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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Depression Category

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

A Preview of My Treatment Outcome Data

As a scientist-practitioner, I am well aware that therapists aren’t always good at judging their patients’ outcomes. That’s why I love statistics. Numbers offer an objective, quantitative view. Numbers paint a clear picture that words cannot.

I believe strongly in evidence-based treatment. I also believe in therapist transparency – that is, that therapists should explain to patients and their families what interventions they are using, why they are using them, and what evidence is behind them.

For these reasons, I have chosen to collect data on my own patients and measure their response to treatment. I want prospective patients and their families to have access to these data to assist them in choosing a clinician. After four years in private practice, I have finally seen enough patients to collect treatment outcome data with a decent-sized sample. I am compiling these data for the purpose of improving the quality of my own practice. The results of my patients’ treatment outcomes are not intended to be used to generalize to other populations.

Since opening my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 138 patients. Eighty-nine percent (n = 123) of these patients were female and (n = 15) 11% were male. They ranged in age from 7-64, with a median age of 18 and a modal age of 15. The majority of patients were between the ages of 10 and 25.

The patients’ primary diagnoses were as follows:
• 54% (n = 75) had eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and EDNOS
• 22% (n = 30) had mood disorders, such as major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder
• 10% (n = 14) had anxiety disorders, such as OCD or social anxiety disorder
• 8% (n = 11) did not meet criteria for any psychiatric disorder, but rather came to me for help with a specific problem, such as coping with parents’ divorce or stress management.
• 6% (n = 8) had an assortment of other primary diagnoses, including borderline personality disorder, adjustment disorder, or body dysmorphic disorder.

I work on a sliding scale based on the patient’s ability to pay. Sixty-three percent (n = 87) paid my full rate and 37% (N = 51) paid a reduced rate due to their financial circumstances (e.g., unemployment, low income, single parent supporting children alone, or college student paying for his/her own treatment). I saw 16% of these patients (n = 22) for evaluation and/or consultation only. The remaining 84% (n = 116) attended at least one treatment session with me.

All former patients who attended at least one treatment session with me are included in this sample. In addition, four patients who have completed their treatment but have opted to continue seeing me two or three times per year for “check-ups” were included as well. Patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included.

Over the next few weeks, I will be blogging about the end-of-treatment outcomes of my former patients, categorized by primary diagnosis. I am also in the process of conducting a follow-up study, and I hope to publish those data by the end of the summer. All data will be reported in aggregate form so that no individual patients will be identifiable.

Randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are the gold standard in treatment outcome research. However, other types of studies can be quite useful as well. My study tells a different story from the RCTs – the story of clinical practice in the “real world,” with all of the freedoms and confounds that come with it. While I do use evidence-based treatments such as Family-Based Treatment (FBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I frequently make modifications to the manualized form of treatment based on the needs of the individual patient and family.

In addition, rather than fitting all patients into a 10-session or 20-session protocol, the length of treatment varied based on individual needs. Essentially, patients could stay in treatment until they were completely well. Insurance constraints were not an issue, as I don’t participate on insurance panels, and finances were not a deterrent from completing treatment, as I am very flexible with my sliding scale.

So what do treatment outcomes look like in the real world? You’ll have to keep reading my blog to find out!

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Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Show Me The Science

The debate over evidence-based practice (also known as empirically-supported treatment) in psychology is contentious and polarizing. Evidence-based practice, as defined by the APA, is “the integration of the best available research with clinical expertise in the context of patient characteristics, culture and preferences.” The debate over evidence-based practice can be summarized as follows:

Proponents of evidence-based treatment argue that clinical psychologists are scientists, that psychotherapy is (or should be) based upon scientific theory, and therefore therapists must use the best available scientific evidence in their practice of psychotherapy. They argue that the public must be protected from therapies which are not evidence-based, as such therapies may be ineffective or harmful.

Opponents of the evidence-based practice movement argue that psychotherapy is an art rather than a science, and that the essence of what they do – the “human element” – cannot possibly be manualized or subjected to clinical trials. Opponents are typically therapists who practice relationship- or insight-oriented approaches. They see their work as diametrically opposed to the principals of evidence-based practice.

I understand and appreciate the arguments of the opponents, and I do believe they have some valid points. However, I have established my professional identity as a strong proponent of evidence-based treatment.

When you visit a physician for an illness and she prescribes a medication, you can safely assume that the medication has been FDA-approved for your particular illness, that it is likely to be effective, and that it is unlikely to seriously harm you.

Imagine the following scenario: Drug A was used to treat Illness X twenty years ago. Then, ten years ago, clinical studies showed that Drug B is significantly more effective than Drug A in treating illness X. A physician, Dr. Dolittle, continues to prescribe Drug A for Illness X because he really believes it works, and because he was taught that Drug A works well when he was a medical student 20 years ago. Dr. Dolittle does not inform his patients that Drug B exists, because he doesn’t believe it will work for them and he has no experience with it.

The scenario described above would not happen in medicine, would it? And if it did happen, Dr. Dolittle would be reprimanded by the medical board and may have his license revoked.

Believe it or not, this scenario happens in psychology all the time. Most people outside the field would be shocked to learn that the majority of psychological treatment out there is NOT evidence-based.

I have seen patients who underwent years of psychodynamic therapy for severe depression, without getting any better, without being told about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and without being referred to a psychiatrist for a medication evaluation. I have seen patients with anxiety disorders whose psychiatrists have prescribed multiple medications for them, never once referring them for psychological treatment, without ever mentioning that CBT at least as effective, if not more so, than medication for most anxiety disorders. I have seen patients who suffered from eating disorders for many years, who have seen many therapists, who have had multiple stints in residential treatment and have taken numerous medications, but were never restored to their ideal body weight and never provided with the support they needed to eat properly. And finally, a substantial portion of my case load is comprised of teenagers with eating disorders who have experienced months or years of ineffective, non-evidence-based treatment. The families of these teenagers were never informed about Family-Based Treatment (FBT), which is the only empirically-supported treatment for adolescents with eating disorders. Their parents discovered FBT on their own through desperate late-night internet searches.

These patients are pleasantly surprised to see how quickly and dramatically they improve with evidence-based treatment. They are also angry that they were not provided with, or at least informed about, effective treatment from the start. I believe that all patients and their families deserve to be fully informed about the range of different treatment options available to them, including evidence-based treatment. I do believe that there is a place for non-evidence based treatment, but patients and families should know from the outset what they are getting.

Evidence-based practice is not about using treatment manuals verbatim, or only relying upon randomized clinical trials. Treatment manuals are necessary for research and dissemination, but they are not intended to be followed verbatim with every patient in the real world. Manuals don’t treat patients – they merely provide a guide and a plan of action which may be revised and altered as needed for each unique patient. The basic principles and techniques of the treatment are the brick and mortar; the details of each room can and should be tailored to the individual.

Clinical psychology is a science, but it is not as precise as the so-called “hard sciences” like physics or mathematics. The brain is too intricate; human behavior too complex to be boiled down to immutable formulas. There is, and always will be, room for intuition, creativity, spontaneity, and that intangible “human element” that cannot be manualized or subjected to laboratory research. But the evidence base is there, so we owe it to our patients and to our profession to use it. Otherwise, we are no better than Dr. Dolittle.

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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, May 15th, 2010

How to Help Your Depressed Teenager: Tips for Parents

If your child is depressed, it is important to act now. Untreated depression causes tremendous suffering and can lead to serious medical and emotional problems, including suicide. Adolescents with untreated depression have difficulty learning and making and keeping friends. They are also more likely to abuse drugs and engage in self-injury. You must intervene now in order to help your teenager blossom into the wonderful person she was meant to be.

1. Educate yourself on depression in adolescents.

Learn the signs and symptoms of depression and know how to differentiate between normal sadness or “teen angst” and clinical depression. All teenagers are moody and irritable at times, and sadness is a natural and healthy response to a loss or disappointment. Depression is a serious but treatable mental illness which affects between 2-5% of adolescents at any point in time.

Depression involves a pervasively sad or irritable mood that lasts at least two weeks, but usually several months or more, and causes a noticeable change in functioning. Depressed adolescents also experience physiological symptoms such as changes in appetite and weight, lack of energy, insomnia or hypersomnia, and physical aches or pains. They tend to have poor self-esteem and irrationally negative thoughts, lose interest in activities and friends, isolate themselves, and feel guilty or worthless for no good reason. Many depressed teens feel hopeless and have recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

2. Take your child to the pediatrician for a complete physical exam to rule out organic causes of depression.

In some cases, depression is the result of a general medical condition such as hypothyroidism or mononucleosis. Depression can also be a side effect of certain medications. Some teens may exhibit depression as a result of abusing alcohol, drugs, or prescription or over-the-counter medications. Finally, simple things like sleep deprivation, too much stress, and nutritional deficiencies can manifest as depression. It is important that your child receives a complete physical exam in order to rule out any of these potential causes.

3. Let go of guilt and blame.

Depression is no one’s fault. Your child did not choose it and you did not cause it. We know that depression is a heritable brain disorder which is often (though not always) triggered by stressful life events and brain changes during puberty. It is unhelpful, even counterproductive, to blame yourself or your child for her depression. While your child is depressed, her moods and behaviors are to some degree out of her control. She cannot “choose to be happy” or “snap out of it.”

4. Don’t be too quick to medicate.

Psychotropic medication has its place, and under certain circumstances, it may be a very helpful adjunct to psychological treatment for depression. Far too often, however, psychiatrists and other physicians use medication as the first line of defense against depression. This is especially dangerous for children and adolescents, whose brains are still developing and who are more likely to suffer from serious side effects.

In addition to the risk of side effects and the lack of evidence about the long-term effects of antidepressants on a developing brain, there are other dangers to using medicating as the first, or only, line of treatment.

First, there has been very little research on the effects of antidepressants in youth. Second, there is only one antidepressant medication (Prozac) which has been FDA-approved to treat depression in adolescents, but doctors regularly use other medications “off-label” to treat them. Third, psychotherapy is more effective than medication for most adolescents with mild-to-moderate depression. Fourth, a child who receives medication without psychotherapy will not learn the necessary skills or make the necessary life changes needed to sustain lasting improvement and prevent relapse. The effects of medication expire when the medication is stopped, whereas the effects of good psychotherapy are longer-lasting.

In order to protect your child from being prescribed unnecessary or harmful medication, I recommend first taking your child to a psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) rather than a psychiatrist (M.D.). Psychologists perform psychological assessments and conduct psychotherapy but do not prescribe medication. Most psychiatrists, on the other hand, prescribe medication to the vast majority of patients they see, while conducting little (if any) psychotherapy.

If it becomes evident later on that your child could benefit from medication as an adjunct to psychotherapy, you can always ask your child’s psychologist or pediatrician to refer you to a child psychiatrist with whom he/she has a working relationship.

5. Seek evidence-based psychological treatment.

All therapy is not created equal. Some psychological treatments have been shown to work, while others have not. Research supports the effectiveness of three different types of psychotherapy for depressed adolescents: individual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), group CBT, and interpersonal psychotherapy for adolescents (IPT-A). All three of these treatments are relatively short-term, usually consisting of 12-16 weekly sessions over the course of 3-4 months.

CBT focuses on the relationships among thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT directly targets the adolescent’s present symptoms, without much emphasis on the past. The CBT therapist helps the adolescent identify patterns of thinking and acting which are contributing to her depression and teaches her new ways of thinking and behaving that facilitate positive feelings. CBT be delivered individually, with your child meeting 1-on-1 with a therapist, or in a group consisting of one or two therapists and 6-12 other adolescents who are experiencing depression.

IPT-A focuses on the adolescent’s social functioning and her current relationships with important people in her life. Through IPT-A, the adolescent develops her social skills, learns more effective ways of communicating, identifies connections between certain relationship patterns and her depressive symptoms, and learns to cope effectively with life transitions.

Be conscientious and selective in your search for an appropriate therapist for your child. Try to find a psychologist who has experience in treating adolescent depression. Speak with the psychologist briefly over the phone before making an appointment. Ask her about her philosophy of treatment, and make sure she practices evidence-based treatment.

6. Insist upon being fully informed and actively involved in your child’s treatment.

There is quite a bit you can do to help your child recover from depression, so don’t let any professional tell you otherwise. Treatment works best when you are fully informed and actively involved. Your child will probably be meeting with the therapist individually during most sessions. However, you should be involved in the initial evaluation and treatment planning. You should expect the therapist to check in with you on a regular basis to provide updates on your child’s progress. The therapist should always return your calls in a timely fashion and should definitely tell you if your child is engaging in dangerous behavior.

At the start of treatment, have a frank conversation with the therapist about confidentiality and boundaries. You, the therapist, and your child should come to a clear agreement about what types of information will and will not be disclosed to you as the parent. It is important that your child forms a comfortable, trusting relationship with her therapist. It is even more important, however, that you are made aware of any harmful behaviors (e.g., drug or alcohol use, unprotected sex, eating disorders, cutting) and involved in the process of helping your child overcome these issues.

7. Be willing to consider antidepressant medication under certain circumstances.

Antidepressants are vastly over-prescribed. They should not typically be used as a first-line treatment and should not be prescribed unless the patient is also in psychotherapy. However, there are certain circumstances under which medication may be beneficial and even life-saving:
• If your child has been in evidence-based psychotherapy for two or three months but has not shown any improvement, consider adding an antidepressant to your child’s treatment plan as an adjunct to psychotherapy.
• Depression has a strong genetic component. If your child has a first-degree relative (mother, father, or sibling) who suffers from a mood disorder, this suggests that your child’s depression is likely to be genetic and biologically-based. In this situation, it is more likely that your child will benefit from antidepressants.
• Research has shown that severe depression responds best to a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. In contrast, mild- to moderate depression can typically be successfully treated with psychotherapy alone. Most cases of depression are mild or moderate, so check with your child’s psychologist to determine the severity of her illness. Adolescents with severe depression are often too ill to engage in psychotherapy without the added benefit of medication to normalize their brain chemistry.
• Your child’s medication should be prescribed and monitored by a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, not by her pediatrician. While pediatricians are able to prescribe antidepressants, they do not have the expertise necessary to monitor your child’s progress and ensure that she is on the correct dose of the right medication.
• You and your child should meet with the psychiatrist for a thorough evaluation before any medication is prescribed. Be sure to ask the psychiatrist about any potential side effects or drug interactions of which you should be aware.
• Your child should be closely monitored by her psychiatrist while she is on the medication, especially during the first month and after a change in dosage. After that, the psychiatrist should follow up with your child at least monthly to monitor her progress and change her dosage if necessary.

8. Create a home environment conducive to overall physical health and mental wellbeing.

Basic self-care habits such as sleep, nutrition, exercise, and stress release are extremely important for someone suffering from depression. Teenagers are notorious for staying up late, eating lots of junk food, and guzzling soda at all hours of the day. While most teens can “get away with” these habits for a few years, teens recovering from depression cannot afford to take shortcuts with their health. Depressive symptoms can be caused or exacerbated by sleep deprivation, poor nutrition, inactivity, and chronic stress.

Prioritize health and well-being above all else. Establish regular bedtimes to ensure that your child gets a minimum of 8 hours of sleep every night. Many adolescents need 9-10 hours of sleep or even more in order to function optimally. Require your child to eat nutritious, balanced meals with the entire family. Supplement her diet with multivitamins and Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which have been shown to improve mood, memory, and general mental functioning. Encourage her to enjoy some physical activity every day. Minimize the stress and tension in your household. Help your child create a balance of study time, personal time, friend time, and family time.

9. Encourage healthy social relationships and fun activities.

Depression causes adolescents to withdraw from their friends and family and lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Unfortunately, social isolation and inactivity only exacerbate depressive symptoms. Ensure that your child stays connected to the family by sharing meals with the family every day and involving her in a weekly family outing or game night. Encourage her to go out with her friends or invite them over to the house.

See to it that your child is involved in activities that create a sense of purpose, nurture her talents and burgeoning self-concept, and help her connect with other like-minded kids and adults. If your child is artistic, sign her up for art lessons or encourage her to audition for a play. If she is musical, encourage her to join the marching band or take dance classes. If she is athletic, encourage participation on a sports team. Many adolescents find a sense of meaning in volunteer work or involvement in religious activities.

Depressed adolescents often lose motivation and lack the interest and energy to initiate activities on their own. However, once they become involved and engaged in activities, they usually begin to feel a little bit better. Remind your child of this when she expressed reluctance to do something fun or social.

10. Provide your child with plenty of nurturing, comfort, and physical contact.

No parent wants their child to suffer. It will be very difficult to and heart-wrenching to watch your child struggle with depression. However, it is important that you remain calm, steady, compassionate, and optimistic.

Depressed adolescents often feel worthless and guilty for worrying their parents. Tell your child that you love her infinitely and unconditionally, regardless of whether she is happy or depressed. Ensure your child that she is not to blame for being depressed and that she has done nothing wrong. Let her know that you are concerned about her depression, that you are here to support her, and that you will take all the necessary steps to get her good treatment and help her recover.

Physical contact through affection, hugging, kissing can be very comforting to a distraught adolescent. If your child resists being touched, use a soothing voice and reassuring words to comfort her and let her know that you are always available for a hug whenever she needs one. Express empathy towards your child and be willing to listen to her thoughts and feelings. However, you must keep in mind that depressed adolescents may have many irrational thoughts and negative perceptions about themselves and others. For example, your child may be extremely self-critical, believe that no one likes her, tell you her life is a living hell, or fear that you are angry with her. You can gently explain to your child her depression is causing her to see things through a “negative filter” such that many of her perceptions are colored by the depression and are not necessarily accurate.

11. Be patient and realistic.

Recovery from depression takes time. Your child will not feel better right away, nor should you expect her to. It takes weeks for the effects of psychotherapy and medication to become evident. Your child may begin to feel hopeless and worry that she will be depressed forever. This hopelessness is a symptom of depression, rather than an accurate assessment of her situation. You must remain hopeful and optimistic regardless of your child’s attitude. Reassure your child that recovery takes time; that she will begin to feel better soon; that she must stick with treatment.

It is often helpful to lower your standards while your child is depressed. This is difficult for many parents to accept. However, it is important to recognize that depression is a very real and very disabling condition that will have a major impact on your child’s functioning, personality, and behavior. Depression in teens can manifest in a variety of ways. Some teens may suffer a decline in academic performance due to inability to concentrate. Many depressed teens will become quiet and withdrawn; others will become angry and volatile. Some depressed adolescents will act out, abuse drugs, cut themselves, or get into trouble at school. However your child’s depression manifests, be aware of one thing: your child will NOT seem like herself while she is depressed. Just be aware of this fact and accept it. This is not to say that you must tolerate blatant disrespect, delinquency, or dangerous behavior. Continue to maintain appropriate boundaries and limits to keep everyone safe. However, recognize that your child is suffering from a serious mental illness that impairs her ability to function. If her grades slip, or she doesn’t do her chores, or she mouths off to you more than usual, show compassion and empathy, and try to maintain perspective.

Some adolescents experience one episode of depression and that’s it. However, more than half of adolescents who experience major depression will go on to have more episodes in the future. This does not mean that treatment didn’t work, or that your child failed, or that you failed your child. This is simply the nature of major depressive disorder. The good news is that if your child has been successfully treated the first time, you know exactly what to do if she begins to develop symptoms again. With the knowledge, insight, skills, and professional contacts gained the first time around, relapse should be briefer and easier to manage.

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Monday, February 8th, 2010

Top 10 Mistakes in Mental Health Care

Very early in my blogging career, I wrote about The Top 10 Mistakes in Eating Disorders Treatment. Bad treatment, however, is not limited to eating disorders. Here are the most common mistakes I have observed in the treatment of other mental illnesses:

1. Failure to conduct a thorough assessment at the beginning of treatment. This contributes to missed diagnoses, incorrect diagnoses, and ultimately to ineffective or inappropriate treatment.

2. Failure to assess for behavioral, lifestyle, and environmental factors that may be contributing to the patient’s symptoms. This generally corresponds with the failure to recommend simple lifestyle changes which have a powerful impact on psychological wellbeing. Sleep deprivation, excess alcohol or caffeine intake, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, and increased stress at work, school, or home create symptoms that appear identical to those of depression and anxiety. For many people, these symptoms can be alleviated by making behavioral changes. For others, psychotherapy and medication may be necessary.

3. Lack of basic, scientifically-sound education for patients and their families regarding the patient’s disorder(s) and the efficacy of various treatment options. It never ceases to amaze me how many patients and families come to me, after months or years of therapy, without a basic science-based explanation of their mental illness, and without ever being informed that evidence-based treatment exists. Perhaps the most common example of this phenomenon is the patient whose four years of previous therapy focused on the “why” or the “root cause” of her mental disorder without providing any symptom relief. Insight is important, but insight itself does not cure mental illness. These patients are not provided with the simple (and in my mind, very liberating) explanation that mental illnesses are caused by certain biological and genetic vulnerabilities which are often expressed when certain environmental circumstances are present. They are not told that, regardless of the reasons why they developed their illness, they can learn skills to help them manage their symptoms and feel better.

4. Failure to use effective, evidence-based psychological treatments (EBT’s). For the majority of mental illnesses, there is research demonstrating which treatments are most effective. The problem is that the majority of therapists do not use EBT’s. There are several reasons for this: A.) Some therapists have not been trained in evidence-based treatments. This is the result of a three-pronged failure: on the part of the graduate programs which do not teach EBT’s, on the part of the therapists who do not take the initiative to keep up with the literature or seek out the proper continuing education courses, and on the part of the state licensing boards, which do not require that therapists learn about or practice EBTs. B.) Some therapists have been trained in EBT’s but choose not to use them because they value their own clinical judgment more than they value science. This is faulty logic, because research shows that statistical prediction consistently outperforms clinical judgment. Translation: therapists are far more effective when they select their interventions on the basis of scientific research (e.g., what works best for most people with this particular disorder) rather than using their own judgment to decide how to help a patient. C.) Some therapists protest: “But EBT’s don’t work for everyone.” Well, of course they don’t. Nothing works for everyone. But if research consistently shows that treatment A is effective for 80% of people with OCD, while treatment B is effective for 25% of people with OCD, and treatment C is based upon a psychological theory but has never been studied scientifically, it’s a no brainer. Use treatment A with OCD patients unless you have a specific, convincing reason not to. It makes no logical, mathematical, ethical, or scientific sense to do otherwise.

5. Insufficient amount or intensity of psychological treatment. Sessions may begin too late in the course of a mental illness; sessions may be held less frequently than needed; treatment may be terminated before the patient is fully recovered; patients may not receive the level of care (e.g., hospitalization, residential treatment, day treatment) that they need in order to recover. Financial issues and insurance limits are largely to blame for this problem. However, our attitudes about mental illness and personal autonomy play a major role as well. I don’t believe in the “least restrictive environment” criterion. I do not believe that a person should have to be imminently suicidal, homicidal, or floridly psychotic to warrant inpatient treatment. I do not believe that residential and day treatment programs should be reserved for those who have had multiple failed attempts at outpatient treatment. I believe that providing intensive, aggressive treatment at initial diagnosis (which often requires more than your typical weekly therapy sessions) would greatly reduce the severity and duration of mental illnesses.

6. Focusing on “underlying issues” rather than symptoms early in treatment. It makes no sense to do intensive psychotherapy with a drug addict while she is high or while she is actively using drugs. Her mental state is too compromised for her to do meaningful psychological work, and the psychological work detracts time and attention away from the most glaring, life-threatening problem: the drug use. This patient would need to go through detox and rehab before she could really benefit from psychotherapy. Similarly, if a person is severely depressed, severely anxious, or engaging in self-injurious behavior, it makes no sense to spend the therapy hour processing inner conflicts or exploring childhood memories. She cannot think rationally or process emotional information accurately while such acute symptoms are present. The first step must be to alleviate the symptoms. To do otherwise simply serves to delay her recovery and prolong her misery.

7. Failure to address underlying issues, if they exist, later in treatment. Once symptoms are under control, it is important to assess for and treat any underlying issues which could make the patient vulnerable to relapse. I do not mean to imply that every patient has deep, dark secrets of trauma or major internal conflicts. Many patients have simpler underlying problems, such as poor communication skills, unhelpful relationship patterns, low self-esteem, perfectionism, unhealthy core beliefs, or overly stressful jobs or home lives. Regardless of the nature of the patient’s issues, they must be treated if the patient is to heal fully and maintain a lasting recovery. Disclaimer: It is a huge mistake for therapists to presume that all patients have serious underlying issues that must be addressed in treatment. This assumption leads to endless exploration of the past, digging around for some buried treasure that often does not exist. This can be a waste of time and money, can lead to over-focus on the past at the exclusion of full engagement in the present, and can actually make patients feel worse. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

8. Over-prescribing, or inappropriately prescribing, psychotropic medication. A lot of this has to do with insurance companies and financial issues: it is cheaper to medicate than to treat holistically with psychological therapy, at least in the short term. We know that for many mental illnesses, certain evidence-based psychological treatments are more effective than medications (i.e., DBT for borderline personality disorder, CBT, ACT, and exercise for mild to moderate depression, exposure and response prevention for OCD, behavior therapy for panic disorder, CBT-E for bulimia nervosa). And yet many patients are medicated for these illnesses without being offered psychological treatment, and without being informed that certain psychological treatments for certain conditions are actually superior to medication. Recent statistics show that 80% of prescriptions for psychotropic medications are written by general care physicians (internists and pediatricians). This appalls me. While GPs are allowed to prescribe psychotropic medication, they lack specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The ideal situation is for a psychiatrist to prescribe the psychotropic medication, follow up with the patient regularly to monitor her response to the medication, and remain in close contact with the patient’s GP and therapist in order to ensure seamless coordination of care.

9. Failure to involve family members in a young patient’s treatment. Yes, the primary developmental task of adolescence is separation / individuation. But this developmental reality in no way precludes involving family members in an adolescent’s treatment. I believe that a child or adolescent’s treatment works best when family members are fully informed and actively involved. The patient may be with the therapist for 1 hour a week, but she is with her family for the other 167 hours. Therapists are most effective when they strengthen a family unit (rather than weakening it by pointing the finger of blame), communicate openly with parents (rather than hiding behind the cloak of confidentiality), and provide them with tools to help their children (rather than urging them to back off). Therapy is temporary; family is forever.

10. Blaming patients, either subtly or overtly, for their mental illnesses. This causes so much harm. Many therapists are of the opinion that if patients just tried a little harder, dug a little deeper, or stayed in therapy just a few months (or years) longer, they would get better. Patients are often held responsible for their own lack of therapeutic progress (Remember the old joke – “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Just one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change”). As a result, patients blame themselves when they do not recover. Guilt is paralyzing and depressing and disempowering. In what other illness would a patient be held responsible for her lack of improvement? Obviously, therapy is a collaborative process which requires tremendous courage and dedication from the patient. That said, the therapist is responsible for providing the patient with effective treatment and guiding her towards recovery.

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Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Fighting the Wrong Battles

I’ve become increasingly annoyed at the conflation of “body dissatisfaction” with “eating disorder.” The former is a culturally-driven socio-political phenomenon, whereas the latter is a severe, biologically-based mental illness. The former afflicts over 85% of American females, whereas the latter strikes only a small fraction of us (less than 1% for anorexia nervosa and 2-3% for bulimia nervosa).

There has been a great deal of controversy surrounding supermodel Kate Moss’s comment that “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels,” and around Ralph Lauren’s ridiculously photo-shopped ads. Eating disorder clinicians and activists have been quite vocal about their opposition to these media bytes, arguing that they encourage eating disorders. I know that these professionals and activists have noble intentions, but I believe they are fighting the wrong battles.

I object to underweight models not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because being underweight is harmful to the models’ physical and mental health, and viewing these images on a regular basis contributes to body dissatisfaction in most people. I refuse to have magazines in my office waiting room not because I believe they cause eating disorders, but because I am opposed to the blatant objectification of women. Besides, I think that fashion magazines are sexist, superficial, and boring.

Hanging in my office is a certificate of membership from NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) which thanks me for my “support in the effort to eliminate eating disorders and body dissatisfaction.” I really wish they had eliminated those last three words.

I think the conflation of sadness with depression is analogous. The former, in its extreme and persistent form, is one symptom of the latter. The former is a natural, healthy emotional state that every human being experiences from time to time, while the latter is a serious mental illness caused by a combination of neurobiological, psychological, and environmental factors. I remember an incident that illustrates this principle beautifully. I was conducting an initial evaluation with an adolescent girl and her parents. When I asked the father whether he thought his daughter was depressed, he replied: “I don’t believe in depression.” Interesting response, I thought. As if depression were something like God or heaven or Santa Clause, something to be believed in or not. I asked the father to elaborate on his beliefs. He replied: “I think we all get sad sometimes, and that’s OK.” I smiled and gently responded that I agree with him – yes, all of us do get sad sometimes, and yes, that’s OK. However, some people experience prolonged, intense feelings of sadness accompanied by sleep and appetite disturbances, fatigue, thoughts of suicide, loss of interest, and difficulty concentrating. These people are experiencing major depression.”

Imagine if, in exchange for my membership in the National Depression Association, I received a certificate thanking me for my support in the effort to eliminate Major Depressive Disorder and sadness.” Laughable, isn’t it? Well, so is the ED/Body Dissatisfaction comparison. It trivializes the anguish that eating disordered people experience, and it falsely encourages those whose lives have not been touched by eating disorders to think that they “know how it feels.” Well, guess what. They don’t.

Eliminating all sadness in the world would probably not affect the prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder because sadness is but one symptom of depression, whereas depression is not a result of sadness. Likewise, eliminating body dissatisfaction would be fantastic for everyone, but it would not result in the elimination of eating disorders.

Contrary to popular belief (and, sadly enough, the belief of many eating disorders professionals), the media’s glorification of thinness is not responsible for the so-called “epidemic” of anorexia nervosa. Also contrary to popular belief, the incidence of anorexia nervosa has not increased dramatically in recent decades. Cases of what would now be diagnosed as anorexia nervosa have been documented as early as the medieval times, long before thinness was considered fashionable. These fasting saints shunned all sustenance to the point of emaciation not because they wanted to be skinny, but because they believed it brought them closer to God.

Unbeknownst to many, anorexia nervosa occurs in many non-western cultures. For example, recent studies have shown that the prevalence of anorexia nervosa in China and Ghana is equal to its prevalence in the US. The major difference is that patients in non-western cultures relate their starvation to profound self-control, moral superiority, and spiritual wholeness rather than to a desire to be thinner. Today’s American anorexics, like their medieval predecessors and non-western counterparts, all experience prolonged inability to nourish themselves, dramatic weight loss to the point of emaciation, amenorrhea, and denial of the seriousness of their condition. The self-reported reasons for starvation, it seems, are the only things that change across time and culture. I believe that an anorexic’s so-called reasons for starvation are simply her attempts to derive meaning from her symptoms, which are always filtered through a cultural lens. An anorexic does not starve herself because she wants to be thin, or because she wants to be holy, or because she wants to show supreme self-control. She starves herself because she suffers from a brain disease, of which self-starvation is a symptom.

Recent research suggests that anorexia nervosa is not a culture-bound syndrome, but bulimia nervosa is. Anorexia nervosa seems to be a distinct genotype that has been around for centuries and that manifests itself in various cultures and eras. Bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, appears to occur in individuals with a certain genetic / neurobiological predisposition who are exposed to a culture which combines massive amounts of readily available, highly palatable foods with a cultural mandate for thinness. This research implies that reducing or eliminating the cultural glorification of thinness may indeed reduce the prevalence of bulimia nervosa, but will have no effect on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa. I suppose that, once this awful waif model craze blows over, anorexics will simply find another “reason” to starve.

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Friday, October 30th, 2009

The Power of Expectations

A recent study found that parents’ stereotypes about teen rebelliousness fuel’s teens’ misbehavior. In this longitudinal study, researchers interviewed a large sample of 6th and 7th graders and their parents regarding expectations for the child’s behavior as he or she enters adolescence. At the one-year follow-up, teens whose parents had negative expectations about their child falling into stereotypical teenage behavior (e.g., drugs, premature sexual activity, rule-breaking) were more likely to have engaged in these behaviors. This was true even after controlling for many other predictors of such behaviors.

My guess is that several factors may be at play here:

1.) Parents whose sons and daughters had behavior problems during childhood may be more likely to have negative expectations as their child enters adolescence. Indeed, having a history of childhood conduct problems does increase the likelihood of engaging in substance use, premature sex, and rule-breaking behavior in adolescence.

2.) Parents with a personal history of adolescent misbehavior and parents with older adolescents who misbehave may presume that their child will follow a similar path. Children whose parents and older siblings engage in drug or alcohol use, delinquency, or early sexual activity are, in fact, more likely to engage in these behaviors themselves. Genetics play a powerful role in addictions, risk-taking, and impulsive behaviors. In addition, children whose family members engage in substance use have easier access to drugs and alcohol themselves. Finally, parents and older siblings are powerful role models who teach their children, through example, what is and is not acceptable behavior.

3.) Parents’ negative expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Some parents convey, whether subtly or overtly, that drug use, drinking, and sex are as much an inevitable part of adolescence as menarche and chest hair. These parents may be less likely to set firm limits with their children and may not impose consistent consequences for engaging in misbehavior. Perhaps the children of these parents are more likely to internalize their parents’ negative expectations and engage in misbehavior.

So, in addition to genetics and social learning, stereotypes and negative expectations play a powerful role in shaping children’s behavior. The same phenomenon, I’m afraid, is present between therapist and patient (minus the genetics, of course). Stereotypes and negative expectations play a powerful role in bad psychotherapy. There are many unsubstantiated theories of psychopathology that, when espoused by therapists and used in “treatment,” can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies. Here are a few examples:

1.) A therapist presumes that a teenager’s depression is the result of family dysfunction. In order to give the patient a sense of autonomy and protect his confidentiality, the therapist does not involve the family and instead focuses exclusively on the patient. Sessions are spent discussing the problems in the patient’s relationship with his parents. Meanwhile, the parents are growing increasingly worried about their son’s frequent crying, social withdrawal, angry outbursts, and declining school performance. The patient tells his parents that his depression is their fault. Mother blames father for working too much and not spending enough time with the patient. Father blames mother for coddling the patient. The parents’ marriage becomes strained, and the younger brother begins to act out as well.

2.) A therapist asserts that a patient suffering from anorexia nervosa or substance abuse will recover “when she wants to” or “when she’s ready.” The therapist then waits to see signs of “readiness” before pursuing aggressive intervention. Meanwhile, the patient is in the grips of a powerfully self-rewarding, self-perpetuating cycle of starvation or substance abuse and is thus rendered, by virtue of the illness, unable to “choose” recovery. The patient’s symptoms do not abate. Thus, the therapist continues to espouse the belief that the patient is not ready to choose recovery. The patient does not improve, and she concludes that she was not ready for treatment. Now, in addition to her life-threatening and agonizing symptoms, she is carrying around a massive load of guilt, self-blame, and probably blame from her loved ones as well, who don’t understand why she won’t choose recovery. Her symptoms worsen.

3.) A therapist presumes that a patient’s symptoms are the result of a grave trauma, although the patient does not report a history of trauma and there is no other evidence to suggest trauma. Therapy focuses on uncovering this trauma in order to resolve the patient’s symptoms. The therapist asks leading questions in order to confirm her hypothesis that the patient has been abused. The patient, who trusts the therapist and believes in her methods, develops a false memory of abuse. The patient continues to struggle with her symptoms. The therapist tells the patient that she must unravel the roots of her problems, and that it will take many years for her to recover. It does.

4.) A therapist presumes that a patient’s eating disorder is the result of over-controlling parents or relentless boundary violations. The patient is told that, in order to recover, she must break free from her parents’ tyranny and set boundaries for herself. The patient wants desperately to recover but struggles with restrictive eating and drastic weight loss. The therapist helps the patient explore various events of her childhood which supposedly demonstrate parental over-control (“My dad wouldn’t let me wear short skirts to school!”) or boundary violations (“My mom read my diary when I was 13!”). The patient recalls more and more of these types of incidents and discusses them in therapy while she continues to starve and lose weight. Meanwhile, her parents are doing everything in their power to ensure that she eats more: they force her to attend family meals, they pack her lunch for her, they cook for her. These “controlling” behaviors provide more grist for the therapy mill. Eventually, at the therapist’s encouragement, the patient moves out of her parents’ house, gets her own apartment, and stops coming to therapy. The therapist assumes that, released from her overbearing parents, the patient has addressed the root of her illness and has recovered. She has not.

These theories perpetuate themselves, and some practitioners cling to them like religious dogma. Like religious zealots, they latch onto evidence that confirms their belief, and they disregard any evidence to the contrary. They view every patient through the lens of their theory and structure their treatment accordingly. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Unless you have suffered from a mental illness, it is difficult to imagine how much it crushes your spirit, distorts your thoughts, warps your perception of reality, and alters your behavior. Unless you have sought therapy yourself, you may not realize just how vulnerable you are, especially as an adolescent or young adult, when you are sitting on the therapist’s couch with all of those distorted thoughts and feelings and perceptions. You are absolutely miserable, and you can’t stand feeling this way any more. The therapist is the expert, the savior, the one who will rescue you from your despair. She comes to know you better than anyone else in your life, and you are certain that she has your best interest in mind. You tell her your deepest secrets, you listen, you trust her, and you do whatever she says you need to do.

My point here is not to overly-dramatize the therapeutic relationship, because I think my description is actually quite realistic. My point is to convey just how harmful stereotypes, negative expectations, and unsubstantiated theories of mental illness can be. Bad therapy is not just ineffective – it has the potential to be every bit as harmful as a surgical error.

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Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Reflections from a Rocking Chair

The recent media frenzy over the “balloon boy” hoax has gotten me thinking about the use of the media in today’s society and how it impacts our youth. The explosion of mass media over the past 10 – 15 years, from 24-hour news networks to the internet and email to blackberries and cell phones for everyone, has undoubtedly had a positive impact in many ways. Vital information can be widely disseminated at the click of a button. Parents can keep close tabs on their children. Businesspeople can check their email and voicemail during the metro ride home. Practically anyone can contact anyone else in the world, anytime, from virtually anywhere, using at least two different forms of instant communication. So much has changed since the bygone days of my own adolescence (we’re talking mid-1990’s) that I am beginning to feel like a grandparent on a rocking chair, pontificating about how, back in my day, we had to walk 10 miles to school in the snow uphill both ways.

And then there’s the ugly side. We spend precious time surfing the internet, watching YouTube videos and facebooking and twittering and texting. This is time that could have been spent reading or playing outside or exercising or engaging in a hobby or spending quality time with family and friends. Going a day, or even a few hours, without internet access leaves some people paralyzed. We feel naked without our cell phones; out of touch without instant access to emails. The amount of time we spend chained to various electronic devices continues to increase exponentially to the point where many people can no longer really relax or get away from their work or their social obligations.

My greatest concern about the mass media explosion is the impact it has on youth – their perceptions of reality, their aspirations for fame or recognition, their interpersonal boundaries, their privacy, their sense of what is normal and reasonable and right. I find it disconcerting when a young patient decorates her myspace with pictures of the scars on her wrists or photos of herself at a dangerously low weight. I am frightened when a teenage girl shares intimate details of her abuse history and her multiple psychiatric hospitalizations with her “friends” on facebook. “Everyone does it,” they say. “It’s not a big deal. It’s who I am.” It IS a big deal, I argue. And no, it’s NOT who you are. Therein lies the rub.

A person who presents herself online in this fashion is engaging in a disturbing form of emotional exhibitionism that has proliferated alongside recent technological advances. She is promoting dangerous stereotypes, over-identifying with her illness, and encouraging others to do the same. I do my best to chip away at the silence and stigma surrounding mental illness, and I firmly believe that having depression or bulimia or borderline personality disorder is not something to be ashamed of. But it’s also not something to advertise to a world-wide audience of anonymous viewers with questionable motives. These are issues to be discussed with a therapist, with family members, with a select group of long-time, trusted friends.

I am ambivalent about the proliferation of websites and blogs about personal experiences with mental illnesses. On one hand, as a therapist, I fully appreciate the healing power of writing, sharing, and connecting. Individuals who share their personal stories of psychological disorders with a worldwide audience are providing hope, support, and inspiration to others who are in similar positions, while slowly chipping away at the shame, secrecy, and stigma that continues to surround mental illness.

I frequent several blogs (Carrie Arnold’s ED Bites, Laura Collins’ Eating With Your Anorexic, and Harriet Brown’s Feed Me) authored by individuals who have personally struggled with eating disorders or helped loved ones recover. I admire these authors’ commitment to advocating for improved awareness, understanding, information, and evidence-based treatment for eating disorders. The authors’ personal experiences are interwoven with scientific research in ways that educate, enlighten, and inspire.

On the other hand, I have also read numerous websites and blogs, authored by individuals with mental illnesses, which I can only characterize as glaring emotional exhibitionism. These blogs are not-so-subtle cries for help, yearnings for deeper connection through a superficial medium. I am not quite sure who is benefitting from a young woman’s blog posts detailing her various creative methods of purging or her meager consumption of carrot sticks for days on end. How about writing in a good old fashioned journal? Seeing a therapist? Joining a support group? Calling a friend? Meanwhile, how about developing a healthy identity apart from your symptoms and making real-life friends outside your diagnostic category?

The individuals who use the internet in this way are not the source of the problem. They are the victims of a society that fails to teach appropriate interpersonal boundaries and encourages people to sacrifice their self-respect for a chance at instant notoriety. What happens ten years down the road, when the teenage “cutter” with a provocative personal website applies for a job as a high school teacher? How will this deeply personal, globally publicized information impact the course of her life? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll step away from my computer, get back on my rocking chair, and try to remember what life was like before blogging.

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Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Lifestyles of the Depressed and Anxious

Despite miraculous advances in science, medicine, and technology, the rates of mental illness in the western world are higher than ever before. For instance, the rate of depression in the United States is ten times higher today than it was just two generations ago. Most mental illnesses are biologically-based and genetically-transmitted, but genes don’t change that fast, and we are biologically quite similar to our ancestors. Prior to the 20th century, human beings faced more risk and hardship on a regular basis than most of us will ever know, all without the advantage of modern science and medicine. But somehow, they were more resilient. How can this be?

Research suggests that many features of the modern lifestyle are toxic to our mental health. Most Americans have at least one, if not many, of the following issues:

• Too little sleep (less than 8 hours per night)
• Not enough exercise
• Insufficient exposure to sunlight
• Insufficient time outdoors
• Hectic, overscheduled lifestyles
• Too little “down time” to relax and unwind
• Poor eating habits (dieting, skipping breakfast, overeating, having too few fruits and vegetables, skimping on protein and dairy and carbohydrates and fats, eating too many processed foods, insufficient intake to meet one’s energy demands)
• High levels of stress
• High levels of caffeine consumption (more than 2 caffeinated beverages per day)
• Excess alcohol consumption
• Use of illegal drugs
• Over-reliance on prescription and over-the-counter medications
• Social isolation
• Underutilization of family and community supports
• Intense pressure (self-imposed and socially prescribed) to achieve and perform

Sound familiar?

Any one of these issues has the potential to trigger a mental illness in someone who is biologically vulnerable. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most Americans are dealing with several of these concerns simultaneously. No wonder we are so depressed and anxious!

Hundreds of years ago, our lifestyles were much simpler and much healthier. Our better habits were reflected in our mental health. Consider the Amish, who pride themselves on resisting societal change and maintaining their 18th century lifestyle. The Amish have very low rates of mental illness. I believe this is largely attributable to their lifestyles: they are physically active every day, they get plenty of sleep, they simplify their lives, they have low levels of stress, they eat naturally and nutritiously without dieting, they are deeply spiritual, they have a strong sense of community, and they rely upon their families, neighbors, and churches for social support.

Consider the Kaluli, an aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribe native to the highlands of New Guinea. Relatively untouched by modern society, their lifestyles closely resemble those of our ancestors. They live and work outdoors, they are physically active for most of the day, they eat naturally and bountifully from the land, they get plenty of sleep, and they rely heavily on their families and communities for support. A western anthropologist who studied the Kaluli people for nearly a decade found that clinical depression was virtually nonexistent in their tribe.

I would bet that many Amish and Kaluli people have biological predispositions for mental illnesses, but these genes are less likely to be expressed in an environment that protects and nurtures the body, mind, and spirit. We are less likely to develop body image problems if we grow up in a society without dieting and without a narrowly-defined, media-promoted, unhealthy standard of beauty. We are less likely to develop eating disorders if we live in a society in which everyone eats, effortlessly and without guilt, the types and quantities of foods that their bodies need. We are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression if we are well-rested, well-nourished, and well-supported by our families and communities. Our children are less likely to show signs of inattention and hyperactivity if they get plenty of fresh air and outdoor exercise and have minimal exposure to television, computers, video games, and cell phones. We may discover that, if we are truly caring for ourselves, we don’t need a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning, we don’t want to go out drinking on the weekends, and most of our aches and pains will diminish without the use of Advil. We may find that we actually enjoy going to bed at 9:00 and rising with the sun, spending more time outdoors, being more physically active, and letting go of excess stress that weighs us down.

Perhaps our minds are not suited for the modern world. The evolution of our brains has not kept up with advances in science, technology, and other aspects of modern life. I am not suggesting that, in a Survivor-like twist of events, we turn back time and return to our ancestral hunter-gatherer environment. Science and technology and modern society are remarkable in many ways, and I feel fortunate to live in the twenty-first century. I am suggesting, however, that we take a critical look at the way we live our lives and examine the effects that our behaviors and lifestyles have on our mental health. We can learn a few lessons from the Kaluli and the Amish. We can place more emphasis on our own self-care and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

When I was working at a university counseling center, a colleague of mine had a client – a college freshman – who met full criteria for major depression and an anxiety disorder. This young man’s case was puzzling initially because his symptoms appeared rather suddenly after starting college and he had no family history of depression or anxiety. After a thorough evaluation, my colleague recommended a few simple behavioral changes such as improving his sleep hygiene, increasing the number of hours he slept each night, decreasing his consumption of alcohol and caffeine, and increasing his physical activity. Within two weeks of changing his habits, his symptoms had disappeared entirely and he was back to his full-functioning, high-energy self.

The moral of this story is that poor self-care not only triggers or exacerbates mental illness in those who are biologically vulnerable, but it can actually create a syndrome that appears identical to a mental illness in those without a predisposition.

Very few people fully appreciate the value of self-care. Children are taught to excel in school and sports and music and arts and various other extracurricular activities. They are taught to follow the Ten Commandments and keep their rooms clean and mind their manners and look pretty. As they grow older, they are taught to stay away from drugs and have safe sex and watch their waistlines. But who will teach them good mental hygiene? Self-care is either glossed over or ignored completely in school. Many well-intentioned parents don’t model good self-care – they are overworked, overscheduled, overtired, overmedicated, over-caffeinated, and undernourished. These parents may encourage good grades and good behavior, but they are unlikely to instill good self-care habits in their children. Most physicians overlook the role of lifestyle factors in triggering or exacerbating mental illnesses, and they use medication as the first line of treatment, even if the patient’s problem could be addressed more effectively with behavioral interventions. Many therapists do not teach their clients the importance of self-care in preventing and reducing the impact of mental illness, instead choosing to target cognitive distortions or family relations or interpersonal skills. Don’t get me wrong – these issues are important as well – but without the baseline of good nutrition, plenty of sleep and exercise, stress management, and other healthy habits, the client is likely to continue to struggle with some level of depression or anxiety.

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Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Jagged Little Pills

More Americans than ever before are taking psychotropic medication. The number of people on antidepressants doubled between 1996 – 2006, yet the number of people seeing mental health professionals declined during that time period. Over 80% of prescriptions for psychotropic drugs are written by primary care physicians. I find these trends a little hard to swallow.

The overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underutilization of behavioral and psychosocial treatments are disturbing on several levels. First, these trends are clearly driven by greed and profit. It serves the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies to minimize patient contact with healthcare professionals, even at the expense of quality of care. Pharmaceutical companies, with their numerous advertisements on television, on the internet, and in magazines, have the potential to reach a very large number of consumers.

Second, clients are not fully informed about all of their treatment options. More information is usually better than less information. The problem, however, is that most Americans don’t have the education and training to understand this information, nor should they. It is up to the professionals to use their knowledge and expertise, as well as their clinical judgment, to decide whether, when, and what medication to prescribe for a particular patient. That’s the way it should be. Remember the good old days when your doctor told YOU which medications you should take? Now, the commercials use cartoon neurotransmitters and wind-up dolls and present overly-simplified portraits of recovery from depression, while urging you to “Ask your doctor” how the drug du jour can help you. Another ad reads: “Taking an antidepressant? Still having symptoms of depression? Adding Abilify to your antidepressant may help.” The benefits are exaggerated and the serious side effects are downplayed. The ad does not tell you that psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, increased social support, improved nutrition, regular exercise, and adequate sleep are also likely to help. But hey, who has time for all of that? And when is the last time you saw a TV commercial touting the benefits of Dialectical Behavior Therapy? The result of this advertising is that patients go to a psychiatrist who quickly prescribes a medication after a brief evaluation and, in most cases, does no psychotherapy whatsoever. Even worse, the majority of patients will go to their primary care physician who, after a five or ten minute conversation, prescribes the psychotropic medication that the uninformed client saw on TV last night or the one of which she has samples left over from yesterday’s drug representative’s visit. There is usually minimal, if any, follow-up care, and many of these patients are maintained on a dosage of medication that is so low that it results in no therapeutic benefit whatsoever. Except maybe a placebo effect.

Third – and this point is closely related to my first and second points – clients are not getting adequate, quality mental health care. For many mental illnesses, such as panic disorder, bulimia nervosa, mild depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD, certain forms of psychotherapy are more effective than medication. For other mental illnesses, such as recurrent major depression, the combination of psychotherapy and medication generally produces the best outcome. In many cases, adding psychotherapy to medication treatment allows clients to take fewer medications and lower doses of medication. Clients who receive a combination of psychotherapy and medication are less likely to relapse when the medication is discontinued, compared to clients who are treated with medication alone. The benefits of good psychotherapy are long-lasting and, in some cases, curative. In contrast, medication is merely palliative, and its benefits usually fade once it is discontinued. For certain conditions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and recurrent major depression, medication is clearly indicated as a necessary component of treatment and should be started immediately after diagnosis. Even in these cases, medication alone is often insufficient. Clients’ symptoms can be reduced even further, and their quality of life improved even more, when psychotherapy is combined with medication.

Finally, the fact that psychotropic medication is grossly over-prescribed and over-marketed seems to trivialize the experience of people who genuinely need psychiatric medication. Many times, I have raised the issue of psychiatric medication with clients whom I think can benefit from it. Many times, they have responded: “Oh, no. I don’t want to take a happy pill.” Or “No, I don’t want to use medication as a crutch.” Or “I don’t want to become dependent on something.” Or “That’s the easy way out.” I believe that our society’s nonchalance regarding psychotropic medication is directly responsible for some clients’ aversion to it. However, the fact that psychotropic medication is prescribed at the drop of a hat does not negate the reality that some people genuinely need it and some people truly benefit from it.

My own experience as a therapist has reinforced what I have learned by studying the research. My views on psychotropic medication can be summarized as follows: medication can be a very helpful adjunct to psychotherapy for clients who clearly need it. In other words, while I am by no means anti-medication, I am somewhat conservative in my approach to it. Case in point: although virtually all of my clients have a diagnosed mental illness, only half of them are taking psychotropic medication. For most clients, the first form of treatment should be psychotherapy focused on improving self-care, making lifestyle changes, acquiring coping skills, improving symptoms, and dealing with interpersonal issues. Medication may be introduced as an adjunct to therapy if the client does not make substantial improvement with therapy alone. I have seen many clients make marked improvements or recover completely without ever taking psychotropic medication. With clients for whom medication is clearly indicated (e.g., those with bipolar disorder), I will refer them to a psychiatrist immediately while also emphasizing that therapy, behavioral interventions, and self-care are important aspects of treatment as well. I don’t like my clients to take psychotropic medication prescribed by their family doctor for all of the reasons mentioned above. If a client comes to me on a psychotropic medication prescribed by their family doctor, I explain the importance of seeing a psychiatrist (e.g., they have specialized training in psychiatric illnesses and are more knowledgeable about psychotropic medication, they provide more thorough evaluations and better follow-up care than general practitioners) and I provide them with psychiatric referrals.

In order to rectify this situation, I believe that the following things must happen:

1.) Primary care physicians should not prescribe psychotropic medications. Instead, they should identify those patients who may have a mental illness and refer them to a psychologist or a psychiatrist for treatment.
2.) Psychiatrists should fully inform patients about the risks and benefits of taking medication, the risks and benefits of not taking medication, and scientifically-sound information on the effectiveness of medication. In addition, psychiatrists should inform patients about the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy, either in lieu of medication or in addition to medication. Psychiatrists should only prescribe medication to patients who are also in therapy.
3.) Psychologists and other therapists should be conservative in referring patients for psychiatric treatment and in recommending psychiatric medication.
4.) The pharmaceutical companies should stop advertising to consumers. They can still market themselves to physicians and mental health practitioners, since these professionals have the training and knowledge to use this information appropriately.
5.) Insurance companies should provide coverage for psychotherapy that is equal to the coverage they provide for psychotropic medication. Likewise, insurance companies should reimburse psychologists and other therapists at the same rate as psychiatrists.
6.) Every American should have access to local, affordable, quality, evidence-based psychotherapy.

Optimistic? Yes. Idealistic? Yes. Impossible? Absolutely not. It may not happen anytime soon, but for now, I can practice what I preach and apply my philosophy to my own clinical work.

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