Dr. Sarah Ravin - Psychologist | Eating Disorders |Body Image Issues | Depression | Anxiety | Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders | Self-Injury
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Dr. Sarah Ravin

Welcome to my professional blog. I am a Florida Licensed Psychologist and trained scientist-practitioner. In 2008, I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology. A major component of my professional identity is staying informed about recent developments in the field so that I may provide my clients with scientifically sound information and evidence-based treatment. There is a plethora of information on the internet about Eating Disorders, Depression, Anxiety, Psychotherapy. Unfortunately, much of this information is unsubstantiated and some of it is patently false. It is my hope that by sharing my thoughts and opinions on psychological issues, with scientific research and clinical experience sprinkled in for good measure, I can help to bridge the gap between research and treatment.

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Bipolar Disorder Category

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Let’s Get Physical: Exercise in the Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders

As the Olympic Winter Games are commencing tomorrow in Sochi, I feel inspired to write about the role of physical activity in mental health. This post will focus specifically on exercise in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise improves mood in people with mild to moderate depression. For those with severe depression or bipolar disorder, exercise alone is rarely sufficient, but exercise can play an adjunct role in helping patients recover and prevent relapse.

We know from Newton’s law of motion that an object at rest stays at rest unless a force acts upon it, and an object in motion stays in motion unless some force makes it stop. The same is true for human bodies. Paradoxically, sedentary people tend to have less energy and active people tend to have more.

Now, of course this begs the question of the chicken or the egg – it is likely that people become sedentary because they have little energy or stay active because they have a surplus. This is true. People seem to have “set points” for activity level just as they do for weight and mood. That being said, physical activity has an almost immediate effect on mood and energy level. Over time, consistent exercise helps to stabilize moods, improve sleep, reduce stress, and enhance motivation to continue moving.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage my patients who suffer from mood disorders or anxiety disorders to exercise regularly. In my opinion, exercise is every bit as important as therapy, medication, and sleep when it comes to mood and anxiety disorders.

As I have emphasized in previous posts, the mind is a series of conscious functions carried out by the brain, and the brain is part of the body. Physical health and mental health are one in the same. Despite what society, popular wisdom, and health insurance companies may tell us, there is no actual difference between a physical illness and a mental one. When you exercise your body, you are exercising your brain.

Unlike therapy or medication, exercise is cheap or even free. Unlike medication, which can have unpleasant or dangerous side effects, exercise is generally safe so long as you do it sensibly and moderately. Unlike therapy, which requires another person and an appointment, exercise can be done alone if you choose at a time that suits your schedule. Unlike therapy, which is typically one-on-one and indoors, exercise can be enjoyed inside or outside with your family, friends, classmates, or teammates.

Numerous times, I have been amazed at how much exercise improves my patients’ mental health. This is especially true for people who have historically been sedentary and embark on a new exercise routine as part of their treatment plan. For example, I am working with a 15-year-old girl whom I’ll call Elsa who suffered from severe depression and crippling anxiety. When I met Elsa last year, she hated exercise and barely had the energy to get out of bed. After months of encouraging her to try different enjoyable physical activities, she finally started biking with her mom and jogging with her neighbor. She is now in full remission from her depression, making excellent progress in tackling her anxiety, and training for her first 5K. She now wakes up at 7:00 am with plenty of energy and really enjoys exercising. I am so proud of her.

One of the more challenging aspects of incorporating exercise into a patient’s treatment plan is that sometimes the mental illness itself is part of the reason why the patient is inactive. Depressed people tend to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They feel unmotivated and chronically exhausted. Clearly, it is a challenge for them to do essential things like get dressed and go to school, let alone something “extra” and “optional” like exercise.

For these patients, I use a behavioral technique called behavioral activation. Here’s how it works: we agree upon a small, realistic exercise goal such as walking for 10 minutes three evenings a week. [Elsa’s initial idea was to do the Insanity DVDs she saw on an infomercial. Given that she hadn’t exercised in years, I told her that this idea was, frankly, insane, and I suggested something more moderate.] I have the patient choose an activity they enjoy (or at least one that they don’t hate) and a time of day when they’re likely to follow through (for example, not at 5:00 AM if they aren’t a morning person).

When possible and feasible, I encourage patients to exercise socially by attending a class, joining a sports team, taking lessons, or doing something active outdoors with their families. We make this activity part of their weekly schedule, writing it down (or, often, putting it in their smart phone) as if it were any other appointment or commitment. Most of the time, the patient achieves their initial goal because it is small, realistic, specific, and planned.

Achieving this initial exercise goal creates a feeling of success and personal satisfaction and enhances the person’s motivation to keep going. In addition, they experience a bit of a mood boost from the activity itself. Once the patient achieves the initial exercise goal, it is increased a little bit in frequency or duration.

Using the example above, the patient may walk for 20 minutes during the second week and 30 minutes during the third week. This gradual increase in frequency and duration continues for a number of weeks or months. Eventually, the patient has incorporated regular exercise into her lifestyle. The stress reduction, mood enhancement, and improvement in fitness level enhance her internal motivation to continue exercising.

Anxiety can also interfere with a patient’s plans to exercise. Many people who experience panic attacks are afraid of the physical sensations that result from exercise (rapid breathing, increased heartbeat, sweating), which closely resemble those of a panic attack.

Patients who have social anxiety may shy away from joining sports teams, taking dance classes, or going to gyms because they worry about being judged or making a fool of themselves. For example, Elsa had enjoyed dance classes and swimming in elementary school but later became socially anxious and self-conscious about wearing a leotard or swimsuit in front of her peers. For this reason, she chose to do biking and jogging which did not require such revealing attire. And now, for the record, Elsa does wear a swimsuit with only mild anxiety when she goes to the beach or the pool with her friends. Did I mention how proud of her I am?

For patients with eating disorders, exercise is altogether a different story. That will be the topic of my next blog post.

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Sleep and Mood Disorders: Implications for Mental Health Care

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone. Well-rested bodies and brains are healthier, more resilient, and more energetic. For those with depression and other mood disorders, getting plenty of sleep must be a priority. In fact, research has demonstrated that people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression than those who get sufficient sleep. Further, new research has shown that sleep disturbances can trigger psychiatric illnesses in those who are vulnerable.

Sleep is every bit as important as medication and therapy in the treatment of mood disorders. For this reason, I make a point of discussing and monitoring sleep patterns with my patients, and I integrate sleep hygiene into their treatment plans.

A recent study financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in The New York Times found that a psychological treatment called CBT-I (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) doubled the effectiveness of antidepressant medication in the treatment of depression.

This was not surprising to me. I was trained in CBT in graduate school and I have seen cognitive-behavioral techniques work wonders in many of my patients. But the implications of this study, and the fact that the results have made it into the popular media, are quite significant.

One of the most disturbing and unfortunate trends in mental health care in recent years has been the overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underuse of behavioral and psychological interventions. This trend is especially bothersome to me because I am keenly aware – thanks to my training and experience as a psychologist – that certain evidence-based psychological treatments are as effective, if not more effective, than medication for treating certain illnesses.

Unfortunately, most people outside the field of psychology don’t know this. Americans are bombarded daily with advertisements for psychotropic medication on television, online, and in print. It’s only natural, then, that consumers who are suffering from depression or anxiety would request medications from their doctors, even when they have a problem that can be successfully treated by other means.

Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means anti-medication. I am thankful that we have effective, relatively safe medications on the market now that can help people effectively manage serious illnesses which were once disabling. Indeed, psychotropic medication can be extremely helpful – even life-saving – for many people. My concern is that psychotropic medications are prescribed too frequently to people who may not need them, often without the necessary monitoring, and often without the corresponding psychological and behavioral interventions that have been proven effective.

As a psychologist who practices said psychological and behavioral interventions, rather than a psychiatrist who prescribes said medications, am I biased? Well, obviously. I believe in what I do and I chose this profession for a reason. But still.

My hope is that, with articles such as this one, the general public will learn that evidence-based psychological treatments exist which can reduce their suffering and improve their quality of life. I would like people to be fully informed about their options when it comes to mental health treatment. I look forward to the day when people experiencing psychiatric symptoms routinely ask their primary care physicians for referrals to psychologists who practice evidence-based treatments, rather than, or in addition to, asking for prescriptions.

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Monday, November 4th, 2013

Summary of Treatment Outcomes

My blog posts from June through November 2013 have been devoted to describing my patients’ treatment outcomes. I’ve been advised that my recent posts have been too data-heavy and too detailed, but hey – that’s how I roll. I like to be thorough, meticulous, and transparent. Prospective patients and their families deserve to have access to this information. But for those who prefer brevity, I’ve summarized my treatment outcomes below. Click on the headings in bold for details.


Fifty-seven percent of my former patients with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) completed treatment. Of the “treatment completers,” 94% reached full remission and the remaining 6% reached physical remission. Patients required, on average, 28 sessions over the course of 17 months to complete treatment.

Forty-three percent of my former patients with AN did not complete treatment with me. Of the “treatment non-completers,” 23% were referred to other treatment settings which could better meet their needs; 15% moved to other geographic locations during treatment and thus were referred for treatment near their new homes; and the remaining 62% dropped out of treatment prematurely.


Thirty-three percent of my former patients with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) completed treatment. One-hundred percent of those who completed treatment reached full remission. On average, patients took 15 sessions over the course of 10 months to complete treatment. Amongst patients with BN, 44% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely. For patients with EDNOS, 17% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely.


Twenty-nine percent of patients my former patients with primary diagnoses of mood disorders completed treatment. Of the patients who completed treatment, 83% achieved full remission and the remaining 17% made significant progress. On average, patients took approximately 23 sessions over the course of 11 months to complete treatment.

Thirty-eight percent of mood disorder patients quit treatment prematurely, 24% were referred to other treatment providers who could better meet their needs, and 9% moved to other geographic locations during their treatment and were referred for treatment near their new homes.


All of my former patients with primary diagnoses of anxiety disorders who attended more than two sessions experienced substantial improvement in anxiety symptoms as well as significant improvement in functioning, even if they did not complete a full course of treatment. Patients with anxiety disorders attended an average of 10 sessions over the course of 6 months.

Amongst those who completed a full course of treatment, 75% achieved full remission and the remaining 25% made significant progress.

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Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Correlates of Treatment Outcome for Patients With Mood Disorders

In my last blog post, I described end-of treatment outcomes for patients with mood disorders. Here, I will elaborate on factors that were correlated with treatment outcome for these patients. Please be advised that these results are specific to my practice and my patients, and should not necessarily be generalized to other clinicians or populations.

Diagnosis
Type of mood disorder diagnosis was strongly correlated with treatment outcome. Patients with Depressive Disorder NOS (DDNOS; n = 3) fared best. Two-thirds of these patients (n = 2) completed treatment and achieved full remission. The remaining one-third (n = 1) attended treatment for two months and made significant progress before quitting prematurely.

Patients with Mood Disorder NOS (MDNOS; n = 4) had varying outcomes. Half of them (n = 2) completed treatment; of these, one achieved full remission and the other made significant progress. Of the remaining MDNOS patients, one quit prematurely after making some progress and the other regressed and was referred to a higher level of care.

Both of the patients in this sample with Dysthymic Disorder also had a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). For statistical purposes, I am subsuming these individuals under the category of MDD, as that is the more severe of the two diagnoses. Patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD; n = 11) had varying outcomes. Eighteen percent (n = 2) completed treatment and achieved full remission; 9% (n = 1) quit treatment after making significant progress; 45% (n = 5) either quit treatment or moved away after making some progress; and 27% (n = 3) were referred to other providers.

The presence of both dysthymic disorder and MDD (n = 2) did not have a consistent impact on treatment outcome – one of these individuals completed treatment and achieved full remission, while the other regressed and was referred to a higher level of care.

None of the patients with bipolar disorder (n = 3) completed treatment or achieved full remission. However, one of the patients with bipolar disorder remained in treatment for over a year and made significant progress, but was eventually referred to another treatment provider to address other treatment needs.

Comorbidity
Presence of a co-morbid diagnosis was a negative prognostic factor. Only 18% (n = 2) of the patients with comorbid disorders completed treatment, and only 9% (n = 1) achieved full remission, while the remaining 9% (n = 1) made significant progress. In contrast, 40% (n = 4) of patients without a comorbid diagnosis completed treatment, and all of these patients achieved full remission.

Medication
Patients who did not take psychiatric medication during treatment with me were more likely to make progress in treatment and more likely to achieve remission than those who took psychiatric medication. All of the patients who did not take medication (n = 8) made at least some progress in treatment. In contrast, 30% of those who took medication either made no progress (n = 2) or regressed (n = 2) during treatment. Half of the patients who did not take medication (n = 4) achieved remission by the end of treatment, compared to 8% (n = 1) of those who took medication.

My hypothesis is that patients who took medication had poorer outcomes not because their medication didn’t work or made them worse, but rather because taking medication is confounded with severity of mood disorder and with comorbidity. In other words, those with more severe mood disorders and/or comorbid conditions were more likely to require medication in order to function, whereas those with mild to moderate mood disorders were less likely to need medication.

Age and Family Involvement
Younger age was a significant predictor of treatment completion. Patients who completed treatment ranged in age from 16 – 29, with an average age of 19.7. Those who did not complete treatment ranged in age from 12 – 59, with an average age of 28.6.

Being under 18 years old was a protective factor. None of the adolescents under 18 quit treatment prematurely. Of the 6 adolescents in this sample, 50% (n = 3) completed treatment and attained full remission, 33% (n = 2) were referred to other treatment settings after a year or more of treatment with me due to other needs, and the remaining 16% (n = 1) engaged in treatment as a 17-year-old and made some progress, but quit shortly after his 18th birthday. I suspect that the high level of parental involvement that I require for adolescent patients is the primary reason why they are likely to remain in treatment and have positive outcomes. In addition, younger patients tend to have shorter duration of illness compared to adult patients, and early intervention is also predictive of positive outcome.

For patients over 18, family involvement often included spouses and significant others instead of parents, based on the patient’s living situation and relationship status. Sixty percent (n = 9) of the patients over 18 in this sample had no family involvement whatsoever, 27% (n = 4) had a low level of family involvement, and 13% (n = 2) had a moderate level of family involvement. None of the patients over 18 had a high level of family involvement.

Importantly, amongst the adults in this sample, family involvement was not necessary in order to make progress in treatment or attain remission. None of the adults who attained full remission (n = 2) had family members involved in their treatment. Likewise, 67% (n = 2) of the adults who made significant progress in treatment had a low level of family involvement and 33% (n = 1) had no family involvement at all.

None of the patients over age 30 (n = 5) completed treatment. I hypothesize that there are several reasons for this: 1.) Older patients had a longer duration of illness, which means that their illness was more entrenched and more difficult to treat; 2.) The majority of these patients (80%; n = 4) had no family support at all; 3.) All of these older patients paid reduced rates for my services, which indicates that they were of lower socio-economic status, and which may suggest that they value my services less than those who pay full price; 4.) I saw all of these patients during my post-doctoral year, when I was less experienced and not yet fully licensed. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the quality of my services was somewhat lower back then than it is now that I am fully licensed and more experienced; and 5.) I prefer working with child and adolescent patients and find that I tend to be more effective with them. For these reasons, particularly #5, I no longer treat adult patients beyond their mid-twenties.

Gender
Average duration of treatment was comparable for males and females (6.8 months vs 7.4 months, respectively). Rates of remission were similar between males and females. Twenty percent (n = 1) of males completed treatment and achieved remission, compared with 25% (n = 4) of females. However, amongst those who did not achieve remission, females were more likely to make significant progress than males. Twenty-five percent (n = 4) of females made significant progress, compared with none of the males.

Hospitalization
Hospitalization during treatment with me predicted regression in treatment. Of the patients who were hospitalized during treatment with me, 67% (n = 2) had regressed by the end of their treatment with me. In contrast, none of the patients who were not hospitalized during treatment had regressed as of their final session with me.

I hypothesize that patients who remained out of the hospital during treatment with me were responding well to treatment, which would explain why they were more likely to achieve remission or at least make significant progress. In contrast, being hospitalized during treatment may have been an indication that the patient was not responding well to treatment, which explains why they were likely regressed as of their last session with me.

Surprisingly, history of hospitalization before entering treatment with me was not related to outcome. Of the 8 patients who had been hospitalized previously, 25% (n = 2) achieved remission, 25% (n = 2) made significant progress, 38% (n = 3) made some progress, and only 12% (n = 1) regressed in treatment with me. These percentages are comparable to those of the 13 patients who had not been hospitalized before beginning treatment with me: 23% (n = 3) achieved remission, 15% (n = 2) made significant progress, 38% (n = 5) made some progress, 15% made no progress, and 8% (n = 1) regressed.

I would have suspected that history of hospitalization would be confounded with illness severity, and therefore would predict poor treatment outcome. However, it is possible that the individuals who had been hospitalized before entering treatment with me had not been given appropriate outpatient treatment, hence the escalation of illness need for hospitalization. Perhaps these patients were able to benefit from their treatment with me, and it is possible that, in some cases, hospitalization could have been avoided if they had received effective outpatient treatment sooner.

Attendance at Therapy Sessions
Attendance at therapy sessions was correlated with treatment retention as well as treatment outcome. Sixty-seven percent (n = 4) of those who completed treatment attended all of their appointments, while the remaining 33% (n = 2) had only one missed appointment. Eighty percent of patients who attained full remission (n = 4) had perfect attendance in therapy; the remaining 20% (n = 1) missed only one appointment. None of the patients who missed more than one appointment completed treatment or achieved full remission.

I suspect this relates to the old adage: “You get out of it what you put into it.” A patient who frequently misses appointments probably places little value on their mental health, which may explain why they tended to drop out of treatment prematurely. Those who were diligent about their treatment prioritized their mental health and worked hard in therapy. Those who were conscientious and responsible about attendance were, most likely, conscientious and responsible about completing therapy homework, taking their medication consistently, and making positive life choices in general. Thus, it is natural that these individuals had better treatment outcomes.

Fee for Services
Payment of full fee for services was a predictor of treatment completion and achieving full remission. Sixty-seven percent of patients (n = 2) who paid my full rate completed treatment, compared with only 22% of patients (n = 4) who paid a reduced rate. Given that so few patients in this sample paid my full rate (n = 3), it is difficult to draw any conclusions about how these individuals differ from those who pay a lower rate.

However, in my practice, the correlation between payment of full services and better treatment outcome has been consistent across diagnoses, regardless of the number of clients in the sample. As I have noted in recent posts, individuals who pay lower fees are, by definition, of lower socio-economic status (SES). These individuals may have more financial stressors than those of higher SES, and may have other life obstacles in general (limited access to healthcare, transportation difficulties, unemployment, single parent families) which interfered with their ability to progress in treatment.

In addition, those who pay reduced rates were much more likely than those who pay full rate to no-show for sessions or to cancel at the last minute. This finding suggests to me that, on average, individuals who paid reduced fees placed less personal value on their sessions, had less respect for my time, did not prioritize their recovery, and/or were generally irresponsible, compared with individuals who paid full rate.

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Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders

Since opening my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 30 patients with mood disorders. Former patients who attended at least one treatment session with me following their evaluation were included in this sample. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample. As you read, please bear in mind that these data are specific to my practice and my patients, and should not be generalized to other therapists or other patient populations.

The 21 patients in this sample had a range of different mood disorder diagnoses. The most common diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder (43%; n = 9). Other mood disorder diagnoses included Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (19%; n = 4), Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (14%; n = 3), Bipolar Disorder (14%; n = 3), and Dysthymia (10%; n = 2). Approximately one quarter of the sample (24%) was male.

Patients ranged in age from 12 to 59, with a median age of 21. Most of these patients had been suffering from their mood disorder for years before beginning treatment with me, and most had received some sort of psychological or psychiatric treatment in the past. Duration of illness prior to intake ranged from 1 month to 35 years, with an average duration of 8.4 years. These figures reflect the length of time since symptoms began, which is usually substantially earlier than diagnosis.

Many mood disorders, such as Major Depressive Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, tend to be episodic, characterized by periods of remission and periods of relapse. Thus, the “duration of illness prior to treatment” figures reflect the total length of time from the onset of first symptoms to the initial session with me. Many patients had periods of mild or absent symptoms and good functioning in between mood disorder episodes.

Most of the patients in this sample had relatively severe forms of mood disorders. Thirty-eight percent of them (n = 8) had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt, suicidal gesture, or related psychiatric issue prior to beginning treatment with me, and many of these individuals had been hospitalized multiple times. Fourteen percent of patients (n = 3) had to be hospitalized during the course of their treatment with me.

This sample was ethnically diverse, comprised of 43% White Hispanic, 43% White Non-Hispanic, 10% multi-racial, and 4% Black Hispanic. The majority of patients in this sample (86%; n = 18) paid a reduced fee for my services; only 14% (n = 3) paid my full rate. Thus, most of these patients were of lower socio-economic status and/or were college students responsible for supporting themselves.

Approximately half of the sample (52%; n = 11) had a comorbid psychiatric disorder. The most common comorbid diagnoses were Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (14%; n = 3) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (14%; n = 3).

The patients in this sample received various types of treatment, depending on their age and symptoms. Nearly half of the patients in this sample (48%; n = 10) received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Patients whose illnesses were characterized by impulsivity and self-harm received a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills-based approach (38%; n = 8). Patients with milder symptoms and social difficulties received supportive counseling focused on self-care and interpersonal relationships (14%; n = 3). Sixty-two percent of patients (n = 13) were also seeing a psychiatrist and taking psychotropic medication during their treatment with me.

The level of family involvement in a patient’s treatment varied based upon his or her age, symptoms, and preferences as well as logistics. In this sample, 43% (n = 9) of patients had no family involvement, 19% (n = 4) had a low level of family involvement, 19% (n = 4) had a moderate level of family involvement, and 19% (n = 4) had a high level of family involvement.

I require the parents of all patients under 18 to be fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment. Therefore, all patients under 18 in this sample had moderate to high degrees of family involvement in treatment. This means that the patient’s parents participated fully in the evaluation and treatment planning, and participated in a portion of most therapy sessions (e.g., the last 10 minutes of each session) for the purposes of providing feedback, setting goals, and evaluating progress. These parents also had regular access to me via phone and email for the purpose of sharing information about their child and asking questions. For patients over age 18, family members were involved as appropriate, as needed, and as requested by the patient. For example, many college-aged patients had parents involved in their treatment, particularly when it came to issues of psychiatric consultation and hospitalization.

Patients in this sample attended between 1 and 96 sessions, with a mean of 19 sessions. Duration of treatment ranged from 1 month and 39 months, with a mean duration of 7 months. In other words, the typical mood disorder patient attended 19 sessions over the course of 7 months.

Twenty-nine percent of patients (n = 6) completed treatment and 38% (n = 8) quit treatment prematurely. I referred twenty-four percent of patients (n = 5) to other treatment providers who could better meet their needs, and 9% of patients (n = 2) moved to other geographic locations during their treatment and were referred to other providers near their new homes.

Patients who completed treatment attended between 1 and 96 sessions, with an average of 23 sessions. Duration of treatment for those who completed treatment ranged from 1 to 39 months, with an average duration of 11 months. Thus, it typically took approximately 23 sessions over the course of 11 months to complete treatment.

Each patient was given an end-of-treatment rating which describes their state as of their final session with me, regardless of the reason why treatment ended.

• Patients were classified as being in “full remission” if they had not experienced any symptoms of their mood disorder within the past two weeks, and their social / occupational / academic functioning were good.

• Patients were classified as having made “significant progress” if their mood disorder symptoms over the past two weeks were substantially less severe, less frequent, and less intense than at intake, but were still occurring, and their social / occupational / academic functioning were relatively good.

• Patients were classified as having made “some progress” if their symptoms over the past two weeks were somewhat less severe and less frequent than at intake, and if their social / occupational / academic functioning were fair.

• Patients were classified as having made “no progress” if the frequency, intensity, and duration of symptoms had not improved since intake, and social / occupational / academic functioning had not improved since intake.

• Patients were classified as “regressed” if their symptoms over the past two weeks were more severe or more frequent than at intake and their social / occupational / academic functioning had declined since intake.

Of the patients who completed treatment, 83% (n = 5) achieved full remission from their mood disorder and 17% (n = 1) made significant progress. Of the patients who quit treatment prematurely, 25% (n = 2) had made significant progress by their last session with me, 63% (n = 5) had made some progress, and 12% (n = 1) had made no progress. Among the patients whom I referred to other providers, 40% (n = 2) regressed during their treatment with me, 20% (n = 1) made no progress (n = 1), 20% (n = 1) made some progress, and 20% (n = 1) made significant progress.

In my next post, I will discuss factors that are correlated with treatment completion and good outcome in these mood disorder patients.

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Thursday, August 25th, 2011

Leaving the Nest: 10 Tips for Parents

It’s back to school time! A new crop of 18-year-olds are leaving home to begin pseudo-independent lives in college. This is the time of year when my inbox is flooded with emails from other clinicians who are using professional list-serves to assemble treatment teams for their patients who are going off to universities in other cities or states.

“Looking for psychologist and psychiatrist in Atlanta for student entering freshman year at Emory. Bipolar disorder diagnosed in February 2011; has been stable on new meds since suicide attempt in June. Patient is very insightful but needs close monitoring.”

“Need treatment team in Boston for incoming freshman at Boston University with 4 year history of bulimia and major depression. Weight is normal but patient engages in binge/purge symptoms 3-4 times per week. Patient has delightful personality but is very entrenched in ED symptoms.”

“20-year-old patient with anorexia nervosa, social anxiety, and OCD just released from our day treatment program needs multidisciplinary treatment team in Chicago as she returns for her junior year at Northwestern University. Patient was discharged at 90% of ideal body weight and is compliant with meal plan. Needs nutritionist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and internist familiar with EDs.”

“23-year-old patient with major depression and alcoholism is entering graduate school at UMass Amherst and needs treatment team. Has 2 months sobriety.”

As I read vignettes such as these, I can’t help but wonder whether it is in the best interest of these vulnerable young people to be away at college. Adjectives like “compliant” and “insightful” and “delightful” seem to be inserted to justify the decision to send the patient away to school and/or to entice clinicians to take on these challenging cases. Qualifiers like “2 months sober” and “90% of ideal body weight” do nothing to quell my apprehension. Frankly, they frighten me more.

Let me be frank: a psychiatric diagnosis is a game changer. Any artificial deadlines, such as an 18th birthday or the start of the school year, are irrelevant. Psychiatric disorders are serious, potentially disabling (think major depression, which is a leading cause of lost productivity in the workplace), even deadly (think anorexia nervosa, which carries a 20% mortality rate). Individuals with psychiatric diagnoses can and do recover and go on to lead productive, fulfilling lives, but this requires prompt, effective treatment and a supportive, low-stress environment for a sustained period of time.

The transition to college presents numerous challenges to even the healthiest and most well-adjusted young people: leaving their hometown, family, and friends; living independently in a different city or state; adjusting to dorm life; navigating new peer relationships and social pressures; managing one’s time and money; choosing a career path and taking academically rigorous courses; assuming full responsibility for nutritional intake, sleep schedule, physical activity, and medical care.

Let’s face it: the typical college lifestyle does not promote physical or mental health. Late nights spent studying or partying, daytime napping, chronic sleep deprivation, erratic eating habits consisting mostly of processed snacks and caffeinated beverages in lieu of balanced meals. Most college students drink alcohol socially, and many drink to excess multiple times a week. Widespread use of illicit drugs as well as rampant abuse of black market prescription drugs as study aids (e.g. Adderall) or sleep aids (e.g., Xanax) is a mainstay of university life. Casual sex with multiple partners, often unprotected and usually under the influence of alcohol, is the norm on most campuses.

Navigating these challenges successfully requires a certain level of mental and emotional stability. Maintaining good self-care in an environment where virtually everyone else practices unhealthy habits requires a maturity and strength of character that is beyond the reach of most 18, 19, and 20 year olds.

I have treated patients before, during, and after college, and have counseled their parents throughout this process. I worked at three different university counseling centers during my doctoral training. During that time I worked with dozens of students struggling with psychiatric illnesses and gained an intimate understanding of what universities do, and don’t do, to support students with mental health problems.

Now, as a psychologist in private practice near two large universities, I treat a number of college students as well as high-school students who hope to go away to college in the near future. I also have a few patients who had attempted to go away to college in the past, but experienced a worsening of symptoms, a full-blown relapse, or in some cases life-threatening complications which rendered them unable to live independently. These are young people who have returned home to the safety of their families and are now going through treatment to repair the damage with hopes of living independently in the future.

I have developed the following professional recommendations for parents of young people with psychiatric illnesses based on these clinical experiences as well as the latest scientific research:

1.) If your child is a junior or senior in high school and hopes to go away to college in the future, begin working with her and her treatment team now to establish criteria to assess her readiness for going away to college. I recommend collaboratively establishing a written plan which includes specific, measurable criteria which the child must meet before she is permitted to leave home.

2.) If your child has had life-threatening symptoms (suicide attempt, drug/alcohol abuse, eating disorder), ensure that her condition is in full remission for at least 6 months prior to letting her go away to college. For example:
- A child with bipolar disorder should have at least 6 months of mood stability without any manic or major depressive episodes.
- A child who has attempted suicide should have a minimum of 6 months without any suicidal behaviors, gestures, or urges.
- A child with a substance abuse problem should have at least 6 months of complete sobriety.
- A child with anorexia nervosa should have at least 6 months of eating independently without restriction while maintaining 100% full weight-restoration with regular menstrual periods.
- A child with bulimia nervosa should have at least 6 months of normalized eating with complete abstinence from all binge/purge behaviors.

3.) A young person going off to college should have, at most, minimal or mild mental/emotional symptoms. For example, a child with an anxiety disorder who has occasional panic attacks, or who feels somewhat anxious at parties around new people, may be able to function well at college, but a child who has panic attacks multiple times a week or who avoids most social situations is not yet ready to go away.

4.) Ensure that your child has effective tools to manage any symptoms that may arise. This may include CBT or DBT skills to manage feelings of depression or anxiety.

5.) Work with your child and her treatment team to develop a self-care plan that includes plenty of sleep, physical activity, time management, and balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals.

6.) Do not rely upon university services (student health center or student counseling center) to provide therapy, psychiatric, or medical services for your child. University counseling centers are not equipped to manage the needs of students with major mental health issues. Most student counseling centers are over-worked, under-staffed, and underfunded. By necessity, most have limits on the number of sessions each student can attend, and most will not support parental involvement in treatment decisions or even communicate with parents at all.

7.) Prior to your child’s departure for college, establish a treatment team off-campus.
- Interview the clinicians over the phone and schedule a family meeting in person with the clinician before the school year starts, during the time you are helping your child move into the dorms. If the clinician is reluctant to talk with you over the phone or refuses to meet with you in person, this is a red flag.
- I recommend selecting a clinician who welcomes individualized, appropriate parental involvement in college students’ mental healthcare. This means working collaboratively with parents based upon the individual patient’s needs in light of her diagnosis, history, and developmental stage, irrespective of her chronological age.
- Ensure that your child signs releases of information allowing you to communicate with the clinician regarding your child’s care (law requires that persons over 18 must provide written permission for a mental health professional to release information to anyone, including parents).
- Use the initial family meeting to provide the clinician with any relevant history about your child’s condition. Written psychological evaluations or discharge summaries from previous treatment providers are very helpful in this regard.
- Work collaboratively with the new clinician and your child to establish frequency of contact, and nature of communication, between you and the new clinician. For instance, I often work out a plan wherein I call parents every two weeks, or once a month, with a general progress report on the patient, without revealing the specific content of sessions (e.g., “Mary is adjusting well to dorm life. She’s had some mild anxiety but she seems to be managing it well.” Or “Annie has been struggling with an increase in depressive symptoms over the past week. I will keep you posted and notify you right away if there is any indication of suicidality or deterioration in functioning.”) Be very clear about the type of information that will be shared between clinician and parents. It is important for the patient to establish a trusting relationship with the clinician and to feel secure that, in general, “what happens in therapy stays in therapy.” It is equally important for the parents to be reassured that they will be notified promptly if the child’s condition deteriorates.

8.) Have a safety net in place. Decide exactly what extra supports will be provided, and under what circumstances, if the child should experience an increase in symptoms while away at college. For example: an increase in symptoms lasting longer than one week may result in the child coming home for the next weekend, or perhaps a parent would travel to stay with the child in a hotel for a week or two.

9.) Have a plan B.
- Work collaboratively with your child and her new treatment team to establish what conditions would warrant a more serious intervention.
- Some situations, in my opinion, warrant a medical leave and an immediate return to the safety of home. For example, a suicide attempt or gesture, an episode of alcohol poisoning, a weight loss of more than 5 pounds (in the case of anorexia nervosa) or a recurrence of binge/purge symptoms lasting longer than a couple of weeks (in the case of bulimia).

10.) Always remember, and reiterate to your child: whatever happens is feedback, not failure.
- A medical leave of absence is not the end of the world. Nor is it permanent. It is simply an indication that your child temporarily needs more support than can be provided in the college setting. It is no different from a young person taking a leave of absence for major surgery or cancer treatment (try getting that done in the student health center!).
- Many young adults recover more swiftly from a relapse compared to the first time they were ill – the benefit of maturity and the motivation of wanting to return to college and independent living can be very helpful in this regard. If your child does well at home and recovers from the relapse, she may be able to return to school away from home the following semester or the following year.
- Depending on the circumstances and the course of your child’s illness, it is possible that the best scenario for her would be to live at home and attend college locally, or transfer to a school in-state and come home each weekend. Again, this is not the end of the world. If her recovery is robust after college, she will still have the opportunity to go away to graduate school or start the career of her dreams somewhere else.

Attending college is a privilege and a gift, not an inalienable right. It is not something that one must automatically do right after graduating from college. Living away from home, apart from one’s primary support system, to attend a faraway school is a privilege unique to American culture, and is not a prerequisite for success in any way. In most other countries, young people who do attend college (and not everyone does) do so locally while living at home until they are married.

Take your child’s psychiatric diagnosis very seriously, and do the right thing for her health. As her parent, it is not only your right but your duty to make these decisions, and you should be supported by a treatment team that empowers you to do so.

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Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Insights on Insight

Patient “insight” is a much-discussed topic in psychotherapy. Most clinicians believe that developing insight is a crucial aspect of recovery from a mental illness. Many clinicians believe that insight is a necessary prerequisite for change. There are some types of treatment, such as psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy, which are based entirely on the development of insight. These types of treatment are predicated on the assumption that increased insight naturally leads to positive behavior change and recovery from mental illness.

These assumptions originated with Sigmund Freud, who believed that mental illness was the result of unconscious psychic conflict. He believed by bringing this conflict into the patient’s conscious awareness, it would no longer have power over the patient and the neurotic or psychotic symptoms would disappear.

The notion that exploration into one’s innermost psyche leads to healing is alluring and romantic. It makes for great novels, memoirs, and movies. The problem is, it rarely works this way in real life. While most people suffering from mental illnesses do indeed experience tremendous inner psychological conflict, there is no evidence that this inner conflict is the cause of any mental illness or that gaining insight into the conflict will promote recovery. Insight, as discussed in psychoanalytic theory or pop psychology, refers to something along the lines of “why I am the way I am” or “why I developed this mental illness.”

There are several reasons why this type of insight alone rarely leads to recovery:

1.) Contrary to popular belief, we do not know what causes most mental illnesses. We may know what factors may trigger, perpetuate, or exacerbate the illness. For example, a loss of some sort often triggers or exacerbates depression, and dieting often triggers or exacerbates an eating disorder. We may know what types of treatment are effective for certain illnesses. For example, we know that DBT is effective in treating borderline personality disorder. But any notion about causality is, at this point in time, largely speculative. So if we don’t really know what causes mental illness, insight into the supposed cause will not promote recovery.

2.) The “insights” encouraged by the therapist are often based upon antiquated theories of mental illnesses which have no empirical support (e.g., that depression is “anger turned inward”). These theories may feel good, or make intuitive sense, or seem to validate the patient’s suffering, but that doesn’t make them accurate or useful in terms of recovery.

3.) We learn and mature emotionally through experience. Thoughts and feelings follow from behavior, not the other way around. Simply knowing why you think the way you think, or why you feel the way you feel, does not change your thoughts or feelings. What does help change your thoughts and feelings is by acting opposite to them. So, for example, if you are feeling depressed and lethargic, sitting around the house all day by yourself trying to figure out why you’re depressed doesn’t make you less depressed. However, dragging yourself off the couch to go for a brisk walk outside, and then inviting some friends over to watch a funny movie, may very well lift your spirits, at least a little bit.

4.) Our neural pathways are rewired not through developing insight, but through consistent, repetitive practice of new behaviors. You will not become a good athlete by watching sports or reading about sports. Rather, you develop and hone your athletic skills by consistent practice and physical conditioning. This is why the behavioral therapies such as CBT, DBT, ACT, and FBT are so much more effective than insight-oriented therapies such as psychodynamic therapy.

5.) Some mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa, involve a symptom called anosognosia, which is a brain-based lack of insight. Because of abnormalities in brain function, individuals with anosognosia are unable to recognize that they are ill even when loved ones are extremely worried. For instance, a person with anorexia nervosa may feel great and perceive her body as normal and healthy, even when she is markedly underweight and clearly suffering from the physical and psychological effects of malnourishment. And an individual with bipolar mania may perceive himself as “on top of the world” and vehemently resist intervention as loved ones stand by and watch him make one self-destructive decision after another. Individuals with anosognosia should not be expected to seek treatment on their own, or to “want to recover,” because they will not have the insight to do so until they are well on their way to recovery.

The types of insights described above are relatively useless. However, there is another type of insight which results from successful treatment and is one of many markers of a psychologically healthy individual. Insight, as I conceptualize it, is best described by both the dictionary definition and the wikipedia definition. Thus, in order to successfully manage or overcome a mental illness, one must be able to discern the true nature of their mental illness and must understand cause and effect insofar as it applies to their symptoms. The following insights are extremely important to recovery:

1.) Insight into the fact that one has a mental illness. This element of insight includes acceptance of the fact that the illness is, to some extent, out of the person’s control, and cannot simply be wished away or overcome by willpower.

2.) Insight into the symptoms of one’s mental illness and how they manifest. This insight includes the ability to recognize signs and symptoms in oneself and the skills to eliminate, manage, or cope with the symptoms when they occur.

3.) Insight into the effects of following, or not following, the treatment plan and clinician’s recommendations. This insight involves understanding not only what the clinician is doing or recommending, but why she is doing or recommending it. That is, understanding the mechanism of change.

4.) Understanding how various choices one makes impact the course of one’s illness. For example, a person with a mood disorder needs to learn that by getting 8-9 hours of sleep nightly, exercising regularly, taking medication daily, and monitoring mood changes on a daily basis are essential to stabilizing moods. She will also need to learn that getting drunk on her 21st birthday, traveling across time zones for vacation without making up missed sleep, missing her medication for two days because she forgot to get refills on time, or burning the candle at both ends during final exams, will likely trigger a return of symptoms, even though “normal people” do these things all the time without a second thought. “But that sucks!” They exclaim. “That’s not fair!” They are correct on both counts.

I believe that a patient must develop all four of these insights during treatment. It is the clinician’s responsibility to assist the patient in developing these insights. It is also the clinician’s responsibility to ensure that the patient’s family members develop these insights during treatment, as it is often a parent or a spouse who will first notice the signs of relapse and encourage a return to treatment. This is especially true in disorders characterized by anosognosia.

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Monday, June 6th, 2011

The Price of Assumption

Recently, there have been heated debates between clinicians and parent advocates regarding the role of environmental and family issues in eating disorders. Some people insist that family dynamics and environmental factors play a role in the development of an eating disorder. Others bristle at the possibility. Some people say “families don’t cause eating disorders, BUT…” Others fixate on the “but” and disregard everything else.

My views on this issue are complex. Thankfully, my views became much clearer to me as I was watching an episode of the E! True Hollywood Story entitled Britney Spears: The Price of Fame. Now I am able to articulate my views on this topic in a way that most people can understand.

Numerous magazine and newspaper articles have reported that Britney Spears has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. According to unnamed “sources close to the pop star,” Spears was suffering from untreated bipolar disorder during her public meltdown and psychiatric hospitalization in 2008. While I have not treated Britney and thus cannot ethically make a diagnosis, I will say that her erratic behavior circa 2006-2008 could be explained by a bipolar diagnosis, and that the rate of bipolar disorder is thought to be quite high amongst people in the creative and performing arts.

Scientists now know that bipolar disorder is a neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted disease. However, rather than focusing on the neurobiology or genetics of bipolar disorder, The E! True Hollywood Story explored various influences in Britney’s life that fueled her self-destructive behavior. Clearly, this type of commentary is far more interesting to the typical E! viewer than neurobiology, my own preferences notwithstanding. Several mental health professionals were interviewed and gave their opinions as to the influence of early stardom, family problems, a stage mom, excessive fame, and extreme wealth on the pop star’s behavior. Sadly, though, the viewer is led to believe that these environmental and family issues are the cause of Britney’s downfall.

Did Britney’s family or environment cause her bipolar disorder? No. Neither family nor environment can cause a brain disorder.

Did her family or environment fuel her bipolar disorder? Yes. And here’s how: Let’s say Britney had taken a different path in life, married a plumber instead of Kevin Federline and worked as a preschool teacher instead of a pop star. Let’s say she stayed in her small Louisiana hometown, never dabbled in drugs or heavy drinking, went to bed every night at a decent hour, and maintained close, age appropriate relationships with her family and good friends, making a decent living but nothing more. Would she still have developed bipolar disorder? Yes, I absolutely believe she would have (remember, most people with bipolar disorder are not pop stars, but regular people). However, her disease would have been much more easily diagnosed and treated if she had been surrounded and supported by normal, loving people who could influence her in a positive way. As it happened, her disease was certainly protracted and exacerbated by the lifestyle of a pop star, which includes late nights, insufficient sleep, excessive amounts of alcohol and drugs, and endless amounts of power and money.

If Britney’s therapist had held a family session with Lynne and Jamie Spears and Kevin Federline in attempts to “explore the family dynamics which contributed to the disorder,” that would be a complete waste of time. The elder Spears’ and Mr. Federline – the very people who are in the best position to help Britney recover – would have felt subtly blamed and marginalized. There is nothing to be gained, and everything to be lost, by approaching a brain disorder in this fashion.

The most ideal situation for Britney would be for her parents and K-Fed (and any other people close to her) to work together to provide family-based support to help her recover and to help eliminate any environmental or family factors which may be fueling her disease. It would be most helpful for her family members to be educated about bipolar disorder and understand that it is a biologically-based brain disease that she did not choose and that they did not cause. The family would also need to know that certain environmental factors, such as pregnancy and childbirth, stress, insufficient sleep, drugs and alcohol, medication non-compliance, or excessive emotional distress, can trigger episodes and exacerbate symptoms. The family would need to learn pro-active ways to help Britney manage her environment in a way that is most conducive to achieving mental and physical wellness.

In considering this example, it is important to bear in mind that people with bipolar disorder run the gamut from pop stars to professors to businessmen to truck drivers to homeless panhandlers. Families of people with bipolar disorder also run the gamut – some are amazing and supportive, others are average, and some are downright abusive. If treatment for bipolar disorder is to be successful, the clinician must perform a thorough evaluation of the patient and family, and the information gleaned from that assessment should be used to guide treatment decisions. A good clinician would not presume that the family of a person with bipolar disorder is dysfunctional or abusive, or that family dynamics caused or contributed to the development of the disorder. Similarly, a good clinician would not presume that the family is healthy or that there is nothing the family needs to change. Quite simply, a good clinician would not assume anything – she would simply perform an assessment and tailor her approach to the strengths, limitations, and realities of that particular patient and family, in line with the most recent evidence-based research.

Eating disorders are also neurobiologically-based, genetically transmitted diseases which patients don’t choose and parents don’t cause. Family issues and environment certainly can fuel eating disorders by encouraging dieting or glorifying thinness, by making diagnosis more difficult or treatment less accessible, or by making recovery harder than it needs to be.

All eating disorder patients have a biological brain disease which most likely would have arisen, at some point in time and to some degree, regardless of family or environment. Some patients have family or environmental issues which are fueling their disorder, and some do not. If such familial or environmental issues exist, they usually become quite obvious if you do a thorough assessment. These family or environmental issues will need to be addressed in treatment, not because they caused the eating disorder, but because they can trigger or exacerbate symptoms and interfere with full recovery.

But if there are no obvious familial or environmental issues fueling the disorder, please don’t waste time searching for them. You aren’t doing the patient or the family any good by “being curious,” or “just exploring.” You are simply satisfying your own voyeuristic drive, as I fulfilled mine by watching the E! True Hollywood Story on Britney Spears.

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