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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Tag: Anxiety

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

There’s an App for That!

 

Technology can be used in a variety of ways to enhance mental health and aid in recovery from psychological disorders.   For example, patients can use smart phone apps to help them track moods and symptoms, implement coping strategies, and reach out for help from clinicians and peers when needed.   Most evidence-based, behaviorally-oriented treatments for mental health problems – such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – require some degree of self-monitoring.  These types of treatments also strongly encourage daily practices to enhance well-being, such as journaling, identifying and challenging negative thoughts, diaphragmatic breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

Most of the teenagers and college students I work with are far beyond the old pen-and-paper logs and worksheets I was trained to use during graduate school.  It seems there’s an app for everything these days, and so many of these apps are relevant to mental health and wellness.  Today’s young people organize their lives on their smart phones anyway, so it is only natural that we would look to the smartphone to help them self-monitor their symptoms, complete their therapy assignments, and keep track of the strategies they use to help themselves.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that are useful to people with mental health conditions.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Recovery Record app helps patients with eating disorders self-monitor their meals and snacks as well as thoughts, feelings, and urges that arise around food.

The Insight Timer app offers a meditation timer, thousands of free guided meditation tracks, groups for like-minded meditators, and the ability to track quantitative statistics such as how many minutes the user spends each day in meditation.

DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach is an electronic version of the Diary Card used in standard DBT practice, which helps the patient track target behaviors and utilize DBT skills from the modules of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The nOCD app helps patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder implement their exposure and response prevention treatment while compiling objective, real-time data on their experience.

I am a firm believer that what transpires in the therapist’s office is only a fraction of the treatment package.  Most of the healing process results from consistent changes that patients and their families make on a daily basis at home, at school, and in various social settings.   Thanks to modern technology, individuals who are committed to improving their well-being are now able to hold new tools, literally, in the palms of their hands.

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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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Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Giving Thanks

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I am faced daily with stories of tragedy, trauma, illness, conflict, and loss. Each therapy session is a window into private suffering.

“Isn’t it hard?” people ask me. “Isn’t it awful to listen to people’s problems all day long? Doesn’t it make you depressed?” My answers to these questions are: “Yes,” “No,” and “Quite the opposite.” It is painful to witness people suffering, but it is endlessly rewarding to help them triumph.

Rather than letting other people’s pain drag me down, I feel honored that they have shared it with me and privileged that I am in a position to help them cope with it. I am intimately aware of the obstacles people face – and overcome – every single day. Being a clinical psychologist provides me with daily opportunities to participate in stories of healing, strength, opportunity, resolution, and empowerment.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans begin to think about expressing gratitude for the things we take for granted the rest of the year. Consider these:

If you get out of bed next Thursday, give thanks.
There are those with depression who cannot do so without herculean effort.

If you are preparing to host relatives in your home, give thanks.
There are those with crippling social anxiety for whom a house full of guests would be unthinkable.

If you are planning to travel across several time zones to spend the holiday with relatives, give thanks.
There are those with mood disorders for whom jet lag can trigger an episode of mania or depression.

If you are looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, give thanks.
There are those with anorexia nervosa for whom a holiday feast is an object of fear, loathing, and guilt.

If you set the table next Thursday in under five minutes, give thanks.
There are those with OCD who cannot relax unless every napkin, fork, and knife is lined up precisely.

If you sit on the couch after dinner to watch football with your uncles and cousins, give thanks.
There are those with bulimia nervosa who will be pacing around the house, waiting for an opportunity to purge unnoticed.

If you settle into bed with a good book later that evening, give thanks.
There are those who will be cutting their forearms with a razor to numb themselves from the intolerable emotions triggered by the day’s events.

If you go to bed Thanksgiving night satiated and content, give thanks.
There are those whose restless worry keeps them up until sunrise.

If you have never even considered feeling grateful for these ordinary things, give thanks.
Our mental health, and that of our family, should not be taken for granted.

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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.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa


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.

    Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified


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.

    Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders


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.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anxiety Disorders


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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Friday, November 1st, 2013

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Anxiety Disorders

Since opening my practice in 2009, I have evaluated 14 patients who presented with a primary diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. All former patients who attended at least one treatment session with me following their evaluation were included in this sample (n = 9). Those who are currently still in treatment with me were not included in this sample. Please bear in mind that the results described below are specific to my practice and my patients, and should not be generalized to other therapists or other patient populations.

The sample described includes nine female patients who ranged in age from 10 to 42 years old (median age = 22). The patients’ primary diagnoses were Panic Disorder (n = 3), Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (n = 2), Acute Stress Disorder (n = 2), Hypochondriasis (n = 1), and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (n = 1). One-third of the patients (n = 3) had a comorbid diagnosis: one had Social Anxiety Disorder, one had Major Depressive Disorder, and one had Depressive Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

Duration of treatment ranged from one month to 11 months, with a mean duration of 5.6 months. Number of sessions attended ranged from 1 session to 18 sessions, with a mean of 10 sessions.

The primary treatment model used was individual Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The children in this sample (n = 2) each had a high degree of family involvement, with a parent participating in part of each session. All of the college-aged patients in this sample (n = 3) were treated individually but had some degree of family involvement, with a parent participating in at least one session over the course of treatment. Amongst the adult patients in this sample (n = 4), half had no family involvement and half had some family involvement, with a loved one attending one session over the course of treatment.

None of the patients in this sample had a history of psychiatric hospitalizations before beginning treatment with me, and none of them needed to be hospitalized while in treatment with me. Forty-four percent (n = 4) of these patients took psychotropic medication during treatment. Approximately 56% of patients (n = 5) paid a reduced rate for my services based on their financial situation, and the remaining 44% (n = 4) paid my full rate.

For the purposes of this study, “full remission” was defined as complete absence of anxiety disorder symptoms in the past two weeks, along with good social, occupational, and academic functioning. “Significant progress” was defined having substantially less severe and less frequent anxiety symptoms compared to intake, along with significant improvement in social, occupational, and academic functioning. “Some progress” was defined as having somewhat less severe and frequent anxiety symptoms compared to intake, along with fair social, occupational, and academic functioning.

Forty-four percent (n = 4) of the patients in this sample completed treatment. The remaining 56% (n = 5) quit treatment prematurely. Seventy-five percent of the patients who completed treatment (n = 3) achieved full remission, and the remaining 25% (n = 1) made significant progress.

Patients who quit treatment prematurely attended an average of 12 sessions before quitting. Amongst patients who quit treatment prematurely, 80% (n = 4) had made significant progress at the time of the last session they attended, and the remaining 20% (n = 1) had made some progress. Importantly, the only individual who did not make significant progress quit treatment after attending only an evaluation and one treatment session.

In sum, patients with anxiety disorders responded very well to treatment in a relatively short period of time. All patients 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.

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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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Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

In Defense of Helicopter Parenting

Last month, Time Magazine ran an article about the dangers of over-involved, over-protective parenting (otherwise known as “helicopter parenting” because these parents tend to hover over their children). The article is well-researched, well-written, and very interesting. As a therapist who frequently encounters this phenomenon in the parents of my adolescent and young adult patients, and as a product of this type of parenting myself, I have a few thoughts and observations on the issue.

I agree wholeheartedly with the author that today’s parents are far too over-involved and over-protective, and this is particularly true amongst middle- to upper-class families with well-educated parents. According to psychologist Eric Ericson, the primary developmental task of middle adulthood (ages 30-50) is seeking satisfaction through productivity in career, family, and civic interests. This is precisely the age at which adults are parenting young children and adolescents, and for helicopter parents, their striving for productivity is channeled into their children. Parents’ intentions are good, but the outcome can be problematic. You see, the middle adulthood psychosocial task of productivity stands in diametric opposition to the adolescent developmental task of identity formation. Children need to play, explore, relax, and interact with their surroundings in creative, imaginative ways. Adolescents need to loaf, “hang out,” date, experience “teen angst,” spend quality time with family and friends, develop their social skills, make their own choices (within reason), make mistakes, and learn from them.

Ideally, a healthy person will emerge from adolescence with a solid self-identity, resilience, confidence, good problem-solving skills, and the ability to tolerate discomfort and failure. Having worked in several college counseling centers, I can attest that many kids arrive at college without these skills and attributes. Their lives have been geared entirely towards achievement in academics, arts, and athletics, often not for the love of science or music or soccer, but because their parents pushed them and/or because they believed it would improve their chances of gaining admission to a prestigious college. Quite often, they don’t know how to structure their time, study properly, deal with disappointment, or make decisions independently. Sadly, many of them do not know who they are or what they enjoy.

Helicopter parenting has the potential to be quite harmful to children by increasing their stress and anxiety and preventing them from developing self-confidence, resourcefulness, problem-solving skills, distress tolerance skills, emotion regulation skills, and creativity. Children and adolescents are over-scheduled, over-worked, and pushed to succeed, often at the expense of their emotional health. There is not enough unstructured time for kids to play, explore, or create. There is little room for adolescent identity formation in between AP classes, Princeton Review SAT prep courses, college applications, three varsity sports, band practice, clubs, and mandatory community service hours.

These issues notwithstanding, one problem I have seen far too often in my profession is the tendency for therapists to blame helicopter parents for causing their child’s eating disorder. It is easy to look at over-involved parents and an adolescent’s misguided search for control and identity through self-starvation and conclude that the former caused the latter. But the belief that over-involved, controlling, or enmeshed parents cause children to develop anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN) lacks solid scientific evidence. What’s worse, this belief has the potential to undermine treatment, disempower parents, confuse children, perpetuate deadly symptoms, erode physical and mental health, destroy families, and turn an acute illness into a chronic and disabling one.

There is a correlation between over-involved, over-protective parenting and the development of AN, but correlation does not necessarily indicate causation. If variable A (helicopter parenting) and variable B (child’s development of AN) are correlated, there are several possible explanations for the relationship between these two variables:

1.) A causes B
2.) B causes A
3.) Variable C causes both A and B
4.) Variables D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, and N work together in complex ways to influence the development of both A and B.

Let’s examine each possible explanation.

1.) Explanation 1: Helicopter parenting causes children to develop AN. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support this explanation. Ironically, this explanation is touted far more frequently than the others, even by clinicians who specialize in treating eating disorders.
2.) Explanation 2: A child’s AN causes parents to become over-involved or over-protective. There is some evidence to support this explanation. If parents were not anxious, cautious, protective, or hovering before their child developed AN, you’d better believe they will be once their child becomes ill. This phenomenon is not unique to AN. Parents of children with any illness or medical condition naturally worry about their child and do whatever they can to protect her.
3.) Explanation 3: A third variable causes both helicopter parenting and AN in children. There is a wealth of evidence to support the genetic transmission of AN as well as related personality traits. The personality traits that predispose people to developing AN – anxiety, obsessiveness, perfectionism, and harm-avoidance – are largely genetic. In an adolescent female, these traits are likely to manifest as an eating disorder. In a middle-aged, middle-class, intelligent, well-educated parent, these traits are likely to manifest as over-involvement, over-protection, and over-investment in their child.
4.) Explanation 4: A complex interaction of other variables work together to produce both helicopter parenting and AN in children. This is the most thorough, and probably the most accurate explanation. As stated in explanation #3, genetics plays a major role in the development of AN. A wealth of environmental variables are also believed to influence the development of parenting style as well as AN (e.g., level of education, income, culture, peer group, family background, exposure to stressful life events).

I love working with adolescent children of helicopter parents. I require parents to be fully informed and actively involved in their child’s treatment, and helicopter parents slide seamlessly into this role. They are excellent candidates for Maudsley Family-Based Treatment because their anxiety level is high enough to propel them towards action, they thoroughly educate themselves on their child’s condition, they seek out the best treatment and resources, they are vigilant and persistent, they maintain a very high level of involvement and supervision, and they are tremendously invested in their child’s recovery. Misguided, ill-informed, old-school therapists argue that these characteristics caused the child’s AN, and they advise parents to “back off” and allow the child to make her own choices about food and weight and treatment. This approach rarely leads to lasting recovery.

While helicopter parenting certainly has the potential to cause harm, it can also be used to the child’s advantage in recovery if channeled properly. Helicopter parents tend to be wildly successful in Maudsley Phase I (re-feeding / weight restoration), and largely successful in Phase II (helping the adolescent eat properly on her own). Some of these parents are eager to step back in Phase III as their child deals with psychological and social issues and develops a healthy adolescent identity. Other parents struggle to let go when the time comes. With proper guidance from a good therapist, however, most helicopter parents can learn to manage their own anxiety enough to allow their children to blossom and develop as healthy, independent young adults. This does not come naturally for them, but never underestimate the power of the helicopter parent. If the therapist who helped save their beloved child from a life threatening illness coaches them to step back and let go, they’ll do it.

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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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