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Mental Health News

Following are the latest news and information resources for the various mental health topics that we cover. We hope you will find the news educational and the links in the resources section useful in helping you to get even more in-depth data.

IQ Linked To Schizophrenia Risk

The risk for developing schizophrenia is significantly affected by an individual’s IQ, show results of a study of over 1 million Swedish men.

Researchers found that each 1 point decrease in IQ score was associated with a 3.8% increase in the risk of developing schizophrenia.

“The observed IQ-schizophrenia association does not, to any appreciable degree, appear to result from declines in intelligence in individuals undergoing an insidious onset of schizophrenia at the time of testing”, note Kenneth Kendler (Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, USA) and co-authors in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Contrary to previous research, which suggests an association between “genius” and schizophrenia, the current study found no evidence of a link between these two factors. “Risk for schizophrenia in our highest IQ category was lower than that in the next highest group”, the researchers explain.

The findings were based on information from 1,204,983 Swedish males who were born between 1951 and 1975 and who had their IQ score tested between the age of 18 and 20 years. Schizophrenia was assessed by hospital diagnosis until 2010.

The team observed a negative monotonic relationship between IQ and schizophrenia, beginning with a relatively steep slope in the low IQ range and then a decline in slope as IQ increased.

Although it has been suggested that the IQ–schizophrenia relationship may be affected by genetic and environmental factors, when the researchers performed co-relative analyses they found no significant effect. “Within pairs of relatives with differing IQs, the association between intelligence and schizophrenia was as strong as in the general population”, they say.

Finally, Kendler’s team analyzed the joint effects of genetic liability to schizophrenia and IQ on the risk for schizophrenia. They report that, in the lower IQ range, large differences in risk were observed in individuals with varying levels of genetic liability. However, at higher IQs, the impact of genetic liability on risk for schizophrenia decreased substantially and nearly disappeared at the highest IQ level.

The researchers note that the IQ–genetic liability interaction arose largely from IQ differences between close relatives.

They conclude: “The changes in brain function that are expressed as low or high intelligence, and that convey sensitivity or resistance to the pathogenic effects of genetic liability to schizophrenia, appear to arise environmentally and will be seen most clearly in close relatives who differ in intelligence.”

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Vitamin D Deficiency, Depression Linked In Study

Vitamin D deficiency is not just harmful to physical health—it also might impact mental health, according to a team of researchers that has found a link between seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, and a lack of sunlight.

"Rather than being one of many factors, vitamin D could have a regulative role in the development of SAD," said Alan Stewart of the University of Georgia College of Education.

An international research partnership between UGA, the University of Pittsburgh and the Queensland University of Technology in Australia reported the finding in the November 2014 issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses.

Stewart and Michael Kimlin from QUT's School of Public Health and Social Work conducted a review of more than 100 leading articles and found a relationship between vitamin D and seasonal depression.

"Seasonal affective disorder is believed to affect up to 10 percent of the population, depending upon geographical location, and is a type of depression related to changes in season," said Stewart, an associate professor in the department of counseling and human development services.

"People with SAD have the same symptoms every year, starting in fall and continuing through the winter months."

Stewart said, based on the team's investigations, vitamin D was likely to be a contributing factor in seasonal depression.

"We believe there are several reasons for this, including that vitamin D levels fluctuate in the body seasonally, in direct relation to seasonally available sunlight," he said. "For example, studies show there is a lag of about eight weeks between the peak in intensity of ultraviolet radiation and the onset of SAD, and this correlates with the time it takes for UV radiation to be processed by the body into vitamin D.

Vitamin D is also involved in the synthesis of serotonin and dopamine within the brain, both chemicals linked to depression, according to the researchers.

"Evidence exists that low levels of dopamine and serotonin are linked to depression, therefore it is logical that there may be a relationship between low levels of vitamin D and depressive symptoms," said Kimlin, a Cancer Council Queensland Professor of Cancer Prevention Research.

"Studies have also found depressed patients commonly had lower levels of vitamin D."

Vitamin D levels varied according to the pigmentation of the skin. People with dark skin often record lower levels of vitamin D, according to the researchers.

"Therefore it is suggested that persons with greater skin pigmentation may experience not only higher risks of vitamin D deficiency, but also be at greater risk of psychological and psychiatric conditions," he said.

Kimlin, who heads QUT's National Health and Medical Research Council Centre for Research Excellence in Sun and Health, said adequate levels of vitamin D were essential in maintaining bone health, with deficiency causing osteomalacia in adults and rickets in children. Vitamin D levels of more than 50 nanomoles per liter are recommended by the U.S. Institute of Medicine.

"What we know now is that there are strong indications that maintaining adequate levels of vitamin D are also important for good mental health," Kimlin said. "A few minutes of sunlight exposure each day should be enough for most people to maintain an adequate vitamin D status."

"Queensland is known as the Sunshine State in Australia but that doesn't mean all Queenslanders get enough vitamin D," Kimlin said. "This research is of international importance because no matter where you live, low levels of vitamin D can be a health concern."

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Link Between White Matter And Concussion-Related Anxiety

White matter brain abnormalities in some patients with depression disorders closely resemble abnormalities found in patients who have experienced a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI), more commonly known as concussion, according to new research presented by University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine researchers this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

The researchers, who also studied anxiety in concussion patients who underwent imaging, believe determining these white-matter injuries also could help guide treatment in people who suffer such symptoms, whether they are due to trauma or not.

White matter in the brain is made up of long, finger-like fibers projecting from nerve cells and is covered by a whitish fatty material. While gray matter, the part of our brain without the fatty covering, holds our knowledge, white matter is what connects different regions of gray matter, allowing different parts of the brain to communicate with one another.

Over the past several years, cognitive consequences of concussion have dominated the news. Any association between concussion/mTBI and the development of psychiatric disorders hasn’t garnered the same level of attention. Saeed Fakhran, M.D., assistant professor of radiology at Pitt and his team wanted to determine if a trauma to the brain could be found in imaging as an underlying cause of depression or anxiety in certain patients.

“We know that neuropsychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety can be as disabling as Alzheimer’s dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, affecting a person’s quality of life, and are often accompanied by higher rates of obesity, substance abuse and even suicide,” said Dr. Fakhran. “We wanted to see if there were commonalities shared by patients with depression and anxiety disorders caused by brain trauma and those with non-traumatic depression.”

For this study, Dr. Fakhran and his team examined MRI scans performed in 74 concussion patients from 2006-14 using an advanced technique called diffusion tensor imaging. Diffusion tensor imaging allows doctors to visualize the white matter and look for places where the white matter may be injured, resulting in decreased connections in the brain and post-concussion symptoms. In patients with depression, researchers found injured regions in the reward circuit of the brain, which has also been found to be abnormal in patients with non-traumatic major depressive disorder. Greater injury to the reward center of the brain correlated with a longer recovery time, similar to patients with non-traumatic major depressive disorder, the researchers said.

“Finding such similar injuries in mTBI patients with depression and major depressive disorder may suggest a common pathophysiology in both traumatic and non-traumatic depression that may help guide treatment,” said Dr. Fakhran. “The first step in developing a treatment for any disease is understanding what causes it, and if we can prove a link, or even a common pathway, between post-traumatic depression and depression in the general population it could potentially lead to effective treatment strategies for both diseases.”

While noting that continuing research is vital in this area, the researchers said their project was limited by its retrospective nature and moderate sample size. Because so few concussion patients undergo imaging, the researchers added that future, prospective research could benefit from following a larger group of patients. Moreover, their findings didn’t include irritability, the third neuropsychiatric symptom they set out to study – causing them to determine that not all such post-concussion/mTBI symptoms appear to result in discrete white matter injuries. It also was difficult to determine, they said, if pre-existing brain abnormalities rendered certain patients more susceptible to depression or anxiety.

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Insomnia, Anxiety Pills For Teens May Have Consequences

Teens whose doctors prescribe them pills to ease anxiety or help them sleep are at a higher risk for drug abuse, and parents and physicians should be aware of the risks, say the authors of a new study.

A three-year study in a diverse group of schools in and around Detroit found that teenagers who at some point had a prescription for anxiety or sleep medication were as much as 12 times more likely to abuse the drugs.

Some used others’ prescriptions when theirs ran out for the intended purposes. Others aimed to get high, sometimes combining the medications with alcohol, according to the study by the University of Michigan.

Drugs in the categories studied include Ativan, Xanax, Valium, Ambien and Lunesta and are increasingly prescribed to teens, said study leader Carol Boyd, a nursing professor who has looked at other addiction issues in adolescents.

Many of the drugs are advertised on television.

About 9 percent of 2,745 students in the Detroit area had been prescribed anxiety or sleep medications at some point, and 3.4 percent had a prescription during the study, which ran for three academic years, 2009 to 2012.

The results were published last week in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors .

The researchers found that teens who had been prescribed anxiety medications — but not during the study — were 12 times more likely to use another person’s anxiety medication.

And those prescribed either anxiety or sleeping pills during the study were 10 times more likely to abuse them within two years than teens who didn’t have a prescription.

Abuse was more common among whites, girls older than 15 and teens who’d had prescriptions for longer periods.

“What I do believe is happening is a cultural and a societal shift in how we treat sleeplessness and worry problems, and we’re one of the very few countries that allow direct-to-consumer advertising for these meds,” Boyd said.

Doctors who prescribe the medications must spend adequate time educating patients and parents about the drugs, the importance of taking them as directed and why they should not be shared with others, Boyd said.

“Most parents do not realize the abuse potential,” she said.

Dr. Steven Matson, interim chief of adolescent medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, said he’s concerned that so many of these prescriptions are being written for teens in the first place.

“It’s hard for me to think about why you would be doing that as a pediatrician. Hopefully, it’s not pediatricians who are doing it,” he said.

Doctors should take care to evaluate kids for mental-health problems before writing a prescription, he said.

And they should be especially cautious with fast-acting anxiety drugs such as Xanax, which teenagers are quick to identify as a potential drug of abuse if they aren’t already aware of its potential, Matson said.

The medicines at the heart of the new study “kind of zonk you out to treat anxiety and insomnia, and we’d much rather use medications that get to the root of anxiety and depression, like the SSRI drugs,” he said, referring to selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a class of medicines that includes Zoloft.

“So much of abnormal substance use sort of begins with mental health that isn’t addressed, and kids are just trying to use things to feel better.”

Matson said he rarely prescribes anti-anxiety medications to teens, but when he does, it’s usually for a short period — a few days after the death of a close family member, a couple of weeks for someone who is really in trouble and has yet to begin to feel the benefits of an SSRI.

He said that even then, he looks for medications that don’t kick in quickly, knowing that abuse is more likely with fast-acting drugs.

“The whole idea of kind of learning the ‘high’ is kind of a dangerous thing with teenagers,” Matson said.

In cases in which teens do receive a drug that can be abused, parents should dispense the pills and keep them in a safe place, he said.

“Teenagers are just not smart enough to manage their own meds,” Matson said.

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Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Gains Traction For Treating Depression

A depression treatment often used as a last resort for people who do not respond well to drug therapy is gaining traction after proving successful on a number of patients.

Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, or rTMS, is currently used as a treatment of last resort.

For 19-year-old Perth student "Max", who did not want his real name used, little else had worked to treat his depression.

"I was very low and sad and demotivated," he said.

"Before the treatment I was having trouble even getting out of bed, eating, taking care of my hygiene."

His mother "Carly" said when depression affected her son, it would hit him hard.

"He really can't do normal everyday things that other people take for granted - he often can't get out of bed, he can't get out of the house, he can't get to a university lecture or a day's work," she said.

"It sounds bizarre but he just can't - he can't get that motivation.

"It's not just about feeling sad - although there's a certain element of that - it's about just not having the energy and the will to complete very simple daily tasks.

"It's very difficult for him because he feels like his life is passing him by and he can't achieve things that he knows he wants to achieve ... so it's fairly devastating, from what he has told me, to actually experience it."

Max was a little apprehensive about rTMS before the first session at Graylands Hospital.

"You sit down in a chair. It's a bit like a dentist's chair, and they put a wand up to your head, it makes a clicking noise," he said.

It freaked him out "a little bit".

"They put electrodes on your head before they do it. It was a little bit scary but I got used to it fairly quickly," Max said.

There were daily sessions for a month and it took a little while before he noticed any difference.

"It took about two weeks to take effect," Max said.

"After the treatment I can do all of those things [sleeping, eating, working, going to university] and I'm pretty much back to my normal self."

'Neurons are firing' so brain works better

Senior scientist in electro-physiology at the hospital's department of neurophysiology, Dr Greg Price said rTMS clinical treatments started in Western Australia in 2011.

"It basically induces wave forms in the cortex of the brain and makes neurons fire," he said.

"When it's applied to a particular area, it is used as a treatment for depression.

"It's not the first treatment that's tried but if a patient tries at least two anti-depressant medications then we'll administer a trial of rTMS.

"It's usually fairly severe patients, probably a slightly larger proportion of females to males, all ages."

It has the effect of stimulating certain parts of the brain.

"When those neurons are firing ... the synapses work better, and somehow by those synapses working better, it makes that part of the brain work better," said Dr Price.

"That part of the brain is then more active where previously it had been shown to be hypo-active in depression."

Carly said Max completed high school before he was diagnosed with depression.

"During year 12, he had what I now know were bouts of depression but we weren't able to recognize what they were at the time," she said.

"Looking back it's pretty easy to identify. He went through stages where he literally couldn't get out of bed.

"He was formally diagnosed with depression when he left school and tried to start university, and his life just fell apart, which is apparently reasonably common in teenage boys.

"They've left the security of school and they're suddenly in this big grown-up world and if they're prone to that, then that's often when it will manifest in a particularly bad episode."

Treatment of 'last resort' offered after drugs did not help

Carly said Max dropped out of university and they cared for him for a time.

"He started drug therapy with fairly limited improvement," she said.

"In the course of this diagnosis and attempt at treatment, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, more specifically Asperger's, and again, looking back, we can see that this has been a big feature of his life.

"Often undiagnosed autism or Asperger's - the figures where the sufferers end up with depression are quite high, and that makes a lot of sense. You realize that you're a bit different from everybody else, you don't know why, you don't have a name for it, and it's no surprise really that you're going to end up depressed."

Carly said treating the depression with drugs had little impact.

"It wasn't very successful - that's probably still a learning journey where his drug treatment is tweaked. It's a lot better than it was in the early days," she said.

"He also had several stays in hospital which wasn't the answer for him either."

It was also difficult to know whether they were making the right decisions.

"It's frightening; you don't know what has happened to your child and you don't know if the way they're being treated is the best way," Carly said.

"It's very obviously a long-term illness - you can go for a long time without seeing an improvement, and as a parent, that's pretty devastating that you feel you can't fix this problem.

"It's a problem that not a lot of people understand. They don't understand when I say he can't get out of bed.

"They will say things like, 'well, make him, I'd make my child' and reflect on the way that you might have brought this child up."

Dr Price said rTMS treatments do not work for everyone.

"We have found that approximately 20 per cent of people don't get a benefit from the treatment. Approximately 40 per cent get remission - that is, they reach a level that is not considered to be depressed - and about 40 per cent get a benefit but it's not to remission," he said.

"Essentially that means things like energy levels are better, it means sleep usually is better, it means thoughts of suicide are less, it means anxiety typically is lessened. It could be anyone or a combination of those."

rTMS treatment still being tweaked

Dr Price said only about 60 to 70 patients in WA are treated with rTMS a year, and researchers are still feeling their way on what works best.

"It's definitely a new treatment - people are still working out the best parameters, the timing, how many stimuli to apply, how many to apply, what intensity to apply, that's still being worked out," he said.

For some people, there is an immediate and lasting benefit.

"In our experience, we have some people who respond well, and they stay well indefinitely," said Dr Price.

"Other people, they respond well and after a year or so, they've suffered a relapse, and will come back in for another session.

"There will be patients who will relapse in a shorter term - three months is at the low end but there are people who relapse over that time."

Dr Price would like to see the treatment made more widely available.

"I believe the benefits that people report from the rTMS make it worthwhile and it's got a strong rationale in that rTMS will make neurons fire and we know that when neurons fire, they work better," he said.

For Carly, rTMS has made an "enormous" difference for Max, and the family.

"It's very, very draining caring for a depressed person," she said.

"It's difficult on his siblings because he takes a lot of care and they lose a lot of time from their parents.

"When he's well, with the Asperger's he's a bit eccentric, but that's fine; as he says 'normal is boring' and we like eccentric."

With rTMS treatment, Max is back to his normal self.

"At the moment, he's at work today, he's back at uni, he's able to ... function," Carly said.

"My hope is that he will end up on some sort of maintenance program with this and be weaned off the drug therapy."

The health department said there were no plans to extend rTMS treatment at this stage.

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Cold Temperatures Help Insomnia

Ask any insomniac about the perils of a hot pillow: When you’re trying to sleep, your brain loves the cold. Wearing a cooling cap helped insomniacs snooze almost as well as people without sleep problems, found a study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and there’s also some evidence that yawning helps your brain offload heat before bedtime.

In fact, there’s lots of evidence for the cooler camp. A drop in your core temperature triggers your body’s “let’s hit the sack” systems, shows research from the Center for Chronobiology in Switzerland (and a lot of other places.) Some new research from the National Institutes of Health also suggests that sleeping in a cool room could have some calorie-burning health benefits. Healthy men who spent a month sleeping in a cool (but not cold) 66-degree room increased their stores of metabolically active brown fat, says Dr. Francesco Celi, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s division of endocrinology and metabolism. “Brown fat” may not sound very desirable, but it actually helps your body burn calories and dispose of excess blood sugar, he explains.

“We found that even a small reduction in bedroom temperature affects metabolism,” Celi says.

So if you want a healthy night’s sleep, crank down the thermostat, right? Unfortunately, it may not be that simple—when it comes to all of your below-the-neck parts, things aren’t so straightforward.

In Celi’s brown fat experiment, the men slept under thin sheets. What if you’re the type who likes a cozy down comforter? “Sorry, that won’t work,” Celi says, adding that some evidence points to shivering as the mechanism that brings on the increase in brown fat his team observed. His experiment didn’t keep tabs on sleep quality. So while the cold may be good for your metabolism and brown fat stores, you may be paying for those benefits with a night of fitful sleep.

That possibility is supported by research from Dr. Eus van Someren and colleagues at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. While a dip in core temperature before bedtime flips on your brain and body’s “time for bed” switches and helps you fall asleep, Someren’s research shows that keeping your skin temperature “perfectly comfortable” is important when it comes to maintaining deep, restful slumber.

Your level of “perfect comfort” is quite individual. But if you’re cold enough to be shivering, you’re not sleeping deeply, Someren says. His research shows that older adults in particular may benefit from warmer skin temperatures during sleep. In fact, both his work and more research from France suggest skin temps in the range of 90 degrees (!) may be optimal.

If that sounds nuts to you, consider the fact that thin pajamas, plus a sheet and blanket, could crank up your skin temperature to that 90-degree range—even if your room of slumber is only 65 degrees, Someren says. On the other hand, if your bedroom is too chilly or your blankets aren’t thick enough, blood vessels in your skin can narrow, locking in heat and upping your core temperature to a point that your sleep is disturbed, he explains.

Add in a sleeping partner, and things get even more complex; while you may yearn for a heavy down comforter, your spouse might prefer a thin sheet. “Temperature regulation is a tricky thing,” Someren says.

That’s a lot of bedroom science, but here’s the bottom line: keeping your head nice and cool is conducive to good sleep. To achieve that, set your thermostat somewhere around 65 degrees, research suggests. And layer up until you feel the Sandman creep closer.

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Facts About Bipolar Disorder

Being bipolar is in the news quite often, with several celebrities saying that they have this problem. Some people are dubious that bipolar is so common among the famous, and others think that actually it is very under-recognized in the rest of us. So where does the truth lie?

Bipolar illness was previously called manic depression and not many people would readily admit to it. The change of name to bipolar has made it a more acceptable diagnosis.

Those who have a bipolar illness experience periods of depression, with severe low mood, little sleep, not eating properly, and not able to manage day-to-day tasks because of poor concentration or lack of motivation. Depression usually comes in spells but lasts several weeks or longer.

Often people cannot work when they are depressed to such a serious level. However the great majority come out of depression and can get back to normal life. But the depression usually comes back again.

The manic side of bipolar is similarly severe. Although some people are very happy, most feel irritable and over-energized, they don’t need much sleep, talk too much and often get into arguments because they are overconfident and overbearing. Again this lasts for weeks or months and badly affects relationships and work.

Bipolar disorder is recurrent spells of depression and mania. It is a lifelong problem that can severely affect your work and relationships.

However, there are people who get lower levels of depression or manic symptoms which are persistent and different from normal mood, who are able to keep relatively normal life going. Where to draw the line between who is bipolar and who is getting normal mood changes is not easy, which is why you may need to see an expert.

Many people who think they might be bipolar have a very changeable mood – they are very sensitive to what others say or do. They can be the ‘life and soul’ at a party but suddenly switch to being very unhappy, even suicidal.

Others suddenly become angry or irritable having seemed very cheerful before. Often they can feel that they always have to put on an act and never really know who they are. This emotional instability is not usually bipolar and needs a different approach.

For those with bipolar the first part of treatment is to recognize exactly what the problem is and what makes it better or worse. You have to take particularly good care of yourself and especially your sleep pattern so that you have a steady routine to your life.

This can be difficult for young adults to take on. You are likely to be sensitive to the effects of alcohol and drugs. This also makes people with bipolar more likely to end up with an addiction. The main medical treatment is a salt called lithium, but it needs careful monitoring.

Mark had had problems with depression in his teenage years and didn’t mange to get his GCSEs because he had lost his motivation and became very anxious. However, the spells of depression lasted only a few months and then he got back to normal again for a year or so.

He did notice that at other times he had weeks when he got much more done and was full of confidence. He didn’t need much sleep and found it annoying that others could not stay up all night with him. When he wasn’t overconfident he tended to be anxious, particularly when he was in company. Cannabis calmed him down and he was smoking it every day.

When his first spell of mania occurred he found himself arrested after thinking that he was the next Gordon Ramsay and going into a school demanding to show them how a change in diet could save the world. He would not take no for an answer even when the police were called and he was taken off for a psychiatric assessment.

He spent two months in hospital with the reality of his bipolar illness gradually dawning on him and having to accept that his mood problems were not just a nuisance that was going to go away but a serious problem he had to address.

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Mindfulness, CBT Equally Effective For Treating Anxiety

Group mindfulness treatment is as effective as individual cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in patients with depression and anxiety, according to a new study from Lund University in Sweden and Region Skåne. This is the first randomized study to compare group mindfulness treatment and individual cognitive behavioral therapy in patients with depression and anxiety in primary health care.

The researchers, led by Professor Jan Sundquist, ran the study at 16 primary health care centers in Skåne, a county in southern Sweden. They trained two mindfulness instructors, from different occupational groups, at each primary health care center during a 6-day training course.

In spring 2012, patients with depression, anxiety or reactions to severe stress were randomized to either structured group mindfulness treatment with approximately 10 patients per group, or regular treatment (mainly individual CBT). Patients also received a private training program and were asked to record their exercises in a diary. The treatment lasted 8 weeks. General practitioner and mindfulness instructor Ola Schenström designed the mindfulness training program and model for training instructors.

A total of 215 patients were included in the study. Before and after treatment, the patients in the mindfulness and regular treatment groups answered questionnaires that estimated the severity of their depression and anxiety. Self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety decreased in both groups during the 8-week treatment period. There was no statistical difference between the two treatments.

"The study's results indicate that group mindfulness treatment, conducted by certified instructors in primary health care, is as effective a treatment method as individual CBT for treating depression and anxiety", says Jan Sundquist. "This means that group mindfulness treatment should be considered as an alternative to individual psychotherapy, especially at primary health care centers that can't offer everyone individual therapy".

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Depression Is Also In Your Genes

Ninety-seven healthy girls, ages 10 to 14, had saliva DNA samples taken. About half of them had moms with histories of depression, and about half had moms who did not. None of the girls had histories of depression.

The girls whose moms had suffered depression had significant reductions in the length of their telomeres. We all want to understand telomeres, the caps at the ends of our DNA strands, because the longer they are the longer we tend to live -- and live freer of age related illnesses like heart disease, stroke, dementia, diabetes and osteoporosis. The girls whose moms didn't have histories of depression, the control group of the study, did not show the same changes in their DNA as a result of reductions in the length of their telomeres.

The researchers took the study another step: they compared both groups of girls, the former or "high-risk" group and the control or "low-risk" group, by measuring their response to stressful mental tasks. The children of moms with depression had significantly higher levels of cortisol, our stress hormone, released during these tasks than those in the control group; both had normal levels of cortisol before the stressful tasks.

These findings are what scientists call associations, namely highly significant events found together that are unlikely to co-occur randomly. In themselves, they don't prove one caused the other, but they suggest that something important, not accidental, is going on. This study demonstrated shorter telomeres in daughters of moms who had depression and greater hormonal reactivity to stress in these girls.

When the girls were followed until age 18, 60 percent of those in the high-risk group developed depression, a condition that was not evident when they were first studied. The telomere was a biomarker, an individual hallmark that a person is at higher risk for an illness -- in this case for depression. We already knew that shortened telomeres were a risk factor for chronic, physical diseases but now the evidence is emerging for its likely role in depression.

Should you go out and get your saliva tested? There are labs happy to provide the test. But your decision should depend on whether you have reason to suspect being at risk, like a family history of maternal depression -- which may be all you actually need to know. But information is only valuable if we can do something about it.

And we can. We have a growing set of tools to help control our stress responses: these include yoga, yogic breathing, meditation, cognitive training techniques, exercise, diet, and working to have supportive, stable relationships, and home and work environments. People at greater risk for stress-related diseases (mind you, we all are at risk it's just a matter of degree) would be wise to learn and master these techniques early in life, and use them to live a healthier and longer life.

We also need to better detect and treat mothers who suffer from depression. We have strong evidence that untreated depression in moms impairs their attachment to their children and is associated with these children developing behavioral and emotional problems in childhood. If the moms are properly treated not only do they do better, so do their kids.

As we try to undo a long history of stigma about mental disorders and demonstrate they are illnesses that call for identification, early intervention, effective treatment, and prevention whenever possible, this telomere study is more evidence that depression is "...not just in our heads."

Understanding our genetic predispositions, developing reliable biomarkers, managing our environment and stresses, protecting ourselves from our harmful hormones, and having access to effective treatments are our best prescriptions for healthier and longer lives.

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Avoiding Seasonal Blues

What are the Holiday Blues?

The Holiday Blues refer to feelings of anxiety or depression during the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. They may be associates with extra stress, unrealistic expectations or even sentimental memories that accompany the season. They may include:

  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Sadness
  • A sense of loss
  • Fatigue
  • Tension
  • Frustration

The difference between the holiday blues and clinical anxiety or depression is that the feelings are temporary. They may come and go around specific holiday activities. However, if they are present for more than two weeks, especially every day, the mental health problem may be more serious.

It’s also important to understand that people already diagnosed with a mental illness can feel the holiday blues—and need to take extra care of themselves.

What Causes the Holiday Blues?

Many factors can someone’s mood over the holidays, including:

  • Less sunlight (October –March).
  • Changes in diet or routines.
  • Alcohol is a depressant. Too much alcohol can create or intensify depressive moods, and the holiday season is filled with parties.
  • Extra stress comes from holiday preparations or family demands. Buying presents, hosting events, preparing meals and even the pressure of getting holiday cards in the mail on time can wear a person down.
  • Unrealistic expectations, such as wanting to attend every gathering you’re invited to or wanting to spend more than your budget allows on gifts.
  • Over-commercialization of the season through advertising and store sales.
  • Inability to travel or attend family gatherings.
  • Feeling a difference between past holidays and the present one—sometimes because of the loss of a loved one or change in your living or work situation.

Children and the Blues

Child and adolescent psychiatric hospitalizations peak during winter months, including the holiday season.

Children are perceptive. They pick up on the mood of parents and other family members. They also feel the loss of close family members who may have died with whom they have celebrated in the past, such as grandparents. They can feel loss from other changes, such as a deployed parent or family upheaveals such as moving, divorce, etc.

It’s important to keep in mind that children and teenagers also aren’t limited to simply feeling “blue:” 50% of lifetime cases of mental illness appear by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.

Does the Suicide Rate Rise During the Holidays?

It’s a myth. In fact, the suicide rate tends to be lowest in winter. Suicides increase in the spring. But symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide must be taken seriously every time of the year, including the holidays.

Avoiding the Holiday Blues

  • Stick to normal routines as much as possible.
  • Get enough sleep or rest.
  • Take time for yourself, but don’t isolate yourself. Spend time with supportive, caring people.
  • Eat and drink in moderation. Don’t’ drink alcohol if you are feeling down.
  • Get exercise—even if it’s only taking a short walk.
  • Make a to-do list. Keep things simple.
  • Set reasonable expectations and goals for holiday activities such as shopping, cooking, entertaining, attending parties or sending holiday cards.
  • Set a budget for holiday activities. Don’t overextend yourself financially in buying presents.
  • Listen to music.
  • Remember that holiday blues are short-term. Be patient. Take things week by week and day by day.

Beyond the Blues: When It Becomes Mental Illness

If symptoms of depression or anxiety last more than 2 or 3 weeks, it could indicate a more serious mental health problem. There are basic steps that a person experiencing symptoms or family members and friends can take. These are steps that can be taken any time of the year.

  • Talk with your doctor (or pediatrician). A comprehensive physical exam needs to be part of assessment to rule out some physical causes.
  • Get a referral to a mental health professional; a call from your doctor may help you to avoid a long waiting list.
  • Educate yourself or recommend a resource to a person. Someone may know that something is off, but not recognize or understand symptoms or how to find help.
  • If a friend or relative is showing symptoms, ask them privately how things are going. If needed, use a prompt like “You seem a little sad or frustrated. What’s been going on lately?” Don’t be judgmental or trivialize what they may be feeling.
  • Offer to make the appointment for the person and accompany them to the doctor’s office or mental health clinic for moral support. It can make a big difference.
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Did You Know?

18 million US citizens have a serious mental illness.

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