What anti-stigma really means

Call this one a brilliant thought that I had in the shower the other day.

There are plenty of anti-stigma campaigns related to mental health.  In many cases, the goal of these campaigns is simple, noble and necessary: to defeat “mental health challenges in the workplace and at home.”  This is vitally important work.

There’s good news related to that though.  In many areas, anti-stigma campaigns have already done their job.  For example, a poll taken in my home state of Pennsylvania (March 2017) shows high levels of comfort in terms of working with someone with a mental illness, a vast improvement over previous levels.  While there is still a long way to go, this poll shows significant movement in the area of mental illness.

I was thinking about this poll the other day, and it had me thinking: What does anti-stigma really mean?  Obviously we need to continue to work on critical areas like discrimination and access to healthcare, but I’d argue there’s more than that.

My argument is this: The most powerful sense of stigma is self-stigma.

Consider this 2012 article, which describes self-stigma as when “patients agree with and internalize social stereotypes,” resulting in:

•Patients often think that their illness is a sign of character weakness or incompetence.
•Patients develop feelings of low self-esteem and become less willing to seek or adhere to treatment.
• Patients anticipate that they will be discriminated against, and to protect themselves they limit their social interactions and fail to pursue work and housing opportunities.

As a result, patients find themselves less willing to seek treatment and social support, leading to lower rates of recovery.

This realization has had me rethinking how I approach the notion of anti-stigma campaigns.  Of course they should be focused on ensuring that all of society views people with mental illness not as sick freaks who are weak, but as real people suffering from real disorders that can be treated like any physical illness.  I want to push society to a place where all of us – those with mental illness and those without – view people who are suffering from a mental illness the same way that someone views a cancer patient.  No one who suffers from a mental illness should do so in fear, shame or silence.  They should talk about their therapy appointments the same way a cancer patient discusses chemo or someone with a broken leg discusses physical therapy.

I suppose, then, that what I am saying is this: Anti-stigma campaigns shouldn’t just address societal stigma.  They should address self-stigma as well.

As always, I welcome your thoughts – am I onto something here?  More importantly, have you found any anti-stigma campaigns that fulfill what I am describing?  Let me know what in the comments!

National Depression Screening Day

I’m a bit late on this, but October 5 was National Depression Screening Day.  The day itself, first created in 1990, is an effort to encourage people to determine if they are depressed and seek treatment for their illness.

Common depression screening tools

There are multiple depression screening tools available.  These tools, often available in online questionnaires, allow users to determine if may be suffering from depression.  Ideally, an appropriate screener will then link to resources which will enable a person to get help.

From what I have seen, the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) is the most common tool to determine depression.  It’s brief – just nine questions – and allows for the user to easily determine if they are potentially suffering from depression.

There are, of course, many more depression screening tools, including:

  • Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS)
  • Beck Depression Inventory (BDI)
  • Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ)
  • Major Depression Inventory (MDI)
  • Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D)
  • Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale (SDS)
  • Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS)
  • Cornell Scale for Depression in Dementia (CSDD)

Does depression screening work?

There is evidence which shows that depression screening can make untreated individuals aware of their problems and encourage them to seek treatment.  Depression screening also appears to be relatively accurate, and its systemic use can make doctors more aware of depression with their patients.

The biggest benefit of depression screening

Depression screening is a useful, if flawed tool, which allows for an individual to determine if they are depressed.  That being said, depression screening increases awareness of depression.  It allows someone to determine if they may be suffering from depression, and seek help.  It also treats depression just like any other physical aliment – this, in turn, has the power of reducing stigma.

Study: Depression can be treated with…anti-inflammation drugs…??

A friend was kind enough to send me this article, and this one is too strange sounding not to share: According to a new study, depression is “a physical illness caused by a faulty immune system” that can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs.

From an article on the study:

Current treatment is largely centred around restoring mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, but experts now think an overactive immune system triggers inflammation throughout the entire body, sparking feelings of hopelessness, unhappiness and fatigue.

It may be a symptom of the immune system failing to switch off after a trauma or illness, and is a similar to the low mood people often experience when they are fighting a virus, like flu.

“In relation to mood, beyond reasonable doubt, there is a very robust association between inflammation and depressive symptoms.  We give people a vaccination and they will become depressed. Vaccine clinics could always predict it, but they could never explain it.

According to the article, more tests will begin next year to see if anti-inflammatory drugs can help alleviate depression.

Obviously, this piqued my curiosity, so I did a little bit more digging.  First, this area of study isn’t new – there are studies dating back at least six years that would support the notion that inflammation and depression are linked.  From that article:

Previous studies have linked depression with higher level of inflammatory markers compared to people who are not depressed. When people are given proinflammatory cytokines, people experience more symptoms of depression and anxiety. Chronically higher levels of inflammation due to medical illnesses are also associated with higherrates of depression. Even brain imaging of people with depression show that their brain scans have increased neuroinflammation.

The article went on to recommend that everyone take anti-inflammatory steps (which are good for you regardless), including better diet, stress reduction, exercise, mind-body exercises and breathing exercises.

This is new to me, and fascinating.  That being said, it makes me nervous.  I’ve always operated under the assumption that depression – and mental illness in general – are not caused by – or treatable with – a single bullet.  They are a combination of things: Genetics, stress levels, thinking patterns, etc., that make someone mentally ill.  As such, the notion that one thing – inflammation – could be the cause of depression – well, it gives me pause.

It would be so, so wonderful to be wrong!

Two points about this research, and understand, please, that they are coming from a layman, not a doctor!:

First, more tests are required, so don’t run out and buy an anti-inflammatory today.  More information, specifics and treatment options are still needed.  For now, keep going to therapy and taking your medication, darn it!

Second, let’s say, for a moment, that future studies confirm a connection between inflammation and depression.  That does not (necessarily) mean that you should stop taking your medication or going to therapy.  Remember, all body-mind reactions are a two way street.  Yes, your body can affect your mind, of course, but the way you think can affect your body.  When you are scared, your heart rate accelerates, your breathing speeds up and you get sweaty.  Don’t think that being depressed, having negative emotions or damaging thought processes can’t potentially cause the inflammation that causes depression.  I’ve always believed – at least for me – that a combination of medication and therapy are the best way to deal with depression.  If you believe that too, don’t think that therapy will no longer be necessary just because you take some pills that can make the swelling go down.

This is fascinating.  And potentially hugely promising.  I can’t wait to track more information about this, and I really hope that this can provide people with real relief in the future.

Physician shortages: The biggest challenge facing mental health in America

I often write about stigma and the devastating role it can play in terms of keeping people out of treatment.  I think a big part of the reason I discuss it so frequently is that it’s the one area that people can actually get involved in and feel like they are making a difference.

That being said, I need to be clear about this one: Stigma reduction, though important, is not the most critical issue facing mental health.  That, I would argue, is a lack of capacity, largely in terms of mental health practitioners.

The facts on our ongoing physician shortage crisis are staggering:

  • According to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, over the next eight years, the United States will experience a doctor shortage of between 61,700 – 94,700.
  • That problem is much more acute in the area of mental health.  According to one report, in order to meet demand, the United States needs to add 70,000 providers over the next eight years if we are going to meet a growing demand.  The problem is even worse for people who live in rural areas; 60% of all people in rural areas live in a mental health professional shortage area.  In general, according to NAMI, only 41% of all people with mental illness are treated, while that number increases to 63% of all people with a serious mental illness.
  • The shortage doesn’t just affect personnel, but facilities.  It can be extremely difficult for the mentally ill who need inpatient care to have access to it, with some surveys estimating that the United States needs a whopping 123,000 psychiatric beds.

How did we get here?
As you can imagine, there are a variety of culprits, including:

  • Incredibly high standards to get into medical school and a long length of time for training.
  • Crushing medical student loan debt (averaging $207,000).
  • A shortage of residency slots for hospitals.  These slots are almost entirely funded by Medicaid, and that funding has not increased since 1997.
  • High cost of malpractice insurance.
  • Varying reimbursement rates for different specialties (more on this later).

Why is this problem so much worse in mental health?
This problem is even more acute in the mental health universe, where amount of psychiatrists declined 10% from 2003-2013.  The shortage gets even more severe as you go into mental health specialties, such as pediatric and geriatric care.

Again, there are many reasons that this issue is so problematic for mental health.  For one thing, hospitals and insurance companies pay doctors more if they are involved in specialties that turn a profit, like orthopedic surgery and urology…not psychology or psychiatry.  Additional public cuts to human services and mental health further exacerbate the problem. As a result, there is less staff in this area, regardless of it’s importance.

Physician burnout is also a problem, with one study noting that “86 percent reporting high exhaustion and 90 percent reporting high cynicism.”

Another problematic area is physician training, where there are concerns that training models have not evolved enough to introduce more medical students to mental health areas.

There’s more – much more than a simple blog entry can handle.  For a more in-depth look, I highly recommend that you review this report by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

What can we do about it?

  • Increasingly utilize technology and telehealth, which some studies have shown to be promising in the area of mental health.  With additional capacity, telehealth can help overcome geographic shortfalls that occur.  Other systems, such as bed and doctor registries, can help patients in need of treatment find appropriate resources.
  • Expanded number of residency slots.
  • Adjustment to reimbursement rates to ensure that mental health services achieve parity with other areas.
  • Adjustment to licensure laws in order to allow for other certified professionals – with appropriate training – to treat patients.

It is important to not lose sight of this simple truth: The mental health practitioner shortage can devastate the quality of life of the mentally ill.  It can kill people, frankly.  In my government job, my office regularly fields calls from constituents who need help but can’t find it.  Mental health is an issue that society is only truly starting to understand and deal with.  We must ensure that the mentally ill have the access to the resources that they need.