Pets Rock

IMG_6141A week ago I lost my sweet corgi, Quinn. He was 14 years old and had been in my life (and heart) for over ten of those years. He came into our family as an early retirement (okay, failed) show dog from a Montana breeder since he had developed an auto-immune disorder. Quinn was my steady companion, my guardian (he had a ferocious ‘big dog’ bark to turn away any would-be home intruders—as long as they didn’t actually see him). He allowed me to sob into his fur after the death of both of my parents and the dissolution of my family of origin. He made sure I took regular breaks from my writing life in order to walk him and to meet the neighbors in the process. He helped define safety and love and the meaning of home.

I am reminded of the importance of pets to the mental health and well-being of people in general, but especially to those dealing with depression, loneliness, isolation, and homelessness. My patients tell me this all the time and a growing body of scientific literature supports these claims. Even the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a web page devoted to the health benefits of pets, although their links to additional information are broken. (Hopefully, “pets” has not become a banned word.)  Pet Partners, a pioneer in human-animal positive bonds and community-based pet therapy programs, has a list of health benefits of pets and animal therapy.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) through MedlinePlus Health News has up-to-date results of research studies on the health benefits of pets, including the article “Hey, Single Folk: Adopting a Dog Could Lengthen Your Life” (November 17, 2017, by Robert Preidt).

Whenever I do The Meaning of Home values clarification exercise with groups of people—whether or not they have ever been or are currently home-less or un-housed—pets invariably rank up there with family members as the most important ingredients of home. Below, I include some of my favorite pet-related results of this exercise.

IMG_0682IMG_1320IMG_1891IMG_2286

 

Solastalgia: Homesickness and Climate Change

BC642845-1D42-466F-870C-CC1456A62A08Population health effects from climate change are established scientific facts. Like anti-vaxxers (anti-vaccinators), climate change deniers are not only wrong-headed, they are dangerous to everyone’s health (and to planetary health). Case in point: beware of the pets of anti-vaxxers since many seem to be refusing rabies vaccinations for their cats and dogs/ see “Anti-vaxxers now refuse to vaccinate pets” by Nick Thieme, Slate, August 3, 2017; at the same time, global warming is increasing the spread of rabies among animal hosts such as foxes in Alaska/ see “Ecological niche modeling of rabies in the changing Arctic of Alaska” by Huettman, Magnuson, and Hueffer, Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, March 20, 2017. And as a reminder, rabies in humans is almost 100% fatal (source: CDC).

The Centers for Disease Control has developed an excellent graphic depiction of the impact of climate change on human health, shown here:

climate_change_health_impacts600w.jpg

Of special note in this graphic is the fact that mental health impacts are shown twice, associated with both severe weather and with environmental degradation.

A recent (November 25, 2017) NYT article illustrates the mental health effects from climate change for people who live in Rigolet, Labrador. As Livia Albeck-Ripka states in the article “Why Lost Ice Means Lost Hope for an Inuit Village” there are increases in depression, substance abuse, domestic violence, and suicide related to the disorienting environmental changes and increased isolation for villagers. “An unpredictable environment means disempowerment,” she writes and links this with the stirring up of the intergenerational trauma of colonization for indigenous people. But she also points out that mental health effects from climate change and environmental degradation affect us all. She quotes Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht as stating, “We weren’t around when the asteroid wiped out dinosaurs, but now we have humans in the 21st century who are trying to deal with a change to the world which is unprecedented.” Albrecht coined the term Solastalgia: “a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at home.”

But what can we individually and collectively do about climate change and about the health effects of climate change? Perhaps the most important action is to become better informed and more civically engaged in respect to these topics. The Lancet has a good website: Tracking the Connections Between Public Health and Climate Change which includes a synthesis of scientific evidence in The 2017 Report of The Lancet Countdown. In the US reliable sources of information include the CDC (resources linked above) and the American Public Health Association (APHA). The APHA graphic “How Climate Change Affects Your Health” (included below) is a bit overly-busy and heavy on the gloom and doom (and curiously does not include mental health), yet could spur helpful discussion in certain settings:

Climate_Change_Overview

Another great resource that is geared towards a young adult audience is the Seattle-based environmental news site Grist, with the vision of working for “a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck.” Their funny and informative (a good combination) “Ask Umbra” eco-advice column is worth following. Take a look at Umbra’s “21-day Apathy Detox” for great ideas on brushing up on civic engagement related to environmental justice and climate change. My two favorites are “Day 5: Read More Than Dead White Men” and Day 20: Art Brings Life to Social Movements.” 

Get involved. Do what you can to beautify and “green” the places where you work, live, and play. Work upstream for social and environmental justice. Bloom where you are planted. Those are some of the thoughts I’ve had this fall as I’ve been involved with this year’s University of Washington Health Sciences Common Book Changing Climate, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It by Paul R. Epstein and Dan Ferber (University of California Press, 2011).

In order to emphasize the what we can do about it, I’ve been part of a team attempting to green the ugly weed-filled concrete planters in the main courtyard at the University of Washington Health Sciences—a courtyard with entrances to the Schools of Nursing, Medicine, Dentistry, the UW Health Sciences Library, as well as the UW Medical Center. The photos at the beginning of this post show the planters in their current (dismal, depressing) state, along with my tiny (art project!) protest sign next to a fake flower “blooming” in a pot. Our team wanted to plant spring bulbs and a healing garden full of water-wise herbs like rosemary and lavender, as well as indigenous healing herbs and native wildflowers. We have had a seemingly endless series of meetings with people from the medical center, the health sciences schools, the building and grounds folks, and the UW Sustainability group. Something that would appear to be easy to do is not. As I understand it, the (ugly concrete/example of Brutalist “raw concrete” architecture) Health Sciences building where this courtyard is located, is crumbling and leaking inside, including in the rare books collection of the library. We have been told that we can’t plant anything until the courtyard infrastructure and water membranes are replaced, which would cost millions of dollars ($7.5 million to quote one reliable estimate).

This is a somewhat trivial problem when compared with other environmental issues affecting our most vulnerable populations, but it is a daily reminder of the negative mental health effects of environmental degradation—including from poor choices for our built environment and health institutions.

Skeletons in the Closet

IMG_2792.jpgOne evening this past weekend I watched the indie movie “To the Bone” (2017) which deals with the topic of eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa—with the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. People waste away, become skeletal like concentration camp victims, and literally starve themselves to death. Unless, that is, they are fortunate enough to be able to access effective and compassionate health care and recover from this devastating illness. As does the 20-year old lead character in “To the Bon,” Ellen, as well as the actress, Lily Collins, who plays her in the movie—and as does the writer/producer of the movie, Marti Noxon. Both Collins and Noxon have struggled with anorexia and Noxon based the screenplay on her own experience.

I had read about some of the controversy surrounding this film, including critique that it glorifies thinness and eating disorders in general, as well as that it can tigger viewers into a recurrence or worsening of their own anorexia. Although I am not in favor of the over-use of trigger warnings, I did feel that the brief written warning at the beginning of the movie was tasteful and appropriate. As I remember, it stated something like “The following movie includes content that some viewers may find difficult to watch.”

Having lived through anorexia as a teenager, and having provided primary health care to many young people struggling with eating disorders (and across the socio-economic spectrum), I can say that “To the Bone” is an honest, nuanced, and not overly-sensationalized depiction of the lived experience of eating disorders. The movie does not glamorize thinness or eating disorders. It appropriately alludes to the linkage between eating disorders and childhood trauma, including sexual abuse. The supposedly unconventional heroic physician in the film, Dr. William Beckham, played by Keanu Reeves, is borderline obnoxious in that Robin Williams ah-shucks smiley face sort of way. And the group home eating disorder treatment center where the main character Ellen goes in a last-ditch effort to find a cure, is a gorgeous and expensive-looking setting. It helps that Ellen’s elusive father (he never appears in the movie even for a family therapy session) is portrayed as having a well-paying job in order to pay for that group home inpatient therapy. Even patients with relatively comprehensive health insurance often have difficulty accessing such treatment for eating disorders.

My assessment is that “To the Bone” is a good and honest film about an important mental health issue, and it is written/produced by a woman and features mostly women in the leading roles (luckily, Reeves has relatively little screen time). I can see this film being used effectively in nursing and other health professions educational programs for many years to come.

  • A good resource for more information on eating disorders (including a toll-free, confidential help-line) is the National Eating Disorders Association.
  • And about that actual skeleton in the closet included in this post… It is a human (not plastic) skeleton enclosed in its own wooden closet on wheels and is located in the University of Washington School of Nursing’s new simulation/learning lab. I took her photograph last week and am currently trying to discover anything more about who she was.

University Student Mental Health

Version 2In these uncertain and anxiety-provoking times, our universities have an increased responsibility to support student mental health and wellbeing. This is not about the issues of “spoiled and coddled” Gen Xers, helicopter parents, and the endless debates over the use of trigger warnings in higher education. This is about having a positive impact on not only our future workforce, but also our future leaders and change agents.

William Pang, a second-year student at McGill University in Montreal, wrote a moving NYT op-ed piece “The Season to Be Stressful” (December 19, 2016). He discusses his experience of learning to deal more effectively with overwhelming anxiety exacerbated by the highly competitive atmosphere of his university. He states, “I don’t think we should demonize an entire generation as reliant and narcissistic. We should instead celebrate a generation that is coming to realize the importance of initiating conversations about our mental health.” It is dismaying to read through the NYT comments to Pang’s op-ed piece with so many people basically telling him to buck up and become an adult.

The photo above is of me with the amazing UK nurse and PhD student Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi  with her social media campaign, “Raise Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education” (#RAMHHE)  I met NwaAmaka Bardi this past September in Seville at the 5th Annual International Health Humanities Conference: Arts and Humanities for Improving Social Inclusion, Education and Health. She also works in the area of mental health cafes as an effective alternative community mental health service. London’s Dragon Cafe is a good example of a creative, welcoming, and supportive community cafe with a focus on mental health and wellbeing. It would be great to have a similar community cafe open to university students.

Universities UK is developing a mental health framework for universities to embed mental health and wellbeing across all university activities with the goals to decrease stigma and increase access to a variety of mental health and wellbeing services. (See: “New Programme to Address Mental Health and Wellbeing in Universities” December 2, 2017.) They point to the need of “getting universities to think about mental health and wellbeing across all their activities, from students and teaching, through to academics and support staff.” It doesn’t end with the provision of mental health and support services for students but needs to permeate the entire campus.

Doris Iarovici, M.D., a psychiatrist at Duke University Counseling and Psychological Services has written a book titled Mental Health Issues and the University Student (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014). Although geared towards college mental health professionals, it includes useful information on the variety of mental health issues that our students face in universities—from anxiety, drug and alcohol problems, sexual assault, eating disorders, and relationship problems, to depression, suicide, and schizophrenia. She concludes by stating, “If we provide a range of services, including individual, group, and community programs, we will be in step with the goals of health care reform to focus on both prevention and optimizing outcomes.” p. 219

Commit to Mental Wellbeing

 

As we begin a new year, my wish is that we commit to mental health and wellbeing. This should start with our own individual mental wellbeing, but we need to use that as a base for supporting the mental wellbeing of our families and our communities. In the midst of so much turmoil, anxiety, bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia in our country and our world, nurturing mental wellbeing is not a luxury—it is a necessity.

An essential ingredient for mental (and physical) health and overall wellbeing is social inclusion and a sense of belonging to a caring community. The adverse health effects of increasing population-based levels of social isolation and loneliness are now being highlighted. Dhrav Khuller, M.D. writes in “How Social Isolation is Killing Us” ( NYT December 22, 2016) that social isolation and loneliness, is linked in recent studies to a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increase in stroke.

Objective measures of social isolation include quantity and quality of social network ties, as well as living situation (living alone, whether housed or homeless). Loneliness is a person’s perception of social isolation and is, therefore, a subjective measure. Researchers point out that loneliness and social isolation are often not significantly correlated even though we commonly think of them as such. A recent large meta-analysis (a study of research studies) that included 70 independent prospective (following people longitudinally) studies representing 3,407, 134 participants, revealed a significant effect of social isolation—whether measured objectively or subjectively— on mortality. The researchers for this study also found that the largest detrimental effects of social isolation were for middle-aged adults as opposed to older adults. They call for social isolation and loneliness to be added to lists of public health concerns. (See: “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review” by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, et al. in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol 10, issue 2, March 11, 2015.)

In the U.S. we are good at doing yet more research documenting the adverse health effects of social isolation and loneliness; we are not so good at finding constructive and sustainable ways to intervene. Many industrialized countries, including the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and Canada are way ahead of us in terms of implementing cost-effective, community-based interventions. (See: “Researchers Confront an Epidemic of Loneliness” by Katie Hafner, NYT September 5, 2016.) In the U.K. there is the Campaign to End Loneliness. In New Zealand there is the public mental health campaign that I love: the All Right? campaign implemented in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes. And addressing gendered issues, there is the Men’s Sheds movement that began in Australia and has since spread to the U.K., Ireland, Canada, and New Zealand. Another lovely and creative community-based solution I learned about this past year is the Art Hive (La Ruche d’Art) in Montreal, as well as in many other communities, including in Spain. My other wish for 2017 is that we learn from these sorts of programs and find ways to implement them in our own communities.

** A note on my (intentional) spelling of wellbeing as one un-hyphenated word: I find it both fascinating and telling that all English-speaking countries except the U.S. have moved to the use of “wellbeing” instead of the Americanized “well-being.”

Spring Blue(s)

IMG_4065
Photo credit: Josephine Ensign, 2015

Why do spring and depression go together? The seasonality of illness is fascinating and is proof that our environment matters quite a lot to our individual and collective/public health. In temperate regions of the world, injuries and drownings go up in the warmer months, and deaths from influenza and carbon-monoxide poisoning go up in the colder months. These make sense. But when we think of depression and suicide risk, most of us would guess that these peak in the fall and winter months–what with decreased hours of sunlight and the stresses of some of the major holidays. In the U.S., September is National Suicide Prevention Month and October is National Depression Awareness Month, and many news reports continue to falsely link higher rates of depression and suicide with fall and early winter.

Yet studies worldwide find that depression and suicide rates peak in late spring and early summer. High pollen counts, increased hours of sunshine, higher temperatures, and even an increase in thunderstorms (ah–that Shakespearean pathetic fallacy!) have been linked to higher rates of depression and suicide. Within psychology and sociology circles, this seasonal link is theorized to be from the fact that people generally have increased social pressures and interactions in the spring, which can increase stress. (see “The Season of Renewal and Suicide” by Brian Palmer, Slate, 12-7-12).

The most current statistics from the CDC on the leading causes of death in the U.S. (for 2013), list suicide (intentional self-harm) as the tenth leading cause of death, with the total number of deaths by suicide as 41,149. (Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 years.) This continues the upward climb of suicide deaths in our country since the start of the Great Recession, with the largest increase being in people 45-64 years of age (peak wage-earning years.) With the possible exception of unintentional injuries, such as motor vehicle accidents, suicide is our most preventable form of mortality. And suicide deaths have serious impacts on the family members, friends, co-workers, and care providers who knew and loved the people who killed themselves. Note: they did not ‘commit’ suicide as is still too commonly used; suicide is not a crime or a sin–it is a preventable travesty. Using the term ‘commit suicide’ adds to the already debilitating stigma of mental illness.

So what are interventions that work to help prevent deaths by suicide?

1) Train healthcare providers to screen for depression, drug/alcohol use, bullying at school (for young people), history of adverse childhood events (especially sexual abuse), and suicidal ideation and attempts. In primary care screening for depression and suicide risk (as well as intimate-partner violence), a standard question is “Do you have access to a firearm?” This screening question seems so obvious, as access to a lethal weapon is an important part of the overall risk assessment. Over half of all deaths by suicide are by firearms. But now in Florida that healthcare screening question is illegal for physicians and nurses to ask their patients. (See James Hamblin’s 8-11-14 article in The Atlantic, “The Question Doctors Can’t Ask.” ) And other (mostly Southern, no surprise) states have similar legislative ‘healthcare gag orders’ pending.)

2) Educate the general public about the warning signs of severe depression, problematic drug/alcohol use, and suicide–and give them the proper tools to be able to intervene effectively. Reinforce the fact that talking about suicide in a supportive way does not encourage suicide (just as talking about sex or drug use with adolescents does not encourage them to have sex and use drugs.) An excellent (free and 24/7) resource is the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They can connect people with local crisis centers and assistance.

3) Implement a community-wide public mental health promotion (and depression/suicide prevention) program. One such model program that is cost-effective and that could be replicated in the U.S., is New Zealand’s All Right? Wellbeing Campaign, a Healthy Christchurch project that is being led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. As they state, “All Right is a social marketing campaign designed to help us think about our mental health and wellbeing. It’s about helping people realise that they’re not alone, encouraging them to connect with others, and supporting them to boost their wellbeing.” Although targeted at earthquake recovery efforts in the Christchurch area, this public mental health campaign could be most effective at building community resilience before major disasters occur.

My students and I stumbled across the work of the All Right? Wellbeing Campaign while we were in Christchurch last year studying community health. I wrote about it in a series of blog posts, including “New Zealand Postcards: The Allrighties” 2-3-14. Some of our health-focused students ‘brought this home’ to Seattle and started the student-led “What’s Up UW?” community for promoting social and emotional wellbeing.

IMG_4095
From the All Right? Wellbeing Campaign, Christchurch, New Zealand.

 

 

 

New Zealand Postcards: The Allrighties

DSC01176This morning we had a presentation on the All Right? population-based mental wellbeing campaign, a Healthy Christchurch project led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. Sue Turner, the All Right? Campaign Manager and her colleague Lucy D’Aeth gave our class an overview of the campaign, including their community-engagement strategies.
I mentioned the All Right? campaign in my previous blog post Disaster Tourism; All Right? (Jan 19, 2014). Their creative and engaging posters had been one of the bright spots in the midst of our (unplanned) tour of Christchurch’s Red Zone area a few weeks ago. I wanted to know more about their work, so I invited them to speak to us today. They are hoping to present on their innovative mental wellbeing social marketing campaign this coming November in New Orleans at the annual meeting of the American Association of Public Health.

It seems that theirs is the first population-based mental health and wellbeing campaign post-disaster anywhere in the world (they invite anyone who knows of another one to contact them so they can compare notes). They gave us a lot of information to process, so I’ll just mention some of the things that stood out for me.

  • Raising emotional literacy on a population level is important baseline work before any big ‘calls to action’ are implemented.
  • Pre-existing inequities in a community can be made worse by a disaster (as was highlighted in the U.S. in New Orleans post-Katrina); they are trying to pay attention to that here in Christchurch.
  • More targeted social marketing for mental well-being are being developed for ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, such as the Maori and men (‘blokes’ in the Kiwi vernacular–a poster geared towards men is included in this post. Don’t you just love ‘mate date’?) They are also currently targeting more efforts on mental wellbeing for children affected by the quakes.
  • People cannot truly start to process the trauma until they are in a safe, stable place, and many people in Christchurch are still displaced, awaiting repairs (or relocation) on their homes.
  • In surveys done in 2012, they found that 61% of Christchurch respondents did not use any relaxation techniques–but that they were interested in learning them.
  • The Giggles: (Hannah Airey, director) offers community groups and trainings in a laughter yoga technique. The ‘laughter therapy’ groups have become quite popular. Laughter is infectious. Check out the germ theory by watching this terrific short documentary on Christchurch area laughter yoga/therapy.
  • Their non-academic (yet based on extensive research/developed by the UK-based think tank The New Economics Foundation) framework for their campaign is five main categories or ingredients for well-being. These categories are: 1) be active, 2) connect, 3) give, 4) take notice (slow down/savor the moment), and 5) keep learning (enjoying a fresh challenge can boost confidence).