mental health

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Understanding Aster: How Singing And Dancing Help Heal A Child’s Trauma

For the past four years, I’ve been involved with a local nonprofit, the North Cambridge Family Opera, which stages original productions featuring cast members age 7 to grandma, and with a range of abilities. In 2011, I wrote about how performing in the group’s opera helped children with autism. This year, I was struck by the story of how music helps heal the past trauma of one young cast member, 8-year-old Aster, adopted from Ethiopia after her birth parents died. I asked Aster’s mother to write a bit about their experience. Here’s her post:

By Marina Vyrros
Guest contributor

In the mid 1990s, I worked as a refugee aide in the Guatemalan rainforest.

Many people in that community — having fled horrific atrocities, like their villages being razed or worse — were suffering from post-traumatic stress.

Atrocities notwithstanding, a contingent of ranchero musicians somehow managed to lug homemade, oversized guitars to the camps and play music each night, often in the 100-degree heat.

While the NGO’s provided a valuable service — helping the people rebuild their external structures — the service that the ranchers provided, though perhaps less tangible, was invaluable. Their nightly gatherings, singing songs about their plight, helped the community to rebuild and heal internally.

Four years ago, when I adopted an almost 4-year old child from Ethiopia (who continues to recover from the trauma of having lost both birth parents during her formative, early childhood years) the lesson of the power of music was not lost on me.

Claudia M. Gold, a pediatrician, blogger and author of “Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child’s Eyes,” explains what may be going on in my daughter’s brain:

“Severe meltdowns are common in children who have experienced early trauma, at the time when the higher cortical centers of the brain were not yet fully developed. Stress of a seemingly minor nature can lead the rational brain to in a sense go ‘off-line.’ The child will have access only to the lower brain centers that function more instinctively.”

Especially during her first few years in Cambridge, Aster’s meltdowns were epic, but music and dance have consistently provided the most important vehicle to help her regulate her emotions.

Before, she might bang on the walls, now, to relieve her frustration, she pounds on a djembe, an African drum, in an afterschool program; instead of crying over seemingly inconsequential things, now, to release her emotions she invents and belts out Whitney Houston-y type songs, tears streaming down her face. To release her energy — which is abundant — she dances around. Everywhere. It all helps.

Recently, over the past five months, Aster’s been singing, dancing and even acting with the North Cambridge Family Opera based in Cambridge. In this year’s production, “Rain Dance,” she and the other animals living on the South African savannah elect a Machiavellian lion in a desperate attempt to end the local drought. Trouble ensues.

All kinds of research suggests that music can minimize the symptoms of post traumatic stress and other types of trauma. A 2011 study found that guitar-playing can help veterans with PTSD drown out the traumatic memories of bombs blasting; and in 2008 researchers found some reduction of post-traumatic stress symptoms following drumming, in particular “an increased sense of openness, togetherness, belonging, sharing, closeness, connectedness and intimacy, as well as achieving a non-intimidating access to traumatic memories, facilitating an outlet for rage and regaining a sense of self-control.”

Dr. Ross Greene, author of “The Explosive Child” writes that “children with behavioral issues don’t lack the will, they lack the skills.” Continue reading

Coerced Sex Common For Teen Boys And Young Men, Study Finds

A few nights ago, unable to wind down, I was searching for something to watch and stumbled across the film “Adore.” It’s about a pair of lifelong friends (grown women) who end up having affairs with each other’s young, hunky, 19- or 20-year-old sons. My first reaction was the same as one Netflix commenter:

“…if this had been two pals and each other’s teen daughter; well, you get the point. The movie would not have been made, or if so, it would have had an entirely different hue-to say the least. DOUBLE STANDARDS.”

Or, as A.O Scott wrote in his New York Times review:

“It is worth noting that the same movie about a couple of dads sleeping with each other’s 20-year-old daughters would need, at a minimum, to confront the ickiness of the situation. Really, such a movie would be unlikely to make it into theaters, in spite of the commonness of real-life relationships between older men and younger women.”

(Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancoft in "The Graduate"; Movie-Fan/flickr)

(Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancoft in “The Graduate”; Movie-Fan/flickr)

The film isn’t about sexually coercion; but it is about boundary breaking, and I thought of it again reading this new study on the pervasive, but largely unexamined problem of sexual coercion among boys and young men.

The study, published in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, found that coerced sex is fairly common for teenage boys and college-age men and can lead to psychological distress and risky behavior, such as sexual risk-taking and alcohol use.

From the American Psychological Association news release:

A total of 43 percent of high school boys and young college men reported they had an unwanted sexual experience and of those, 95 percent said a female acquaintance was the aggressor…

“Sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States, but the victimization of men is rarely explored,” said lead author Bryana H. French, PhD, of the University of Missouri. “Our findings can help lead to better prevention by identifying the various types of coercion that men face and by acknowledging women as perpetrators against men.” Continue reading

Study Ignites Debate Over Non-Drug Treatment For Schizophrenia

Antipsychotic medications (Wikimedia Commons)

Antipsychotic medications (Wikimedia Commons)

By Alexandra Morris
CommonHealth intern

Antipsychotic drugs are typically the first-line treatment for the roughly one percent of people who have schizophrenia — often in conjunction with psychotherapy. But for patients who are not helped by the drugs or cannot tolerate their side effects, what’s left?

Last month, the Lancet published a study looking at the effects of cognitive therapy on patients with schizophrenia who refused to take medication – and prompted a heated debate within the mental health community.

Cognitive therapy involves one-on-one meetings between a patient and a therapist to discuss ways to change thinking and behavior in response to their symptoms.

Patients in the study were randomly assigned to receive either treatment as usual — ranging from no treatment at all to psychosocial support and other methods — or treatment as usual plus cognitive therapy. The researchers found that by the end of the study, the patients who received cognitive therapy had reduced psychiatric symptoms as compared to those who did not receive cognitive therapy.

Sounds reasonable, no? But initial media coverage included headlines claiming that cognitive therapy was an effective alternative to antipsychotic treatment. The Guardian posted “At last, a promising alternative to antipsychotics for schizophrenia,” and Science magazine wrote, “Schizophrenia: Time to flush the meds?” BBC News reportedly posted a headline “Schizophrenia: Talking therapies ‘effective as drugs.’”

Shortly after the study hit the press, bloggers were off and running (from PLOS to The Mental Elf), highlighting the limitations in the study design, such as the small sample size of 74 patients and the fact that nearly a third of these patients dropped out of the study partway through. They urged readers not to generalize the effect of cognitive therapy on schizophrenia based on limited evidence.

In fact, cognitive therapy was never compared to antipsychotics in the study. Some patients were even prescribed antipsychotics during the trial as part of their routine treatment. Several of the media reports also failed to mention an important caveat – that the trial was conducted in a specific patient population: those with mild to moderate psychiatric symptoms, as compared to those with severe illness who require hospitalization. The findings therefore cannot be extrapolated to all patients suffering from schizophrenia.

Lead study author Dr. Tony Morrison of the University of Manchester attested to the high drop-out rate. Continue reading

Study: Soldiers Enter Military With Higher Rates Of Mental Illness

As suicide rates among soldiers climbed to new highs four years ago, researchers prepared surveys for the largest study to date of mental health risk within the military.

The study’s new findings, published as three papers in JAMA Psychiatry, show that soldiers who join the military come in with much higher rates of mental illness than the general public and that most suicides can be traced to these pre-enlistment conditions.

Researchers organized 327 meetings at Army installations across the country in 2011. A total of 5,428 soldiers — some in large auditoriums, some in small field offices — filled out questionnaires that they knew would be matched to their administrative records.

Almost 85 percent reported a mental health problem that began before they entered the military — with particularly high rates of impulsive behavior, trouble controlling anger and substance abuse.

Lead author Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, said many men and women reported developing new conditions while in the service. The soldiers’ anxiety, depression and PTSD were layered onto their existing problems. Continue reading

Study: Bullying Toll May Linger For Years, Leading To ‘Substantially’ Worse Health

(trix0r/flickr)

(trix0r/flickr)

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston report that children who have been bullied suffer not only the immediate blow of humiliation or worse, but that the toll of such childhood insults may linger for years — particularly if the bullying re-occurs — and lead to dramatically worse mental and physical health.

The negative impacts of chronic bullying may accumulate and snowball, researchers report, with ongoing bullying associated with greater depression symptoms in kids and lower self-worth over time.

From the study, “Peer Victimization in Fifth Grade and Health in Tenth Grade,” published in the journal Pediatrics:

We analyzed data from 4297 children surveyed at 3 time points (fifth, seventh, and tenth grades) in 3 cities. We used multivariable regressions to test longitudinal associations of bullying with mental and physical health by comparing youth who experienced bullying in both the past and present, experienced bullying in the present only, experienced bullying in the past only, or did not experience bullying.

RESULTS: Bullying was associated with worse mental and physical health, greater depression symptoms, and lower self-worth over time. Continue reading

Newton Suicides: Is High-Achiever School Culture Breaking Our Kids?

Nearly 400 parents attended a community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Nearly 400 parents attended a community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

Dr. Gonzalo Bacigalupe is the president of the American Family Therapy Academy and a professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He’s also a Newton dad, and writes here about the need to address the toxic effects of high-stress school culture and its possible role in recent teen suicides.

In Newton there have been three suicides in less than four months among our high school kids. To us, it feels like an epidemic. In general, the response of the school system has been to provide grief counselors plus meetings to air the sadness and share what the school is doing or plans to do in the future. Experts talk about suicide and psychological problems; they tell us, parents, what we already know: support your kids and be mindful of their mood and behaviors. The message: this is either a mental health problem or a parental issue.

But the school system is not taking responsibility for the stress the kids feel day after day because of the tremendous pressure the Newton high school culture exerts to achieve academically, participate in multiple extracurricular activities, and/or play competitive sports — never just for fun, always to score the best.

Of course, some students put pressure on themselves, and some feel pressure from their parents and peers. But the school system must hold itself accountable for the pressure it puts on its students.

The official message accepts this situation as an individual or family problem, rather than part of a collective narrowness and craze about achievement.

“Who could ever imagine that we’d be back here again under similar circumstances?” asked Newton Public Schools Superintendent David Fleishman Tuesday night as he welcomed nearly 400 parents to another community forum on teen suicide.

In the fall of 2013, some of us did tell him that this could happen again if systemic measures were not taken. I personally wrote him a long letter and forwarded the message to the principal of Newton South High School. In response, I received a thank-you note in which promises were made about the school doing more to support our children.

So just what is the culture of Newton’s public high schools? Despite the communal expressions of grief, this past Monday, the day of the funeral of Roee Grutman, many of his classmates, friends and acquaintances (this is a small high school) did not participate in this important event because most of the school kept all academic activities unchanged, including, for example, mid-year exams.

Despite the message to teachers about allowing students to miss classes, some teachers conducted business as usual. Many students may not have felt free to stand their ground and attend the funeral. They were deprived of participating in a collective healing that cannot be replaced by a session with a school counselor or a mental health practitioner. I know this; I am a psychologist, a family therapist, a public health researcher and a specialist in trauma response. Continue reading

New Podcast: Kids, Contact Sports And ‘Getting Your Bell Rung’

(Clappstar/Flickr Creactive Commons)

(Clappstar/Flickr Creative Commons)

If my son ever wants to play tackle football, my response will consist of four simple words: “Over my dead body.” (With perhaps the addendum: “Your brain is too precious to turn it into swiss cheese.”)

Thankfully, he has expressed no interest. But what if he did? And what about the concussion risks of other sports?

Happily, our regular CommonHealth contributors, Drs. Gene Beresin and Steven Schlozman, Massachusetts General Hospital child psychiatrists and excellent mental health communicators, have just created their first “What’s On Your Mind?” podcast. And their five-minute conversation addresses this very topic: Should my kid play contact sports? The podcast series is part of their public outreach mission at the new Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.

Listen to the full podcast here. How often do you get to hear one psychiatrist call another “a shrimp”? But mainly, the information comes from solid sources — the CDC, concussion experts — and the upshot is clear: Kids shouldn’t start contact sports until age 14, according to the latest recommendations, because neck muscles get much stronger in adolescence and that helps protect the brain from impact. And the biggest takeaway: If a child take a significant head hit — if he “gets his bell rung,” as Dr. Schlozman’s football coach used to put it — he should be sure to sit out at least the rest of the game. Every concussion raises the risk for another concussion. When can he get back in? “Leave it up to their physician,” Dr. Schlozman says.

But all these new findings and warnings about concussions do not mean kids should avoid sports altogether. “They’re a huge part of growing up,” says Dr. Schlozman, who, at age 12, wandered over and sat on the opposing team’s bench after his own bell had been rung. “And as long as we’re careful, there’s no reason not to have fun.”

From the blog post that accompanies the podcast: Continue reading

Third Teen Suicide In Newton: What Can You Say?

Newton South (Wikimedia Commons)

Newton South (Wikimedia Commons)

Tonight at the Newton South High School auditorium, school officials and mental health experts will try to offer some guidance on how to talk to children about suicide and how best to support kids and families reeling from the news of a third teen suicide in this community since the start of the school year.

Tonight’s gathering comes after reports that 17-year-old Roee Grutman, a popular Newton South junior, committed suicide earlier this month. (According to the state Executive Office of Public Safety & Security, Grutman’s death was a result of “asphyxia by hanging.”)

Grutman’s death follows two other suicides: Katherine Stack, a Newton South sophomore, took her own life in October, shortly after Karen Douglass, a Newton North senior, also committed suicide.

At a memorial service for Grutman last night, hundreds of classmates and family members gathered to remember the “bright, articulate, compassionate” young man, The Boston Globe reports:

“One after another, the speakers at Monday’s service told of a young man who lit up a room when he walked in, and despite his schedule busy with honors classes and sports, always had time for a friend.”

According to parents in the Newton South community, many children are still in shock (as are their parents and teachers) and struggling to comprehend the string of suicides in general, and in particular, the death of a boy who appeared to be so well-adjusted, socially connected and stable.

“I think the kids are beside themselves,” said Elizabeth Knoll, whose 17-year-old daughter, Anya Graubard, is also a Newton South junior and was friends with Roee. “My daughter was gray and pale and tightlipped for the last two days.” (Knoll says Anya gave her permission to be named here.)

Knoll said in Newton — where many kids have been classmates since the age of 4 — Grutman’s out-of-the-blue suicide is particularly excruciating. “No one among his family or friends…could see anything like this coming,” Knoll said. “It’s impossible to make any sense of it.” Continue reading

A Phrase To Renounce For 2014: ‘The Mentally Ill’

nytsmallvert

(Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

I wince every time I read it. So does the president-elect of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Paul Summergrad, he says.

I saw it most recently in The New York Times, in the headline pictured above and a recent masthead editorial: “Equal Coverage For The Mentally Ill.” It’s all over, from The Boston Globe — “New Era for the Mentally Ill” – to The Wall Street Journal — “Crime and The Mentally Ill.” Just about any media outlet you care to name.

What’s so bad about “the mentally ill”? Isn’t it reasonable shorthand in the usual headline space crunch?

In a word, no, says Dr. Summergrad, psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center and chair of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. He sees two main problems with it. First, the definite article, “the.”

“Imagine if I said that about any other group. It suggests that people who suffer with these conditions are somehow other than us, and can be put in a discrete and often stigmatized category. It creates a sense of otherness that is not the reality, statistically, of these illnesses.”

Any other group? I try a thought experiment, the headline “Equal coverage for the women.” Weird. “New era for the gays.” Offensive. “Crime and the blacks.” I get the point.

The term creates ‘a notion that it’s a uni-modal type of thing.  We need a more inclusive and more granular language.’

Second, Dr. Summergrad said, “there’s the denotation of what mental illness means, but there’s also the connotation. When people ask me, is it really possible that 25 percent of the population is mentally ill, what do they mean by that question?”

“That they think of it as something very extreme?’” I hazarded.

“Exactly, they mean that somebody has a form of very severe psychotic illness. But the reality is, what is a mental disorder? From a clinical standpoint, it means a disorder in various forms of mental functioning: thought, speech, emotion, behavior.”

And those disorders are myriad and mixed and often of general medical origin, with a range of “everything from Autism Spectrum Disorders to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, through Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety disorders, post-partum depression, recurrent depressive illness, dementing illnesses which have profound effects not only on memory but on behavior. Parkinson’s disease has high rates of very severe anxiety and depression.”

So the term “the mentally ill” creates not just a notion of separateness and otherness, Dr. Summergrad said, but also “a notion that it’s a uni-modal type of thing. And I think we need a more inclusive and more granular language.”

I’d add a third argument against “the mentally ill,” gleaned several years ago when I was writing a Boston Globe story about people who recover enough from their own mental illnesses to become “peer specialists” who help others with similar challenges. Continue reading

Home For The Holidays, Facing Empty Chairs At The Table

(Courtesy Gene Beresin)

A tribute to Tony Davenport, a dear college friend of Dr. Beresin’s who died of cancer in 2004.(Photo courtesy Dr. Beresin)

By Dr. Gene Beresin and Dr. Steve Schlozman
Guest contributors

Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more

Through the years
We all will be together
If the Fates allow…

From: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

Here we are in the Holiday season. It’s inescapable.

The sounds of cheer, good spirits, happiness are all around us – on the television, in the best wishes of friends and colleagues, in the many cards we all receive in the mail, in the sometimes terribly annoying music in virtually every store you march into, on the pop-ups on your computer, and, most importantly, at home.

We’ve all heard talk about the stress of the holidays, but there is a special kind of seasonal pain that is almost never discussed: Family gatherings accentuate the absences.

We miss those who are no longer with us. There is usually an empty chair or two at the holiday table. And that pain can be pretty intense at times. A child who has died, a grandparent who has departed…those wounds take time to heal. Must we maintain our holiday cheer? The songs of the season don’t really give us instructions.

Just a light for someone still loved.

So, of course we feel sad. In fact, we can indulge these feelings as a kind of nostalgia. The term comes from two Greek words, nóstos, denoting homecoming, and álgos, meaning ache. Yet the feeling of nostalgia is not necessarily painful. It is the sentimental feeling of missing the happiness of times gone by – a kind of longing for the loved ones we miss and the times we spent with them.

It’s really a bunch of feelings. A happy and sad emotional jumbling.

And this need not be a bad thing. It maintains our connection with the past. It reminds us of the bonds we feel for those who played an important role in our lives. And, in fact we often replay in our minds those times we spent with those who are absent: a father’s jokes, a grandparent’s laugh, the pranks of a sibling. Continue reading