Posts tagged ‘news stories’
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.
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.
According to an article published on the blogsite She Knows, “a Boston-based company that manages mental health care for 40 million people, has opened a small clinic in a Walmart location in Carrollton, Texas, and has plans to expand the program in other retail locations throughout the country.”
And I don’t know whether to vomit or applaud.
Walmart’s ubiquity is one point in its favor. They’re everywhere. And for some people, whether they love or despise Walmart, it’s the only choice they have for groceries, household goods, or much of anything else. Those areas are also likely to be underserved by the mental health system, such as it is.
And sparse as the options offered by the Walmart walk-in clinics is – treatment for anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, and stress management – it’s more than a lot of people have access to now. The trial site is said to be staffed with one licensed clinical social worker, has a sliding fee scale for those with no insurance, and will soon be approved for Medicaid reimbursement (it is hoped). There will even be remote Skype therapy services if necessary.
All that is good, as far as it goes. But does it go far enough? Will people be able to get more than a pat on the head and a pep talk as they do their weekly or monthly shopping? How will the walk-in clinic handle referrals for people with serious mental illness or a need for psychotropic medication, something that clinical social workers can’t provide? How many people can get help from a single professional? How good is internet therapy? And what percentage of Walmart shoppers have access to the internet?
The walk-in clinics are touted as reducing stigma around mental health issues. After all, the thought is, getting your mental health services at Walmart will become as natural as getting a haircut or an eye exam there. Well, maybe. On the other hand, how many people are willing to have their friends and neighbors see them publically, sitting in the waiting room or ducking surreptitiously through the door? It seems to me it might perpetuate stigma, rather than lessening it.
Besides, Walmart is hardly a bastion of high-quality goods and services. Will the mental health services be second-rate as well? It could be that even second-rate care is better than no care at all. But it’s surely not enough to deal with issues that require long-term therapy with actual treatment plans; scheduled repeat visits; building a relationship with a particular therapist; access to medications; and all the other aspects of more effective treatment, especially considering complicated disorders like bipolar, OCD, or anorexia.
I fully admit that I hate Walmart – the way they have driven out local Mom and Pop stores, for example, and the way they treat their employees. But I have many choices of where to shop near where I live, and access to both therapists and psychiatrists, and insurance that covers my appointments and medications. If I weren’t looking through the lens of privilege, I might see things a lot differently.
So for now, I guess my attitude is to wait and see. One test location does not a Walmart Psych Empire make. Perhaps it will succeed; perhaps not. Perhaps it will become the Great Clips of the psychotherapy world.
But while I’m waiting, I’m hot holding my breath.
Imagine my surprise to learn that tech companies are now doing what so many of our public institutions aren’t, and devising possible solutions to assorted mental health problems. Stat reported (in their Business section) that now:
with an influx of funding, companies are revamping pills with digital sensors, designing virtual reality worlds to treat addiction and other conditions, and building chatbots for interactive therapy.
But are these techno-wonders likely to be any help? Let’s take the innovations in reverse order, shall we?
Chatbots. We already have remote counselors, which may be a godsend for people with no access to mental health clinics (although they charge a fee, which may be prohibitive for some). I’ve never investigated this service, so maybe some of you who have can tell me how they work and how well.
Remote counselors rely on already existing technology, however, and are therefore not of interest to tech innovators (or potential funders). Chatbots are something else. They are, essentially, computers that respond to human input with output that is supposed to simulate human responses.
To my knowledge, no computer has ever passed the “Turing Test,” which means that a person has no idea whether they’re chatting with a real person or a computer. A psych computer is likely to respond with generic responses such as, “Why do you feel angry with your sister?” “What do you mean when you say anxiety?” “Explain how depression affects you,” and “Tell me more about your mother.” The supposed AI is in no way trained in psychology or any therapeutic techniques.
One company that received funding for “telepsychiatry” (called Regroup Therapy and Woebot Labs) brands their idea as “Your charming robot friend who is ready to listen, 24/7.” Admittedly, many persons with mental health issues need someone who’ll listen, but that’s far from all they need.
Virtual reality for addiction (and other conditions). Startup Limbix wants to sell its programs to therapists and clinics. According to Stat,
Among the company’s VR programs is an exposure therapy for patients with phobias or trauma associated with driving. While patients strap on the headset, clinicians can work with them to introduce different conditions (a clear or rainy day) or different road situations (a bridge or a tunnel or blind left turns).
This sounds promising, though the cost of VR headsets and the programming for various conditions again might be prohibitive for your average community or campus or rural mental health clinic. I’m not clear on how it would work for addiction, unless combined with aversion therapy, which is generally brutal.
Pills with digital sensors. Aren’t psychotropic medications already too expensive, especially for people who have no insurance? Now we need technological pills that must make a profit for both drug and tech companies?
And what a pill they’re talking about. Basically, it’s a pill that rats you out if you don’t take it, or rather alerts your doctor when you do take it. Presumably, your doctor has enough staff to monitor whether clients take the pills and record it if they don’t. Then what? A robocall telling you to take your meds? A visit from a social worker?
Admittedly, such low-jacked pills might have a place in situations where schizophrenics are court-ordered to take their medication, but again there is the problem of what to do about non-compliance.
Another company plans to sell “a cardiac drug meant to be popped like a mint to people anxious about public speaking and first dates.” Would people need prescriptions for those, or will they be dispensed like Tic-Tacs? Even anti-anxiety drugs aren’t meant to be “popped like a mint.” And a cardiac drug? I can’t see any possible downside there.
If only the ingenuity and investment that goes into these products were instead available to fund and repair the shaky mental health system instead. What we need are more psychiatrists and therapists, more hospital beds for psych patients, less expensive drugs, better insurance, more education for the public about mental illness, and an end to stigma.
But those would require systemic reform and political backing, not just some new-fangled gadget. And good luck getting investors for those.