What is ASMR, and can it help with depression and anxiety?

If you’ve been on the internet long enough, odds are good you’ve heard of or seen ASMR videos. I’ve found them to be a nice, relaxing break, one capable of helping you unwind at the end of the day, similar to relaxing meditation. But, can they help with depression or anxiety? It certainly appears that way.

First, for the uninitiated, let me answer this question: What is ASMR? It stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response.” Per the Google definition, which is pretty accurate as far as I am concerned:

a feeling of well-being combined with a tingling sensation in the scalp and down the back of the neck, as experienced by some people in response to a specific gentle stimulus, often a particular sound.

ASMR recently was seen by hundreds of millions of Americans with this Super Bowl commercial from Michelob:

ASMR can be triggered by a variety of things. For some people, there is nothing that works (like my wife, who wants to throw my iPad out the window when I watch these videos). For others, ASMR triggers include gentle sounds (like tapping or whispering) or demonstrations.

There are a ton of channels and videos on YouTube which are designed to “trigger” ASMR. It’s become an incredibly popular internet trend, one that thousands (if not millions) use to relax and unwind.

From a mental health perspective, here’s a more interesting question: Can ASMR be used to help fight off depression and anxiety?

Well, yeah. Maybe.

ASMR as a formal, intentional genre of videos is relatively new, having only been around since the early 2010s. However, there has been some research done on the subject, and the answer, so far, is yes. According to a study published in 2015, 80% of participants who viewed ASMR said that the viewing had a positive effect on their mood, while another 69% found that their depression symptoms had been improved. Another study showed that ASMR videos can reduce heart-rate and increase skin conductivity, signs of physical and mental relaxation. There are also a slew of internet reports, like this one, of people who have used ASMR to fight depression.

Just to be insanely clear here: ASMR is not a substitution for therapy or medication. Personally, I think it’s a nice distraction, a good way to unwind and temporarily ease the painful symptoms of depression or anxiety. That being said, it’s not a permanent, formal treatment. But, if you’re stressed and looking to relax a bit, ASMR can be helpful. And, even if you’re not – go enjoy it! Millions of people across the world have found themselves finding relaxation and joy with ASMR. Go search for videos and see if there’s anything there you like.

American Teenagers: Depression is our biggest problem

This Pew study. Wow.

PSDT_02.20.19_teens-00-00

According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 96% of teens view depression and anxiety as a major or minor problem among their peers, far outpacing literally every other societal problem, including bullying, alcohol, poverty, teen pregnancy and more. And the numbers aren’t even close.

Per the story, it’s even worse than just the graph above:

  • Teens feel this way regardless of whether or not they personally suffer from depression – this means that they are hugely aware of the problem in others, which obviously shows it has a high degree of preeminence.
  • The trend is specific to all teenagers, regardless of “gender, racial and socio-economic lines, with roughly equal shares of teens across demographic groups saying it is a significant issue in their community.”

This makes perfect sense, sadly. As we know from empirical data, rates of mental illness are increasing across the board, but the trend is most visible among American teenagers.

If teenagers across the board are seeing increases in mental illness, what doe that tell us?

I’d argue a broader point, using the graph above: The rise in the first line is a direct result of the rise in every other line.

Again, we know that mental illness is increasing. We also know that mental health isn’t like some contagious virus – you don’t “catch” depression the way you catch a common cold. So, what is it? What is leading to the massive spikes we are seeing in mental illness? My argument is this: It’s not just one thing, but many things. As the graph above and corresponding story makes clear, American teenagers are facing major societal challenges. They are scared, worried and anxious, as a result of a variety of factors, including a more complex society, increasing reliance on technology (at the expense of regular relationships) and the pressures of a rapidly changing and interconnected world.

A problem like this cannot simply be addressed at an individual level. It goes without saying that access to mental health care is incredibly important, and fighting mental health stigma (my favorite issue!) is vital, but we aren’t going to really get at a reduction in mental illness unless we address the societal and cultural problems which have resulted in its increase.

What does that look like? I don’t know all of the answers. But, if you’ve read this blog before, none of what I’m going to say is particularly new. Teenagers – well, hell, and the rest of us – are too addicted to technology. They are spending more times with their phones and less time with each other. This has devastating psychological impacts. The answer is not that simple, of course. But we know that teenagers are spending less time with each other in a variety of ways – less time at parties and social gathers, less time away from adults and less time simply interacting with one another. At the same time, world events and pressures are more available and accessible than they ever have been – thanks, in part, to our lovely phones.

What’s the end result? A generation that is more depressed, more brittle and less resilient.

This isn’t an effort to place blame, but it’s something all of us are responsible for addressing. Teenagers become adults…and, as someone who has suffered from depression and anxiety for my entire life, I don’t want an entire generation of teenagers and young adults to feel that pain. We have to deal with this. Now.

Teens, marijuana and depression

A friend of mine was kind enough to flag this article for me, and it brings up some points that I really think are worth exploring.

As a debate over legalizing marijuana continues across the country – and in Pennsylvania – a new study draws a connection (not a casualtional one, however) between teen marijuana use and depression.

From the NBC report on the study:

Researchers found that cannabis use during the teenage years was associated with a nearly 40 percent bump in the risk of depression and a 50 percent increase in the risk of suicidal thoughts in adulthood, according to the study, published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

The report does note that this isn’t to say marijuana causes depression (though that may, in fact, be the case). It’s possible that the depression encourages marijuana use, or that a third factor (such as economics, anxiety, stress, etc) cause both the depression and marijuana use.

Still. The study does show a clear connection between marijuana and depression. There’s an irony to that: Some research shows that medical marijuana may actually help alleviate symptoms of depression. This may be a secondary benefit of medical marijuana, which has been shown to relieve pain and stress – two factors which, of course, may lead to someone becoming depressed.

Can these seemingly contradictory findings be reconciled? Sure. It’s possible that the drugs act in such a way which helps those who are already depressed, but affects other aspects of someone’s brain chemistry in those who are not depressed, thus making them so. It’s also important to note that there are major differences in terms of the chemical composition, and effects, of medical and recreational marijuana, thus potentially resulting in different effects.

The causes and effects of marijuana use are not always clear or linear. More research is needed.

Personally, I believe that marijuana needs to be examined and researched like any other drug. I’ll also note a flaming hypocrisy within our current medical and judicial systems: Numerous legal drugs (such as Oxycontin) are obtainable from reputable medical professionals, despite the fact that Oxycontin is more potent and addictive than marijuana.

Our drug policy in America makes no sense. But – and this is a big “but” – we cannot sit here and pretend that legalizing marijuana is the solution to many of our woes. Legalizing marijuana may be preferable to the alternative of prohibition, but that’s not to say that there won’t be significant negative side effects, and this may very well be depression in young people. Marijuana legalization – it’s pros and cons – need real, comprehensive study and thought. It could have major benefits and harm to the mental illness space.

What professions have the highest rates of mental illness?

UPDATE 11:45am: In the interest of transparency, I’m keeping the information below, but please note that the information about farmer’s IS NOT CORRECT. Please see the CDC retraction.

Last week, as part of my real job, I took part on a hearing legislative hearing involving first responders, mental health and their ability to get the care they need. A nice summary of my legislation and other related pieces is here.

Some of my tweets from the hearing are below. When it comes to first responders, the ugly truth is that we are failing them:

As you can see from the tweets above (all of which were gathered from a public hearing), the stress first responders face is absurd. To work in an area where you have a 1/3 chance of showing symptoms of PTSD – and all while helping people and saving lives – that’s a remarkable thing to endure. These folks deserve our help and our praise, and that’s something I’m working on as a Representative.

That being said, it got me thinking: What other professions show high rates of mental illness and suicide?

That information is available. According to a US News article on the subject:

  1. Farmworkers, fishermen, forestry (85 suicides per 100,000).
  2. Construction and mining trades (53).
  3. Installation, maintenance, repair (48).
  4. Factory production workers (35).
  5. Architects and engineers (32).
  6. Police, firefighters and other protective services (31).
  7. Arts, design, entertainment, athletes, media (24).
  8. Computer and mathematics (23).
  9. Transportation and material movers (22).
  10. Corporate managers (20).

Now, those are suicide rates per 100,000. The farmworkers one is so far above the rest of the group that it truly gave me pause, but from a logical perspective, it makes sense. That category of workers obviously is concentrated in rural areas, which have higher rates of suicide. This is for many reasons, including a shortage of mental health care providers and a higher prevalence of guns.

So, why are farmworkers suicide rates so high? Unsurprisingly, there has been a great deal of media coverage about this subject. The job is high stress and success is subject to a variety of factors outside of the farmer’s control, such as the weather and state of international trade.

Looking at a different topic – rates of depression, I found this infographic from MentalHelp.Net.

Which Industries are the Most Affected?

The pattern there is less clear. And what’s even more interesting is that farming is not present anywhere in that information. I don’t understand the disconnect – and, frankly, it doesn’t make any sense to me. If you get it, please let me know in the comments below!

 

 

Climate change – and a potential climate apocalypse – are contributing to depression

The evidence, unfortunately, is clear: Climate change is here, it is accelerating, and it is going to get worse, with potential cataclysmic changes occurring as soon as 2040.

That, obviously, can and will have massive implications on all of our lives. However, as this NBC article notes, one of those negative impacts from a mental health perspective: The depression which comes as a result of “climate grief.”

I didn’t realize this until this article, but the American Psychological Association released a long report on how climate change is affecting mental health. That’s available here. That report, it seems, concentrates largely on the effects of climate change on the mental health of those who are more directly impacted by the negative impacts of climate change, including some of the enhanced hurricanes and extreme weather events. However, it also notes that personal relationships and psychological can be impacted:

Psychological well-being includes positive emotions, a sense of meaning and
purpose, and strong social connections. Although the psychological impacts of
climate change may not be obvious, they are no less serious because they can lead to
disorders, such as depression, antisocial behavior, and suicide. Therefore, these
disorders must be considered impacts of climate change as are disease, hunger,
and other physical health consequences.

I gotta say, personally, I totally get this, and I bet you do too. Worry about the planet’s health has starting permeating some of my worst fears, and particularly in terms of what we are leaving behind for our children. My children.

The NBC article notes that a woman featured in it, who has three very worried children, enrolled in a ten step program (the Good Grief network), which helps people deal with collective societal problems. I like this strategy a lot because it actually involves doing something – not just sitting and waiting.

I will refer again to an earlier entry I wrote in the aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting – how to have hope in a world filled with darkness. One of the specific items I wrote was this: Find what you can control, and do something about it. Is climate change an issue which is important to you? It should be. The question needs to me this then: What can you do about it? As an individual, there are quite a few things. This involves changing what you buy, what you use and how you take care of yourself. This also means connecting with elected officials and becoming a citizen activist.

On this issue, the best advice I can give is this: You aren’t helpless, and you aren’t powerless. If you are worried about climate change, do something.

My most-read blog entries of the year

I have to say, I really enjoyed the blog this year. After letting it go for months, I picked it up again and have consistently tried to create useful and interesting content. It’s also helped me expand my horizons and think about mental health in a different way.

This year also saw the publication of Redemptionan experience which has given me more joy than I ever could have realized – and an experience which was borne of my own depression. Take note, reader: You can get immeasurable joy out of sadness.

That being said, most importantly, I hope what I wrote has helped you.

So, here’s a look at the five blog entries I wrote which seemed to be the most popular. My year in review, if you will.

5) Ties That Bind: Liberals, Conservatives & Mental Health: This is the only “top five” entry which dealt specifically with public policy. It dealt with the challenges facing Democrats/Republicans, urban/rural areas and how mental health remains a huge challenge in all of these sections of the country.

4) Redemption, by Mike Schlossberg, is Almost Available: Alright, this one was blatantly self-promotional 🙂

3) The Tragic Suicides of Kate Spade & Anthony Bourdain: Within a few days, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain killed themselves. I wrote this blog entry just after the news broke about Bourdain, largely motivated by a very real fear about the contingent effect when someone does kill themselves. It was my immediate thoughts on what to do and how to help those who are suffering.

2) How To Stay Hopeful in a World Filled With Darkness: This entry was one of the most painful ones I have ever done, and like the one above, it was in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy – specifically the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. The crux of this entry was how anyone can stay hopeful and optimistic in a world where gloom and doom have become so powerful.

1) How Vacation Can Make You Depressed, and What You Can Do About It: This entry was inspired by my own upcoming vacation – and the depression which often accompanied it. What was most interesting about this one to me is that this one has seen a slow and steady increase in hits after the entry was posted back in late July. It did okay at first, but then the views just grew and grew. I suppose it’s good to know that I’m not the only one who sometimes feels this way.

It has been a wonderful year, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk to you. I wish you a happy, peaceful and restorative New Year. See you in 2019!

Highly recommended mental health reading

As the year comes to an end, I find myself staring at my Goodreads page. I had a pretty good year for reading! Looks like I read 28 books when I wanted to read 20 – I’ll take it!

But, that’s not what I am writing about today, at least, not specifically. I wanted to pass along the books I have read in the mental health genre, both fictional and non-fictional. Some authors just do a remarkably good job of dealing with this realm, and it’s my honor to make a few recommendations. So, without further ado:

Fiction

  • The Summer The World Ended, Matthew Cox: A fantastic book about a young girl who experiences a traumatic loss and has her entire life uprooted. The book takes a close look at trauma, PTSD and more (which I can’t get into without spoiling).
  • Consider and Contribute, Kristy Acevedo: This was the only other book I could find which simultaneously dealt with a young adult, science fiction and mental illness! In the book, portals open, with aliens advising that Earth residents jump in them because the world is about to end. The book follows a young girl with major anxiety challenges and her struggles to deal with the new world. I also interviewed the author, Kristy Acevedo, here.
  • The Memory of Light, Francisco Stork: One of my favorites. It follows a young girl who survives a suicide attempt and her way back into the light. Stork was kind enough to answer an interview from me as well.

Non-Fiction

  • Lost Connections, Johann Hari: A controversial book which I had some issues with. Nonetheless, it offers some interesting insight into the ideas of social, societal and cultural causes behind depression and mental illness in general.
  • How To Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price: Okay, this isn’t exactly a mental health book, per se, but I think it is. It helps people learn how to stay away from their phones, and all the benefits that can bring. I also interviewed Price on the blog a few months ago.

And, of course, if you want one more book, allow me to suggest Redemption, my young adult, science fiction tale of depression, anxiety and saving the world.

Any other books to add? Please let us know in the comments. Have a WONDERFUL new year!

Mental Heath & The Holidays

This entry originally appeared in November 2017, and for Thanksgiving, but I think the lessons certainly still apply. To all who celebrate, Merry Christmas, and Happy Holidays!

—-

Gobble gobble!

Now that the obligatory greeting is out of the way, here’s another: Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope that, for whatever struggles you are currently enduring, you are able to find a way to be grateful for all that you do have.

The holidays can be a stressful time, particularly for those who suffer from mental health issues.  This interesting article from Healthline notes two very accurate reasons for depression during this time period:

  • Social isolation, particularly during the holiday season, and particular if you actually don’t have the opportunity to spend time with friends and family.
  • Grieving.  The holidays can be very difficult for those who have lost someone, even more so if that death is a recent one.  After all, since the holidays are usually associated with spending time with people you love.  As such, the loss of those who you are close with can make the pain of the holidays feel virtually unbearable.

This story from a 2014 Huffington Post article adds some additional insight:

  • People tend to set unrealistic expectations for their social interaction and what they can accomplish during the Holidays (pro-tip: You aren’t Martha Stewart).
  • People try to do too much.
  • “Comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides,” particularly thanks to social media (YES this a thousand times!).

That being said, I may as well take this opportunity to dispel a suicide-related myth: Contrary to popular belief, suicides do not increase during the holidays.  In fact, they actually decrease.

On a personal level, I was always relatively okay during the holidaus, even at my most depressed points, though there were some rough patches.  Thanksgiving and Christmas were always nice, but, randomly, what always got me was the 4th of July.  It’s supposed to be a fun, relaxed holiday, but somehow, I always spent it alone, or frequently with people who I didn’t really like and made me feel alone.  There’s something about holidays that can just make you feel like a loser…like, you are supposed to be having fun and aren’t.  Isn’t that the worst?

So, how do you survive?  Some thoughts:

  • First and foremost, don’t even think about talking about Donald Trump.
  • Stay.  The.  Hell.  Off.  Of.  Facebook.  Seriously.  As I’ve discussed previously, social media can be really bad for your mental health, and this can be particularly true for moments when you are already vulnerable from a mental health perspective.  For your own sanity, limit your time on social media.  It will be way, way too easy to, as the note above says, “compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”
  • It’s Thanksgiving.  Try to be as thankful as you can be.  That’s easier said, than done, of course.  But, to the extent that you are able, think about it.  If you are reading this blog, you have internet access, which is better than the more than three billion people who don’t have internet access. That likely means you live in the developed world, which means you have access to food, clean drinking water, modern sanitation systems and decent medical care.  It’s not much, but try to remember – odds are, you have it better than billions of people across the planet.  That has to count for something.  Challenge yourself to shift your perspective; yeah, you have the racist uncle sitting two seats down, and he’s had one to many Coors, but odds are still better you have it better than billions.
  • Remember – if you are able – actually relax!  The holidays were designed for unwinding.  Need a break?  Take it.  The damn turkey can wait.  You’re more important.
  • If you are someone (like me) who values routine, don’t let the holidays knock you off of it.  I’m still going to the gym.  I’m still gonna go to sleep and wake up at my usual times.  I’d recommend the same for anyone else.

This isn’t much – and it may be woefully inadequate for what you are facing, that I completely understand – but hopefully these little tips can help make your holiday a little better.

Happy holidays, readers!  I am thankful for many things in my life, and that certainly includes those of you who keep coming back to read what I have to say.  I hope you have a great holiday season, and a very happy Thanksgiving!

Two major mental health trends, with one unifying theme

Two articles jumped out at me over this weekend. The first was this extremely long and in-depth look at a major suicide study done decades ago, which showed that even the occasional letter from a therapist can get someone through a crisis and significantly reduce suicide rates. The second touches on the topic you’ve all heard me discuss many times before: The rise of depression and suicide in young adults, and the potential role that smart phones may play.

The commonality here is obvious: The importance of relationships in stopping a mental health crisis and maintaining happy lives.

The Huffington Post article tracks the work of Dr. Jerome Motto, who engaged in a massive suicide study. His team tracked tracked mentally ill patients and found that sending letters to them could dramatically reduce suicide attempts, a study that, according to the article, has been backed up by other, similar studies, including this one by Gregory Carter:

Gregory Carter, who ran a psychiatry service in New South Wales, Australia, orchestrated a study in which Motto’s words were typed onto a postcard illustrated with a cartoon dog clutching an envelope in its mouth. The notes were sent eight times over the course of 12 months to patients who were among the hardest to treat. The majority had histories of trauma, including rape and molestation. Some had made repeated suicide attempts. But Carter found there was a 50 percent reduction in attempts by those who received the postcards. When he checked in on the study’s participants five years later, the letters’ effects were still strong. And the cost per patient was a little over $11.

Meanwhile, the USA Today article I noted above places at least some of the blame of the rise in depression among teenagers and young adults on cell phones:

San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge sees a direct link between how much time teens spend on smartphones and troubling signs of mental health distress.

In her 2017 book “iGen,” she cited national health surveys and other statistics to argue that a generation of teens have turned to smartphones as their preferred social outlet, and teens who spend the most time on their screens are more likely to be unhappy.

“What you get is a fundamental shift in how teens spend their leisure time,” Twenge told USA TODAY. “They are spending less time sleeping, less time with their friends face to face. … It is not something that happened to their parents. It is not something that happens as a world event.”

There’s a common connection here, and it’s pretty obvious: People – all of us – need each other.

The simple fact is this: iPhones and social media are build on the premise of building a further connection between people, and while that’s certainly possible, I’d argue that they really just keep us apart. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but when we use our phones instead of talking to people face to face, we’re not building anything. It may increase our surface knowledge of someone’s life, but it’s not a substitute for a real interaction. It’s like heaving sugar for dinner instead of a healthy meal – it may fill you up, but there’s nutritious about what you are eating, and eventually, it rots you from the inside.

The article about sending letters to suicidal people backs up this point, in my opinion. People can, apparently, be brought back from the brink by hearing from someone who truly cares. I will not presume to imagine what is going through the mind of someone who is at the point of a suicide attempt. But from what I’ve read – and what I’ve experienced when I was close to that point – suicide isn’t really about dying, per se. It’s about someone wanting to stop their pain. To know that they have a reason to hope. So, if you get an authentic person sending a real message – hey, how are you doing, I’m thinking about you and I care about you – can that fill a void? Can that bring a person back from the edge? Dr. Motto’s research, and that of others, would certainly seem to imply that the answer to that question is yes.

It seems to me that these two articles detailing the rise in suicide and depression have someone in common – humans are losing their innate ability to connect with others, and doing so can solve many of our mental health issues.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Your smartphone can tell if you’re depressed

person using phonwYou know how I’ve written about how social media and phones can cause depression? Well, it turns out, your phone can also tell if you are depressed.

The study, from the University of Stanford, shows that face and speech software on your phone can detect depression based on your facial expressions and speech patterns:

The researchers fed video footage of depressed and non-depressed people into a machine-learning model that was trained to learn from a combination of signals: facial expressions, voice tone, and spoken words. The data was collected from interviews in which a patient spoke to an avatar controlled by a physician.

In testing, it was able to detect whether someone was depressed more than 80% of the time. The research was led by Fei-Fei Li, a prominent AI expert who recently returned to Stanford from Google.

The article did caution that, due to the way the study was conducted, the therapeutic applications aren’t clear. According to David Sontag, an assistant professor at MIT:

…that the training data was gathered during an interview with a real clinician, albeit one behind an avatar, so it isn’t clear if the diagnosis could be entirely automated. “The line of work is interesting,” he says,“but it’s not yet clear to me how it’ll be used clinically.”

I have two thoughts about this type of treatment. First, this is fascinating – and this type of technology be helpful in terms of closing the gap between those who have access to treatment and those who don’t. In addition to studies like the one above, Stanford has also developed apps which can be used to treat depression – and which apparently work. I’ve touched on this topic in previous entries as well: Apps which treat depression can work.

In other words, apps and automated programs can help to treat depression. That’s fascinating to me – I never would have believed that depression could be treated without a live, human person, but apparently it can work.

On the other hand, there are some rather frightening potential applications of this sort of treatment. First is privacy: I am sure that any app working right now is operating with the strictest of privacy measures and data safeguards, but as we have seen repeatedly, data hacks and breaches occur with relative consistency. This has some very serious implications for something like text therapy or therapy which occurs over a device, because it begs the question: What data is recorded, and how could it potentially be accessed? I mean, I’m pretty open about the fact that I receive treatment, but even I wouldn’t want the items I discuss with my therapist broadcasted to the whole word. Is that possible with these apps? I don’t know, and it may not be. But there are real privacy and technological concerns which must be addressed when it comes to therapy delivered electronically.

Second: Can someone be diagnosed against their will? I don’t think so. Not yet, anyway. Later down the line, programs like the one discussed above may also have issues with consent. It seems to me that the Stanford program is not yet ready to be used in a public or even therapeutic setting. But, when it is, will people be able to use it on others without their consent? That…that’s kind of a scary thought.

These are questions which are only somewhat hypothetical. Technology is clearly advancing, and I can only hope privacy and ethical safeguards can advance with it.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!