Nearly 40,000 people a year die by suicide in the United States alone. Each of these deaths leaves an estimated six or more “suicide survivors” — people who’ve lost someone they care about deeply and are left grieving and struggling to understand. The grief process is always difficult. But a loss through suicide is like no other, and grieving can be especially complex and traumatic. People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others, but may get less. Why? Survivors may be reluctant to confide that the death was self-inflicted. And when others know the circumstances of the death, they may feel uncertain about how to offer help.
Anxiety and Depression
Antidepressant medications have helped millions of people cut through the dark fog of depression. Many others try these medications but stop taking them, often because of side effects such as weight gain. A new Harvard-based study, one of the largest and longest studies of the connection between antidepressant use and weight so far, shows that the amount gained is usually small, and that it differs little from one antidepressant to another. Using citalopram as a reference, because earlier studies suggested that it is “average” when it comes to weight gain, bupropion was associated with the least amount of weight gain, close to none. Two others that also appeared to have relatively less weight gain were amitriptyline and nortriptyline. At the other end of the spectrum, citalopram caused the most weight gain. Even so, the differences between the drugs was small. The results of the study were published online this week in JAMA Psychiatry.
Many people practice meditation in hopes of staving off stress and stress-related health problems, even though the evidence for doing so is spotty. A new study that analyzed the results of nearly 50 solid clinical trials of meditation shows that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. One way it does this is by training you to experience anxious thoughts or stresses in completely different and less emotionally disturbing ways. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, is now widely available in cities throughout the United States. You can also learn it yourself from books or online recordings. Or try this short meditation, from the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
For many people, a late-night “snack” is a daily habit. There are two types of nighttime eating disorders. Sleep-related eating disorder is a highly-publicized though uncommon malady. People with this problem eat while sleepwalking or while in a twilight state between sleep and wakefulness. A better-documented problem is night eating syndrome, in which people do the majority of their eating late at night. It may affect 1 or 2 out of 100 people in the general population. Sleeping and eating are almost certainly connected, given the link between lack of sleep and weight gain. So getting plenty of sleep may be a helpful substitute for nighttime trips to the refrigerator. Being mindful of the problem and trying to identify its triggers, or stress-reduction techniques, may help avert trips to the refrigerator. Some people benefit from talk therapy.
Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems arise when something goes wrong with brain function. What causes that malfunction is an open question. A new study from Denmark suggests that a serious infection or autoimmune disease could trigger a mood disorder. How might an infection or autoimmune disorder lead to a mood or other mental health disorder? Infection causes localized and body-wide inflammation. Inflammation generates substances called cytokines that have been shown to change how brain cells communicate. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s defense system attacks healthy tissues rather than threatening invaders. It’s possible that in some cases the wayward immune reaction could target brain cells and other nerve cells throughout the body.
The bombs that exploded on Monday near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people, physically injured nearly 200 others, and traumatized thousands more. Recovery and healing are beginning for the families of those who died, for the injured and their families, and for others touched by this tragedy. For some, healing will be swift. For others it will be measured in small steps over months, and possibly years. The Marathon explosions will leave a legacy of emotional scars along with the physical ones, even among those who weren’t anywhere near the blasts. Some people who were at the scene of the explosions will undoubtedly develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But PTSD is not the only response to frightening events. In fact, most people exposed to a trauma do not develop this condition. They may develop an anxiety disorder, for example, or become depressed. Most people do have some emotional response, but the majority develop no illness at all.
Five seemingly different mental health disorders—major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—may be more alike than we think. A ground-breaking new study has identified four regions of the genetic code that carry same variations in people with these disorders. Two of the affected genes help control the movement of calcium in and out of brain cells. That might not sound like much, but this movement provides a key way that brain cells communicate. Subtle differences in calcium flow could cause problems that, depending on other genes or environmental factors, could eventually lead to a full-blown mental illness. But this work offers tantalizing hints that bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia—and possibly autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder—may not be so distinct after all, but could be different manifestations of the same underlying disorder. This could change the way we view mental illness and open the door to more effective therapies.
People tend to think that the telltale sign of depression is sadness—a pervasive down, dragging feeling that won’t let up, day after day. But depression often manifests itself as something else entirely—like aches and pains or memory lapses. These “unusual” symptoms are actually quite common. They can mask depression—and delay an important diagnosis—especially in older people, who often display their depression in ways other than sadness. These include trouble sleeping, lack of energy, fatigue, trouble concentrating or remembering, loss of appetite, and aches and pains that don’t go away. If you have one or more of these symptoms that can’t be traced to an illness or ailment, a frank talk with a trusted doctor about the possibility of depression might be a good step forward.
December 21st marks the shortest daytime of the year in the northern hemisphere. Although the winter solstice marks a seasonal turning point, with daylight getting incrementally longer from here until June 21, for people with seasonal affective disorder it’s just another day of feeling lousy. People with this condition lose steam when the days get shorter and the nights longer. Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include loss of pleasure and energy, feelings of worthlessness, inability to concentrate, and uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate foods. Although they fade with the arrival of spring, seasonal affective disorder can leave you overweight, out of shape, and with strained relationships and employment woes. A unique approach to this problem is the use of light therapy. It involves sitting near a special lamp that emits bright light for 30 minutes a day as soon after waking up as possible.
Therapy dogs provide comfort and support. They must be social, gentle, and enjoy getting and giving physical affection. My therapy dog, Maps, has those qualities in spades. They also must be well behaved and respond to their handlers, neither of which applied to Map when I got him as a puppy. After many therapy dog classes and a lot of practice, we learned. After two years of training, Map became a certified therapy dog. He shines when he is in his blue training coat visiting a preschool. He loves to see the kids and to work with me. How does Map help kids? His presence somehow lets children open up to learning. He offers kids a way to feel more whole in the face of physical illness or disability. He can also help children heal from emotional pain. Like any great therapist, Map knows how to listen and how to help children help themselves.