suicide prevention. Some of them even require education on those two topics, along with bullying. Many of these efforts are sincere, significant, and even life-saving, but it is worth noting that bullying and student suicide are events for which schools are at risk of legal liability. One might wonder whether that has influenced the laws, rather than supporting more comprehensive mental health education.

Contrast the U.S. experience with England, where all secondary school teachers and other school staff are being given training that will help them identify mental health issues in children, including depression and anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders. This is thanks in part to Prince Harry’s openness about needing counseling to help him deal with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, which happened when he was 12. The Prime Minister has said that the prince’s disclosures will help “smash the stigma” regarding mental illness and the need for getting help.

“The programme is delivered by social enterprise Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, backed by £200,000 in Government funding,” notes the Telegraph, “and will be extended to primary schools by 2022.”

The campaigns around the mental health mandate, especially those featuring Princes William and Harry, have focused on the need for Britons to abandon their “stiff upper lip” image and to accept that men can and do need to seek help for mental difficulties. While that is indeed a vital message, one hopes that girls and women do not get left behind in the efforts.

What about U.S. states where mental health education is not a fact of life?

For schools in the U.S. that have not mandated mental health education, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has developed resources that can help districts, schools, teachers, and families address the problem through the NAMI Parents & Teachers as Allies program of training.

They have also developed a presentation for students called NAMI Ending the Silence, “designed for middle and high school students that includes warning signs, facts and statistics and how to get help for themselves or a friend.” These programs are offered free to schools and communities. For more information, go to https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Mental-Health-in-Schools.

For a more DIY approach, youth.gov (https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/school-based) recommends that schools “partner with community mental health organizations and agencies to develop an integrated, comprehensive program of support and services.” Among the actions they recommend are for schools and partnerships to:

  • develop evidence-based programs to provide positive school climate and promote student skills in dealing with bullying and conflicts, solving problems, developing healthy peer relationships, engaging in activities to prevent suicide and substance use, and so on.
  • develop early intervention services for students in need of additional supports such as skill groups to deal with grief, anger, anxiety, sadness, and so on.

In other words, for schools to spend the time and energy to do for themselves what the state and national governments are unwilling or unlikely to do.

To me, this is one of those times when a national curriculum makes sense, or at the very least a mandate in every state. Mental health education should be comprehensive, freely available, easy to access, and scientifically accurate for all schools and schoolchildren. The education this would provide and the statement it would make would be invaluable. Drug and alcohol, bullying, and suicide prevention are just a start, but a start that many states have not made.

 

 

Healing From Gaslighting

Apparently, gaslighting has become the new “thing” in pop psych circles. We see article after article warning of the dangers of gaslighting and how to spot a gaslighter. I have written a few such articles myself:

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm)

Gaslighting and Bipolar Disorder (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2)

When Men Aren’t the Gaslighters (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu)

Is it time for another? I think so. Now that more people know about gaslighting, they need to know how to heal after the experience, as they would after any kind of emotional abuse.

Because that’s what gaslighting is – emotional abuse. But it’s a specific kind of emotional abuse. In gaslighting, one person in a relationship (romantic or familial) denies the other’s perception of reality and works to convince the gaslightee that he or she is the crazy one in the relationship. As in other forms of emotional abuse, the gaslighter may try to isolate the victim from friends and relatives, give intermittent reinforcement (insincere apologies) that draw the victim back into the relationship, or denigrate the person with insults.

But the heart of gaslighting is that denial of the other person’s reality. The abuser says, in effect: You can’t trust your own feelings. My view of the world is accurate and yours isn’t. You’re crazy. (Of course, the gaslighter may also use the familiar techniques of emotional abuse as well: isolation, insults, projection, and belittling.) But gaslighting is unique because the perpetrator distorts a person’s world view, sense of self-worth, and belief in him- or herself.

Healing from gaslighting is not easy, but it can be done. Here is some advice from me, a person who was a victim of gaslighting but is now healing.

Get as far away from the gaslighter as you can. Yes, this may mean cutting off contact with a family member, if that’s who is doing the gaslighting. It may mean leaving town. It does mean making a sincere and lasting emotional break.

Do not maintain contact with the gaslighter. You may think that once you have broken free from the gaslighter, he or she can do no further harm. This is just an invitation to more emotional battering.

Name the abuse. Say to yourself – and possibly to a trusted person – this was gaslighting. I was emotionally abused and tricked into thinking I was crazy. My worldview was denied and my thoughts and emotions were said to be invalid.

Feel the feelings. It may be some time before you can admit to or even experience the emotions that gaslighting brings. Your first reaction may be relief (at least I’m out of that!), but there may be years of anger, frustration, fear, and rage lurking behind that. It may take work to surface those feelings and feel them and recognize that they are valid.

Get some help. This can be a therapist who specializes in treating victims of emotional abuse or it can be a supportive friend, family member, or religious counselor. It should be someone who can listen nonjudgmentally, validate your perceptions of reality, and sympathize with your situation.

Do not try to get revenge. This is just another way of reconnecting with your gaslighter. It gives the person another opportunity to “prove” that you are crazy.

Develop new relationships. It may seem like there is no one in your world who will understand and be supportive. For a while, you may not be able to trust enough to have another close friend or lover. You may have a lot of healing to do first. But remember that gaslighters are in the minority; most people don’t do that to people they profess to care about.

Give it time. It may take years to fully get over the experience. (I know it did for me.) Maybe don’t go directly into a rebound relationship. You need time and space to work through your feelings and rebuild your perception of reality.

Just know that gaslighting doesn’t have to be a way of life. It can end when you gather the strength to break away from it. You can heal and take back what you know to be true – that you are a person who is worthy of love. That your perceptions and feelings are valid. That you don’t have to live by someone else’s view of what is real. That you are not crazy.

 

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