Mental Illness: A Communicable Disease?

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Mental Illness: A Communicable Disease?

There has been an enormous amount of press and publicity about the Ebola virus and the lives this terrible communicable disease has recently claimed. The current statistic reports that presently the Ebola death toll nears 1,000 people worldwide. Thank goodness, steps are being taken to overcome this horrible killer. Lots of discussion, awareness, worry, work, research and medical methodologies are being implemented to find help. Lots of attention, lots of compassion…

What about Mental Illness? The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports the following statistics (brace yourself):

  • One in four adults (61.5 million Americans) experience mental illness in a given year.
  • 14.8 million Americans live with major depression
  • 42 million Americans have anxiety disorders
  • Approximately 60% of those suffering with mental illness do not receive any treatment
  • Individuals with mental illness have an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions
  • Adults with mental illness die on the average, 25 years earlier than other Americans largely do to treatable medical conditions
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America and the 3rd leading cause for ages 15-24

These statistics are based on reported and diagnosed cases. The real numbers are probably much higher. Experts report that mental illness is on the rise.

Research has already suggested that there in an inheritable component to mental illness. But, is mental illness also a “communicable” disease? Are some people carriers of mental illness? Is it being spread around? After 35 years of psychotherapy practice, my opinion on these questions is “probably yes”. If you have mentally ill parents or siblings, live with a mentally ill partner or work/play with mentally ill people, your chances of contracting some form of it probably go up. If you find yourself repetitively in a stress-filled environment, your chances of breathing it in and contracting it probably go up. Everyone is at risk for mental illness. No one is immune to mental illness. No one.

As with any serious disease, the potential outcome for having mental illness is death. Are you concerned about Ebola? Get way more concerned about mental illness. The chances of you or someone you know “catching” it are far greater. What are you willing to do about this epidemic? Can we even begin to talk about it?

RIP Robin Williams


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The Bystander Effect

I just read a book that described the research behind the Bystander Effect. It is a disturbing phenomenon, indeed, and it has been empirically proven in many studies. The misconception most of us hold is that when someone has been hurt, witnesses will rush to their aid. The sad truth is the more people who witness a person in distress, the less likely it is that any one person within the group of witnesses will help.

The line of thinking in the Bystander Effect is that if one person , alone, sees someone in  trouble, he or she will feel compelled to help. If three or more people are witnessing someone in trouble, each supposes someone else in the group will help and so the individual abdicates his or her personal responsibility to step in. According to David McRaney, author of You are Not So Smart, the Bystander Effect has cost plenty of victims either their physical and/or emotional well-being. In many cases, by-standing has caused victims their lives, while others looked on.

I can personally relate to the Bystander Effect. When I was traveling in Florence, Italy, I was unaccustomed to the uneven cobblestone walkways. Upon exiting my hotel, I tripped just outside the entrance and went down sprawling onto the sidewalk. I hurt my knee and could not immediately get up. The number of pedestrians who literally climbed over me was astounding. Scores of them. Not one person offered help. I don’t remember what hurt worse: the injury to my knee or the shame of being ignored via apathy. I think the latter. Gosh. How do some people sleep at night?

I believe that the Bystander Effect needs to be considered as seriously as leaving the scene of an accident or leaving the scene of a crime. If it was our civic and legal responsibility to help someone in need, perhaps there would be less bullying, less domestic abuse, less hate crimes, less assaults, fewer injuries and fewer victims. Why do you think people abuse or bully other people? …because they can!

I have decided that by-standing someone in distress is officially not part of my behavioral repertoire. If I see someone being mistreated or in danger, I want to act in some way to be of aid to the victim. In my opinion, not only is it the moral choice; it is my honor to be of service to another who may be in distress. Give it some thought. What stand do you take?


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Holiday Stress: Not Very Merry

The holidays, magically coined to be a time of wonder, joy, and togetherness, are actually not-very-merry for many people. Though we generally struggle to manage stress throughout the year, the holidays can intensify underlying issues and painful emotions. The American Psychological Association conducted a study in 2006 and found that while 78% of respondents reported feeling often happy around the holidays, about two-thirds sometimes or often felt stressed and fatigued.

These have been some tough times with the Great Recession. Couple that with higher rates of depression, anxiety and the commonplace reality of the dysfunctional family; the Currier and Ives winter-wonderland fantasy can quickly melt away into a chilly, greyish slush of stress. What can we do when we feel not-very-merry during the holidays? Here are some tips:

  1. Go back to basics. Stay out of the malls and away from online shopping and create something with your own hands. Cards, cookies, cakes, jam, knit items, seedlings that will grow in the spring…these activities will fire your neurons up and left in your brain, moving away from negative emotions and generating a better feeling outcome.
  2. Think about others who are struggling and do some small act of charity. Whether it is dropping off a toy for a child in the hospital, dropping a dollar in the Salvation Army kettle, cooking a meal for someone who is sick. Engage in random acts of kindness and remain anonymous.
  3. Take care of yourself: get exercise, don’t binge on sweets; and most of all, get plenty of sleep.
  4. Give yourself permission to say “No”.  It is okay to be mindful of what you can realistically fit into your schedule and when you need to do nothing but put your feet up and rest.
  5. Be careful with alcohol use. Even recreational use of alcohol is typically increased during this time of year. Don’t forget that alcohol is a depressant and it interrupts restful sleep patterns.
  6. Ask for help and delegate. Be conscious of your limitations and don’t sacrifice your well-being to please everyone else. That’s no fun for you or them.
  7. Know your triggers. If you are spending time with extended family and friends, remember your hot-buttons with those select few who can be trouble-makers. Keep the conversation light and simple and refuse to get drawn into dysfunctional drama.
  8. Remember the phrase “holy day” as the basis of the word holiday and engage in some form of spiritual practice: meditate, pray, count your blessings (even if on one hand), visit a new house of worship, light candles, hike in nature, listen to music, play games together…whatever resonates for you.

As you move through the holiday season, remember its universal theme on a personal level: envision peace in your inner world and practice good will onto yourself. All the best to you and yours!


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Virtual Vexation: Is Social Media Endangering Your Health?

Last week, I shut down my computer, packed a small bag and headed for the mountains to hang with my dear friends and let my brain stop aching. I felt like I was coming down from a serious binge and had to heal from a heavy hangover. What was the drug? Social Media; a “drug” that will prove to become toxic if taken in frequent and/or large doses.

Many of us spend hours and hours daily posting on a plethora of pages, blogging, tweeting, linking, commenting, uploading, downloading, sharing, responding. This activity is like a contagion and we drag it along everywhere we go: our cell phone, lap top, desk-top. Pretty soon it will be accessible on our wristwatches. Maybe it already is accessible on a wristwatch and I have not kept up!

I know am not alone. Every day, millions of people enter a virtual reality and operate in that alternate reality in a way that changes the structure of the brain and intensifies stress levels. Operating in this virtual reality seems to be moving from a pastime…to a habit…to an obligation…to a pressure…and finally to a consistent, gnawing fear of being left behind. Please; let’s stop the madness!

I call the new syndrome, already widely researched, Virtual Vexation. Virtual is a term which has been defined in philosophy as “that which is not real” but may display the salient qualities of the real. Many of us are operating in our real stressful world and, at the same time, in a quasi-world that has no boundaries or predictable structure because it is constantly changing. The quasi-world will further elevate our stress levels and produce more lethal cortisol in our bodies.

Nicholas Carr already wrote about several research studies in his article entitled “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains”. Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that scientists discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload. Cognitive overload creates stress and anxiety. Repetitive stress and anxiety will make us sick.

In the real world, weekends serve as our downtime for relaxing and stress-recovery. The virtual world also needs to include downtime. Make a deliberate and conscious decision to limit your virtual experience. If after doing so, you find you can not abide by your own self-created limits, you may be experiencing Virtual Vexation. If this is the case, you need to turn everything off, detoxify and allow your brain to recover. What good is being social if it can make you sick? Think about it.


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Relationships and Attachment

The success of a relationship may very well be based on how you tend to form attachments; a style that became hard-wired into the brain at a very early time of life. If your parents used a particular style of attaching with you in infancy and early childhood, that will contribute to the infrastructure for how you tend to attach as an adult.

People tend to form attachments on a continuum which has avoidant attachment at one extreme; anxious attachment at the other extreme and secure attachment at the midpoint. The anxious connector will sometimes appear to be clingy, mistrusting, and possessive about his/her partner. The avoidant connector will sometimes appear to be indifferent, disinterested and withdrawn. Some people make attachments with others that go from one extreme to the other: “I don’t want you; please don’t leave me!” They overshoot that midpoint of secure attachment and don’t get much joy or comfort from their connections with others. Here is a rather primitive graphic, illustrating the concept:

<-Avoidant———-Secure———-Anxious->

My mother, God bless her, would worry like crazy about her kids. She was overprotective and overly concerned that some awful danger would befall us. She was anxious in her style of attachment. Guess how I tend to attach?… That’s right; I am an anxious attacher. My husband is more avoidant. Sometimes we go round and round: when I start trying to control him, he keeps to himself and ignores me. When he is acting aloof, I tend to try to get him to engage with me; sometimes by picking a fight with him. Neither of these approaches work very well, so we have to consciously make adjustments.

The age-old rule of “opposites attract” also applies here. We will often find an avoidant attacher paired up with an anxious attacher. They end up unconsciously enabling each other in their respective styles. The more an anxious attacher goes after an avoidant partner, the more avoidant that partner becomes. Conversely, the more withdrawn an avoidant partner becomes, the more anxiously his/her counterpart behaves.

The good news is that if you have some awareness about how you both tend to attach, you can each work on taking a step in toward that midpoint of secure attachment. An anxious attacher will do very well with a word or two of reassurance. An avoidant attacher will be more present when she/he can have a bit of space and private time.

An understanding of the attachment style of both you and your significant other will protect your relationship from unnecessary conflict because if you understand your respective styles, you will take the attaching behavior of your significant other a lot less personally. You can then be present to support each other in stretching out of attachment comfort zones to meet somewhere in the middle with a secure connection.