Tag Archives: mental health

On Mental Health

More than one American in 20 has some form of major psychiatric illness, most often schizophrenia. Four times that number, one in five, has some sort of mental health issue. Despite the commonness of mental health problems, these problems continue to be stigmatized. This stigma is one of the most dangerous aspects of mental illness, and one of the largest obstacles to seeking treatment. Much of the difficulty mental illness causes the patient lies not in the illness itself but in lack of treatment and lack of support from friends, family, and co-workers, and an inability for patients to get the help they need, which in turn is due to the stigma preventing the patient from telling anyone or even, in many cases, getting a proper diagnosis.

In fact, only 40 percent of mentally ill people even start treatment, and many of them drop out. The stigma of mental illness is self-perpetuating. People with mental illness hide their conditions from those around them. The popular image of mental illness comes from fiction and from those who are too sick to hide it, and harmful, damaging, and pernicious stereotypes take root. People raised in the stereotypes, and surrounded by people who are raised in the stereotypes, are unable to tell people about their problems, or even recognize them as mental illness, and so it continues.

The stigma of mental illness also means sufferers face discrimination. It may be harder for people who are mentally ill to find jobs or housing, and in some cases they may even face physical violence. Women who are mentally ill are at heightened risk of sexual assault, in part because of the expectation that they will be dismissed as delusional if they report it, and all people with mental illnesses are under threat of violence from people who will be believed if they say it was defensive.

Fortunately, more and more people, including several celebrities, are coming forward about mental illness. By coming forward, they are changing the public face of psychiatric difficulty and helping break the stigma. There are some indicators that thee efforts are having the desired effect. Last year, a study conducted in England found attitudes toward the mentally ill improving, and greater sympathy and understanding of mental illness, with less fear and distrust.

Love And Health

Love is an important part of life. Anthropologists say it has existed across cultures and throughout human history. Some scientists have even proposed a biological component to falling in love. There is some evidence of this—hormones such as oxytocin and PEA that are activated by, among other things, interactions with romantic relationship partners, for example—but love is also a mental state, a set of actions, and a social phenomenon. Additionally, it turns out love, as well as being an important part of life, can have a significant impact on a person’s health.

For one thing, being in a relationship can help lessen stress. Sometimes relationships are a source of stress, but a healthy relationship means a less stressful life overall—though studies have found that unhappily partnered people have higher blood pressure than people in happy relationships or single people. On top of that, being in love can help spur wound healing. Injuries in coupled people healed an average of one full day faster than singles. People’s partners also seem to encourage healthier habits and preventative care, and discourage substance abuse.

There are downsides as well. Love can hamper attention, according to studies. People in love is not a mental illness, at it is sometimes facetiously called, but people in love do seem suffer impaired cognitive abilities. Scientists tested people who had been in relationships for six months or less on the ability to separate out relevant from irrelevant information, a common task to test cognitive ability and attention. The newly partnered people performed worse on this task than others. Previous studies found, however, that in longer relationships, the ability to ignore distractions is essential to the health of the relationship. Thinking about a new partner—male or female, men and women alike—seems to use mental resources that would otherwise be devoted to these tasks.

In the long run, though, being in love is an overall improvement. Even kissing can help make people healthier. Kissing burns calories; not as many as other forms of exercise, but those aren’t as much fun. Kissing helps lower blood pressure, fights calories, and even helps with headaches.

Depression And Allergies

More and more, researchers are starting to see a connection between allergies and depression. There is evidence of relationships in both directions, so allergies exacerbate depression, while depressive symptoms and affect make allergy symptoms worse. One study found that this connection is partly responsible for an uptick in suicides as winter turns into spring. Part of this is a hope that depression is merely seasonal being dashed—people tough it out through the winter but go into a decline when spring doesn’t bring improvement—but now it appears that allergens increasing in the springtime also bears on this phenomenon.

Depression is thought of as a mental illness, but the brain is part of the body, and there’s no bright line, medically speaking, between physical symptoms and mental ones. One place where this is apparent is allergic reactions causing depressive symptoms. Allergens are normally harmless substances, such as pollen, that trigger an immune response in people who are sensitive to them. Part of this immune response is inflammation. Inflammation can lead to a low feeling called dysthymia; this is why people who are sick feel awful. Dysthymia is also a symptom of depression. Some scientists have proposed that a hitherto underestimated cause of depression itself is inflammation due to allergy.

Meanwhile, stress is both a cause and an effect of depression. Depression can be a response, in part, to stress, but t can also increase it. Stress is also intimately bound up with the immune system The stress hormone cortisol temporarily suppresses the immune system, only for it to come back turned up after the stressor has passed. That means that stress, anxiety, and depression actually make allergic reactions worse, particularly on the second day. That means not only does stress directly lead to depression, it also increases depression as a result o the inflammation from an allergy attack.

In children, scientists have also found a genetic link between allergies and depression, as well as behavioral problems. While allergies themselves exacerbate depression, and allergies and depression alike are partly responsible for children misbehaving, there is evidence that genetics is behind a predisposition to allergies, a predisposition to depression, and a tendency to act out.

What Causes Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia, which affects an estimated 3 million people in the United States, is possibly the quintessential mental illness. The stereotypes people have of the mentally ill are symptoms of schizophrenia: disorganized speech reflecting disorganized thoughts, delusions of being persecuted or of being the victim of surveillance, and hallucinations, often of voices issuing disturbing commands. People with schizophrenia are typically socially isolated and unkempt, because the nature of the condition makes it difficult to have normal social interactions or maintain usual standards of dress and hygiene. Additionally, schizophrenia often includes difficulties with what is called "social cognition," meaning the ability to understand and follow the norms of society.

Lately, doctors and researchers have come to regard Schizophrenia as not a single condition but a group of related conditions with overlapping symptoms but different causes and etiologies. All forms generally begin to appear in late adolescence or early adulthood, starting with emotional flatness and social withdrawal. Genetics and environment both are factors in the development of schizophrenia. The roots of the condition appear to lie in the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate, along with other chemicals in the brain. Schizophrenic people have different brain structures from people without schizophrenia, but it is not known if the difference is causes schizophrenia or if the disease, along with whatever causes it, itself changes the structure of the brain.

Scientists have revised the estimates of the genetic effect on schizophrenia significantly downward in recent years. One study found that only in 15 percent of genetically identical twins did either both or neither twin exhibit signs of schizophrenia. At any rate, the effect is no more than a greater likelihood of developing the condition. Some people who are genetically prone to the condition seem, for various reasons, to be able to defeat that tendency. High intelligence, which is also the result of a combination of genes and environment, is correlated with a reduced schizophrenia risk; the line between madness and genius may not be as thin and easily crossed as is commonly claimed. It is suggested that environmental factors, such as trauma, that tend to lower intelligence also tend to promote schizophrenia.

Pets Are Great

More and more public health experts are recognizing the health benefits of pet ownership. People have had companion animals for thousands of years—one archaeological site from 12,000 years ago includes the remains of a person accompanied by remains of a dog. Today in the United States there are more than half as many pets as there are people, and around two in three households has at least one pet in residence. Only recently, however, have researchers begun to really understand how and why these pets are making people healthier and happier.

One thing pet ownership is good for is helping boost fitness. Walking the dog is a well-known source of exercise, to the point that veterinarians have had to warn joggers to beware of dragging their dogs faster than their four legs can carry them. However, even walking a a normal pace can help burn calories. Dog owners often have to do this to a certain extent, obviously, but beyond that, dog ownership can provide motivation to get out there, as well as alleviate the boredom that can so often dissuade people from just walking on their own.

Dog walking promotes heart health in other ways as well. Pet owners in general seem to have healthier cholesterol levels than non-owners, one study suggested. Petting a dog or cat has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Pets have a stress-lowering effect by their mere presence, to the point where certain dog breeds are trained as assistance dogs for people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. The unconditional love a dog or cat displays for its human can provide an important boost to self-esteem as well as alleviating loneliness, another way in which animals contribute to heart health. Pet owners who do have heart disease have been found to have higher survival rates.

Increasingly, animals are finding work helping people with chronic conditions, including mental health issues. "Seeing-eye dogs"—guide dogs for the visually impaired—are perhaps the most famous type of service animal, but there are actually a number of conditions for which dogs and other animals can be trained to provide assistance. Dogs have been shown to help with depression, anxiety, fatigue, and even pain.

Stopping Self Harm

Self harm, though rare, is all too common, particularly but not exclusively among teenagers. Self harm is the practice of intentionally causing injury, but without suicidal intention. Though cutting is perhaps the most common form, and certainly the paradigmatic one, there are a number of manifestations of self-injury, including scratching, hair-pulling, deliberate bruising, burning, poisoning, and preventing wounds from healing, either by itself or in combination with one of the others. Some experts classify eating disorders under the self harm umbrella. In fact, it is not uncommon for an individual to self harm in more than one way. Though often regarded as attention-seeing behavior, self harm is almost always kept hidden by those who do it, taking on aspects of a private ritual.

Self harm is related to mental illness, and is often associated with it. Though the practice is not generally an indicator of suicidal behavior, and the link is exaggerated in the public consciousness, both are associated with clinical depression. In addition, self harm often occurs with autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, and schizophrenia, among others. The urge to harm the self is often viewed as a means of exerting control over the environment; as such, people with obsessive-compulsive disorder often harm themselves. The practice is what some experts term socially contagious, in that people with friends who engage in it are more prone to do so themselves.

Having a friend or loved one who self injures can be scary. Parents need to resist the urge to yell, which can make things worse, or to confiscate equipment, which will only lead to greater ingenuity. Friends of a self-injurer, can help by acknowledging the pain while trying to steer the person towards a more productive coping strategy. Parents should do the same, but are likely to also be in a position to secure professional help for their child.

People who self injure and want to stop can find it difficult. It helps to create a strategy. By noticing events and situations that trigger the urge to harm, the self injurer can try to find ways to avoid those triggers. Finding distractions, or a less dangerous displacement activity, is also helpful. Other calming techniques—a bath, music, medication—can provide a better, safer substitute.

Mistakes People Make Losing Weight

For too many people happiness means thinness. These people believe that their weight is the only thing standing between them and fulfillment. While this can lead to unhealthy behavior, such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, it is also demonstrably not the case even if it is approached in a healthy manner. A study earlier this year of successful dieters—those who had lost more than five percent of their body weight—were physically healthier, but more prone to glumness. Another study found that women who exercised to lose weight were less happy than those who exercised out of a love of exercise. Both studies suggest that the emotional effort required for sustained self-control offset any mood benefits from being thinner.

Moreover, a lot of dieting techniques are less effective than they could be. The biggest example is probably counting calories. Calorie counting is intuitively the most direct way to lose weight—fewer calories, less fat. However, it’s not actually that simple. Eating fewer calories affects metabolism, meaning the body doesn’t burn calories as efficiently, and more of the calories consumed are retained. In addition, many people who try counting calories for weight loss are still counting too many of them; most people who are trying to lose weight overestimate their base metabolism, and thus the number of calories they should consume.

Diet foods, too, would seem to help dieters, but can actual hinder. Research has shown that people who eat diet foods actually consume more calories. That’s because the lower calorie count of each portion becomes, in the dieter’s subconscious, license to indulge in the foods more than they otherwise might. Instead, experts They compensate for the lower-calorie foods by eating larger portions of what is available.

Instead, experts say the better strategy is to eat smaller portions of ordinary food. Other strategies that can be helpful are to leave space for cheating. A person who insists on being perfect about sticking to the diet at all times will consider themselves doomed to failure after a single lapse. However, someone who knows that these things happen will see a lapse as an occasional thing that shouldn’t derail the grand plan.

Drug Abuse

It is difficult to establish how many people are affected by drug abuse. Drug users often do so in secret, and functional addicts may not be obvious to those around them. There is also an issue of definition—at what point is someone classified as an addict and at what point use becomes abuse are subject to debate. However, surveys have found that close to 10 percent of Americans age 12 and over use drugs, including unauthorized use of prescription medication, with 87 percent of them classified as addicts.

While the word "addiction" is often used to refer to a strong love or a habit, it has a narrower medical meaning. Drug addiction is a medical condition, and a drug addiction is more than just a drug use ritual or an inordinate fondness for them. Drug use certain can change the structure of the brain; in particular, the way it responds to stimuli. Eventually, rather than using the drug causing pleasure, the time between when the effects wear off and the next dose causes unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms, called withdrawal. At this point, the drug is used simply to eliminate these withdrawal symptoms.

Experts have noted that the concept of "drug abuse"—and the degree to which addiction is regarded as a problem—is tied into notions of "drug" and "abuse." Caffeine is, from a chemical and psychological perspective, a drug, and, from a neurological perspective, an addictive one. The feelings of being jittery and out of sorts before ones first cup of coffee are in part withdrawal symptoms. However, because it is legal practically everywhere, "caffeine addiction" is not regarded as abuse. On the other hand, regulated or illegal substances, such as cocaine, heroin, and crystal methamphetamine, are deemed drugs of abuse. Even marijuana, which is not addictive and generally considered less dangerous than alcohol, is considered subject to abuse, though alcohol is as well.

Turning Down Tourette Disorder

Most people think they know what Gilles de la Tourette syndrome is. However, the inappropriate and unprompted utterance of foul language, a symptom called coprolalia, that is the most characteristic symptom of the disease is not a common feature of the condition, let alone a necessary one. Tourette syndrome is actually primarily expressed in physical tics, repetitive movements compulsive such as eye blinks, face or hand movements, throat clearing, coughing, or sniffling. Though verbal tics are also part of the condition, these are far more often noises than bad words.

People with Tourette syndrome often also have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and there are some indications that the two conditions may be related. When the verbal tics are words—often, they are noises—those words seldom relate to the person’s thoughts at the time. However, the obsessive thoughts that commonly afflict people with OCD can come out in verbal tics of Tourette disorder, made all the worse by attempts to suppress them. While people with Tourette syndrome often have a limited ability to keep the tics under control for a short time, they often have the tics come back all the worse afterwords. However, most patients gradually learn to keep their symptoms more or less under control.

Tourette syndrome and OCD are often treated together, as treatment for the compulsive behavior will also help reduce the frequency or severity of tics. Mild cases of the condition can often be treated with therapy; for more severe cases, medication may be needed to help control the symptoms. As with ADHD, stimulant medications may be a counter-intuitively effective treatment option that can provide some relief. Botox injections in the relevant muscles won’t do much to stop the impulses behind motor tics, but the injection can stop the tics themselves. Medications to block the neurotransmitter dopamine do lessen those impulses.

Another chemical in the brain that seems to be involved with Tourette syndrome is gamma amino-butyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter related to anxiety. Electrical brain stimulation has been proposed to help regulate GABA, increasing levels of the chemical to turn down the movements and tics of Tourette syndrome.

Stuttering And Stigma

It is estimated that 70 million people worldwide stutter when they speak—not a momentary pause or repetition as they organize their thoughts, but a chronic, ongoing difficulty with the flow of their speech. That means repeating sounds, prolonging sounds, or unnatural, unneeded, and unintended pauses between syllables and words. Almost all children speak this way when they’re first learning, but about one percent of the time, it does not resolve itself. Stuttering can interfere with clear communication, and what’s more, the embarrassment it can cause may lead people to avoid talking, which in turn means avoiding social and professional situations that require speaking in front of others, which can seriously hold people who stutter back in their lives and careers.

The good news is that recent research shows preschoolers who stutter actually do better in school, and academically and socially. Although speech therapy is recommended for older children who stutter, it is not considered necessary for very young children, according to the study, and may even be harmful. Instead, the researchers recommend waiting a full year before starting the child in speech therapy in most cases. The exceptions are if the child exhibits distress at stuttering or shows unusual shyness or reluctance to talk as a result. It is also important for parents not to shame or stigmatize the child for stuttering, which itself may cause distress.

That can be difficult for parents who themselves remember stutter and feeling stigmatized for it. Indeed, stuttering has been found to have a genetic component, in that a predisposition to develop a stutter is passed down in the genes. Sometimes, particularly in people genetically prone to stuttering, stress can trigger it. In the past, left-handed children were frequently forced to use their right hands, and this often led to a stutter developing.

Regardless of the cause, stuttering is treatable, even if not wholly curable. Speech therapy can lead to noticeable improvement in fluency at any age. Often, it is a vicious cycle—stutterers experience stress when speaking, which exacerbates the stutter—and the most effective therapy has as its goal breaking that cycle. Support groups are particularly good for this. As fear of stuttering recedes, the stutter itself lessens.