Does social media cause depression?

Despite being a complete social media addict (sigh), I’ve written repeatedly about the negative impacts that social media can have on your mental health. However, one of the key, unanswered questions has always been this: Is the relationship casual? That is, does social media use cause loneliness, does loneliness cause an increase in social media use, or is a third item related to both?

New research indicates that the relationship IS casual: Social media use does, in fact, make you more lonely.

This comes from a new study, courtesy of Melissa Hunt, the associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department.

In her study, Hunt took two groups of college students. In the first, students were asked to use social media as they usually did (about an hour a day). The second group was asked to limit it’s social media use to ten minutes per site.

The results, per Hunt: “The main finding of the paper is that limiting your use of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram to 30 minutes total or less per day results in reductions in depression and loneliness, especially for people who were moderately depressed to start with.”

Yikes.

Yikes yikes yikes.

This is the first study, to my knowledge, which directly shows that social media is a CAUSE of depression, not just correlated with it. However, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by this. We know that excessive use of social media can create a variety of negative impacts on someone’s life, including cyberbullying, negative body image and more. However, this is the first time that there has been a direct casual link established between depression and social media.

What do we do? Well, that’s easy: Use social media less. Seriously. It’s good for you to do that anyway, even if this study isn’t accurate (though I intuitively think it is).

More research is needed, but I firmly believe that this study will be the first of many, many which show the devastating impacts which social media is having on our society and our culture. And it’s hard for me to say: Like many of you, I find myself completely addicted to social media. But it’s an addiction which needs to break.

 

The danger of Benzodiazepians

If you’ve suffered from any sort of mental health disorder, odds are good you are familiar with Benzodiazepians (aka Benzos). Benzos are a class of drugs which are used to treat anxiety and a slew of other conditions, including insomnia, seizures and more. In the short-term, they can be very helpful in getting people through panic attacks. Personally, I’ve used them in the past for rip-roaring anxiety attacks, and they can be helpful in getting through the worst of these condition. When taken in conjunction with therapy or other long-term medication strategies, they are a useful tool in treating mental illness.

Use of benzos has dramatically increased. From 1996-2013, the amount of adults prescribed benzos increased 67%, going from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. Those increases are also seen among individuals who have been prescribed opioids – and that has led to overdose issues.

According to government research, over 30% of opioid overdoses also involve benzos:

Line graph showing causes of death from opioids, benzodiazepines and opioids, and opioids without benzodiazepines between 1999 and 2015

 

Meanwhile, overdose deaths from Benzos have shown frightening increases of late:

Number of Deaths Involving Benzodiazepines

There is also evidence of late that shows that Benzo prescriptions for those with PTSD may increase suicide risk, and that use of Benzos may be tied to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

So, am I telling you to throw away your Benzos? No, no, and hell no. When used under a doctors care, and responsibly, Benzo medication can be an important part of any therapeutic regimen. Candidly, when my anxiety was at it’s peak, I walked around with tranquilizers as a “just in case.” Knowing I had those to fall back on gave me the confidence to continue my daily routine in terms of my school, work and social life. If I hadn’t had those, I would have had major difficulties functioning. Eventually, modifications to my regular medication and therapy helped me address my anxiety issues, ones which (thankfully) have not come back.

Benzos can be helpful – you just need to be careful in how you use them!

PS: GO VOTE TOMORROW!

How to stay hopeful in a world filled with darkness

This week:

I spent most of Saturday crying on and off. It’s almost impossible not to. You keep reading and hearing how the world is coming apart at the seems, how things are getting so much worse, how toxic the political environment is.

Everything does seem hopeless. I get that. But it isn’t. While world events are overwhelming, and the darkness does often seem to be closing in, now, more than ever, those of us who are capable of having and expressing hope have an obligation to do so.

If world events seem overwhelming to you, here are a few ways you can try and draw some hope.

First: Concentrate on the good in the world, not the evil.

As it happened, the day of the Pittsburgh shootings, my family and I were going to an open house at a local Mosque. I did this Facebook live video while I was there:

The conclusion is this: Evil is loud. Good is soft. But there is still more good than evil. In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shootings, hundreds rallied for peace. Pittsburgh blood banks put out a call for help after the shootings and were overwhelmed with donors. First responders did their job that day, heroically running into the Temple, and likely saving lives while doing so, even while four of their own were injured.

The world may seem broken, but that’s because evil screams and gets more attention. Don’t concentrate on that. There is so much good in this place. You don’t even have to look very hard.

Second: Find what you can control, and do something about it.

One of the hardest lessons for me in government and politics has been learning the limits of governmental power. And no, I don’t mean that in the sense of wanting government to be able to do more. I mean acknowledging that there are simply some things beyond our control. You get into government and politics because you want to help people, and then you realize that you can’t save everyone.

What all of us can do, however, is make a difference in certain areas, and that’s what I am referring to. What are you good at? What are you passionate about? Concentrate on that, not on all the evil in the world. Find where you can make a positive, tangible difference in someone’s life. For me, that’s been mental health and other areas of government and pubic policy I am passionate about. For you, that will almost certainly be something different, but find what it is and go for it.

Don’t give into the hopelessness. Find where you can make a difference, and make it.

Third: It’s okay to unplug and take care of yourself.

You can’t do good without taking care of yourself. Unplug for a few hours or a day or two. It’s okay. Don’t feel guilty. And if that guilt becomes overwhelming, remember: You’re no good to anyone if you burn out.

Fourth: Draw solace from the fact that there are millions of others like you.

I’ll refer you back to the blog entry I wrote a few weeks ago: Millions upon millions of Americans are deeply worried about the world in which we live. That doesn’t change the world, no. But it does create a base of people who agree with you – that things are scary, and that we have to work to make the world a better place.

Finally: Remember the arc of history.

Despite it all, humanity has made more progress in more areas than any of us could have ever dreamed. Progress is not inevitable. It zigs and zags. But, with the concentrated effort of a dedicated world, it does come. Concentrate on that, focus your efforts on the forward momentum of humanity, and we will be okay.

Using Facebook to diagnosis depression

I came across this article in Medical News Today, which reviews a study done in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To make a long story short, the study reviews Facebook data and medical records, analyzing information posted by the more than 100 people who had been diagnosed with depression.

While there is ample evidence that social media can be a cause of depression (I have written about the topic before), this is the first time that I have ever seen published information which notes that social media can be used as a diagnosis tool for depression. That has some pretty interesting implications.

First, the study itself. Here’s one of the most important parts:

The scientists fed the information into an algorithm. In total, Eichstaedt [author of teh study] and colleagues analyzed 524,292 Facebook status updates from both people who had a history of depression and from those who did not.

By modeling conversations on 200 topics, the researchers determined a range of so-called depression-associated language markers, which depicted emotional and cognitive cues, including “sadness, loneliness, hostility, rumination, and increased self-reference” — that is an increased use of first-person pronouns, such as “I” or “me.”

The researchers found that the linguistic markers could predict depression with “significant” accuracy up to 3 months before the person receives a formal diagnosis.

Here’s a look at what words can be used to predict depression (none of this will be a surprise):

F4.large

Also notable is that more self-referential language is found more often in people with depression. That’s not really a surprise, as depression and narcissism are often linked.

To be perfectly honest, none of the above should be very surprising. Extended use of terms that indicate pain, distress or rumination would obviously indicate someone who is in a crisis. What is interesting, however, is that you can actually use these terms on social media to predictably and reliably diagnosis depression. That, to me, is fascinating. It is yet another tool in the toolbox for diagnosis depression, and as numerous studies have shown, depression remains massively under diagnosed, with some estimates showing that up to 2/3 of all individuals with depression are undiagnosed.

Ties that bind: Liberals, conservatives and mental health

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that there are some…umm, slight…differences between liberals and conservatives in America today. I continue to believe – perhaps naively – that the things which unite us are bigger than the things that divide us.

One of those things, without a doubt, is mental health.

First, speaking in generalities: Liberals tend to want government to do more, conservatives tend to want governments to do less. This is a very broad statement and there is a lot of room for nuance within it, but I think that’s pretty accurate. Looking at that from a mental health perspective, that tends to translate into liberals wanting government to do more (even if it means raising tax rates), conservatives want them to do less.

I have a theory: That’s not completely accurate, because conservative areas need as much help as liberal areas when it comes to this.

Let me approach this from a different perspective: Urban vs. rural. Again, broadly speaking, but urban areas tend to be more liberal, rural ones more conservative. But – and this is important – rural areas really, really struggle when it comes to mental health. Suicide rates are higher in rural areas than urban areas. This is for any reasons, including an increased prevalence of firearms and a lack of access to health care practitioners.

At the same time, urban areas – which have high levels of poverty and minorities – also really struggle in these areas. Urban areas with high levels of poverty have significantly higher rates of mental illness. Unfortunately, poverty makes mental illness worse, and the mentally ill are more likely to be pushed into poverty and lose access to health insurance and care – thus creating a viscous cycle.

Here’s my theory: These can be united. While I represent an urban area, I don’t want anyone to suffer or struggle, no matter what they look like or where they live, and I am sure that the vast majority of conservatives feel the same. We all care about the people we represent, and I’m hoping that, over the next couple of years, I can find more people to work with in order to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives/urban and rural areas. I’m hoping that we can use mental health to do that, and in so doing, help all of the people we represent.

 

 

 

Six Questions with Leslie Stella, author of Permanent Record

I gotta say – one of the most fun things about this blog, at least to me, is learning how other authors approach depression, and the unique spins that they give on the issue. Last week’s interview, for example, dealt with cyber-bullying and self-harm. This one’s is with Leslie Stella, author of Permanent Record, who deals with racism, terrorism and a post 9/11 world.

From the description:

Being yourself can be such a bad idea. For sixteen-year-old Badi Hessamizadeh, life is a series of humiliations. After withdrawing from public school under mysterious circumstances, Badi enters Magnificat Academy. To make things “easier,” his dad has even given him a new name: Bud Hess. Grappling with his Iranian-American identity, clinical depression, bullying, and a barely bottled rage, Bud is an outcast who copes by resorting to small revenges and covert acts of defiance, but the pressures of his home life, plummeting grades, and the unrequited affection of his new friend, Nikki, prime him for a more dangerous revolution. Strange letters to the editor begin to appear in Magnificat’s newspaper, hinting that some tragedy will befall the school. Suspicion falls on Bud, and he and Nikki struggle to uncover the real culprit and clear Bud’s name. Permanent Record explodes with dark humor, emotional depth, and a powerful look at the ways the bullied fight back.


Your book not only deals with depression, but it also deals with some very heavy societal issues—racial identity and terrorism. What inspired you to address this subject?

I wanted to explore several themes: 1) bullying, and the fine line between standing up for yourself and taking revenge, 2) the relationship between mental health, outsider status, and bullying, and 3) how a teen targeted for his racial identity might retaliate. Funneling these three concerns into the experience of one protagonist made for a gripping story, one in which readers must wrestle with themselves about whether the protagonist is justified in his actions.

As noted in your book’s description, your main character, an Iranian American, is pressured by his family to hide his identity. This is a common issue faced by many teens. How do you think this impacts someone’s mental health?

Ignoring the interplay between mental health and outsider status is a sure way to court disaster, either for the outsider himself or society. Sublimating one’s identity (whether it’s racial, gender-based, or any other facet that contributes to the makeup of a person) always backfires; you cannot grow as a human being if you deny those very facets that make you whole.

How can authors approach subjects like this with authenticity, even if it isn’t their lived experience?

Speaking for myself, if I wrote about only my own experiences, I would subject my readership to a never-ending glut of books about office work. The purpose of literature is to transport the reader—and that usually means transporting the author as well. It’s called imagination and research. Use them! They are your friends.

In Permanent Record, the protagonist’s Persian background was based on a family that my family was close to when I was in high school. My sister dated one of the brothers, and I worked for the parents for several years at a store they owned. I learned so much about Persian culture from them, including the dynamics within the family and what is expected of the children—especially the difference between expectations of the daughters versus the sons.

The book was written in 2013, but, unfortunately, many of its themes seem more relevant than ever. If you had to write the book again now, with Donald Trump as president, what would be the same, and what would be different?

Like so many things, terrorism begins at home. The ritual of school violence in our country is a brand of home-grown terrorism that our society has decided it will tolerate. If I had written Permanent Record today, with Donald Trump as president, I would likely have the covert displays of racism present as overt. People aren’t any different today than they were previously; it’s that they feel free to parade their prejudices and hatred more openly.

In looking at this book, it seems to me that it can apply to two groups: Members of the “majority” community who are looking to get a better understanding of what life is like to those who are minorities, or members of the minority community, like Badi, who are looking for a character to identify with. Did you have one of these audiences in mind more than the other?

 Why must these two great tastes be mutually exclusive? In the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of fiction, the writer’s job is to hold a mirror up to the world so that we can see not only ourselves but everyone else as well.

In a social media friendly world, what’s the role of books—like yours—in terms of addressing mental health and the stigma which surrounds it?

People usually feel alone when they struggle with their mental health, and social media exacerbates this: “Gee, everyone else on Facebook seems so happy; their children pose readily with handmade signs, while I’m taking pictures of squirrels ransacking my birdfeeder.” At the same time, I’m not a fan of people using social media as a substitute for therapy. A book, however, can delve deep into these problems in a way that is personal and intimate and three-dimensional, which is something a tweet or post can never do. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I relate better to complex fictional characters better than I do with most real-live people with whom I have human contact. So in that sense, I hope Badi’s struggles with depression inform readers about the complexities of mental health and the many options for treatment out there.

 

 

 

A strange gender gap: Men, women and writing about depression

As part of my marketing efforts for Redemption, I’ve been reaching out to other author’s in similar book categories, which means other Young Adult books which deal with mental health, depression and anxiety. These efforts are how you’ve seen some of the other Six Question entries.

The other day, I noticed something strange:

Let me give some backup here to that tweet: I just went back through my notes on other authors. I identified 115 authors who also had books in this category. Of those 115, only 18 were men; 89 were female, and another 8 either had names that could have been either gender or used initials (which often than not, means they are a woman – see J.K. Rowling, who went with her initials because her publishers were trying to disguise the fact that she’s a woman).

Anyway, that difference is massive: 115 authors, and a mere 16% are men!

What the hell is going on here?

This is just a hunch, but I think what I’ve found is a microcosm of society as a whole: Women are much more willing to discuss mental illness and emotions than men. According to research, both men and women are more likely to be viewed more negatively when they suffer from “gender atypical” mental health disorders. Additionally, according to a 2015 study, men are more likely to have negative attitudes towards health seeking, which results in a less significant uptake in using mental health services.

This blows me away. I mean, it shouldn’t – none of this is surprising, and intuitively, I think most of us recognize that women are more comfortable seeking help and discussing emotional topics than men.

There are so, so many issues facing women today. I’m so glad that, as a member of the human race, we are doing a better job at discussing vitally important issues like women’s equality and safety. But I think one of the things we don’t do a good enough job of – and my above observation would seem to back up this assertion – is discussing how these gender stereotypes also hurt men.

Please, please do not misunderstand me here – I am not saying, “Boohoo, but what about the white man, life is so hard for us, we are so discriminated against!” That simply isn’t true, and it is abundantly clear that other minorities and women have much, much tougher obstacles to overcomes than any white man does. It is also apparent that we, as a society, must do a better job at creating a more level playing field and changing our culture as it pertains to women and minorities.

But, I think it’s important to note that men can also be the victims of gender stereotyping and expectations – and clearly, this is one such example. What I would hope this observation would make us realize is that we must do a better job of working towards true equality in society – and men have many, many ways to benefit from achieving that ideal as well.

How the Center for the Disease Control says we can stop suicide

Yesterday, I wrote a little bit about a really insightful technical package offered by the Centers for Disease Control. It’s a long document, but for those of you who care about how we can stop suicide and are looking for ideas (if you are involved in the government or not!), I think it’s a great read.

I don’t want to get insanely in-depth into what sort of recommendations were contained in the document. But I do think it’s worth reviewing the broad outlines of it, just in case you don’t have time to read a 60 page governmental white paper. Broadly speaking, it broke down it’s recommended solutions into a few categories:

  • Strengthening Economic Supports: This one was the topic of my entry yesterday, and I’d argue the most important for both suicide and protecting vulnerable people in our society. This specifically deals with making sure that people who may be at risk for suicide as a result of economic conditions have access to the services that they need to recover, and includes items like robust unemployment benefits, medical benefits, foreclosure assistance and more.
  • Strengthen Access & Delivery of Suicide Care: Here’s where things start to align with what I think most people would expect. This includes the obvious systemic changes needed to be made to our mental health system, including improvements to the insurance system (parity between physical and mental health), reducing provider shortages (a huge issue of mine which, unfortunately, largely needs to be dealt with at the federal level), and broader changes to the mental health care system in order to better address mental illness and suicide prevention.
  • Create Protective Environments: Here’s where what I’ll call “stop-gap” methods really come into play. This includes means reduction (guns are  huge issue here, but this also includes restricting access to suicide hotspots) and improving organizational/social systems to promote protective environments (particularly in at risk locations) and addressing excess alcohol use (which is connected to suicide).
  • Promoting Connectedness: Thanks to phones and technology, we are more connected than ever before. Except we’re not. And as social connectedness breakdown, suicide rates will continue to increase. This specific approach recommends addressing suicide by establishing peer norm programs and engaging in increased community engagement activities.
  • Teaching Coping & Problem Solving Skills: One of the keys to surviving any bout of mental illness – and I’ve written about it before – is building resilience, or an ability to cope. This includes creating social/emotional learning programs and addressing parenting and family relation skills.
  • Identify and Support People at Risk: This includes training gatekeepers, improving crisis intervention and broad-based treatment for people at risk of suicide.
  • Postvention: The aftermath of a suicide attempt can have a dramatic impact on both the victim and those around them. This section of the report deals with postvention for those who were close with a suicide victim and addresses safe reporting/messaging in the aftermath of a suicide.

This is really comprehensive, and again, worth a read. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear them! Leave your questions or comments in the section below.

What does peace feel like to you?

I’ve written before about my relatively desperate attempts to meditate. I phrase it that way because it seems like, no matter what happens, my efforts fade away. Then I’m reminded of how important meditation can be for depression at a later date. I start again, I start again, and the cycle continues.

The good news – well, at least for me – is that I am in a cycle now where I am actually meditating. While I haven’t noticed a change in thinking yet, I will say that I always feel better and more peaceful in the immediate aftermath of a meditation session. And, that sense of peace is what I want to discuss in this entry, because I had a genuinely interesting realization while meditating the other day.

The meditation I practice – which, from what I’ve read, is the best kind for a depressed or anxious person to engage in – is mindfulness meditation. It’s a little complicated to explain – mainly because I don’t understand it and I kinda suck at – but the basics is focusing on nothing – and, in so doing, improving your focus.

Like I said, I’m terrible at it. My mind moves at a million miles an hour and I can’t shut it off. That’s one of the many reasons I am meditating: To try to relax and improve my focus.

So, the other day, I’m meditating. I have been sticking with five minute sessions – YouTube videos – and doing so because if I do longer I fall asleep. Anyway, I’m almost done. That realization is met with a degree of happiness and sadness. Happiness because I can get back to work. Sadness because I am at peace. And then I realize something: I’m at peace. Meditating is nice, and when I can actually concentrate enough to do it right, it fills me with peace.

That, then, triggers a question: What does peace feel like to me? There’s an easy answer, too: A fullness. A fullness in my chest which crowds out any negative feelings.

So, here’s my suggestion: Find what peace feels like to you. Because if you do, you can recognize the feeling when you actually experience it. And maybe, from there, learn how to keep it with you, even if it’s only just an extra moment or two.

Anyway, that’s something to think about: What does peace feel like to you? Let us know in the comments below!

How vacation can make you depressed, and what to do about it

One of the issues I have had with my depression is traveling. I go to Harrisburg very frequently as part of my job, and many of those are overnight – I’m probably away from home something like 40-50 nights a year (easily the worst part of my job, and that has nothing to do with depression!). It was hard to get used to. That being said, at this point, I’ve spent so much time in Harrisburg, it’s almost like a second home. I have the same hotel (and usually the same few rooms), same basic routine, and it’s made life relatively easy.
Now, traveling to a new place, particularly when I am alone, remains a struggle. A new routine, a new city, make life very hard. For me, that happens from time to time, usually as part of a convention or hearing. I have found that it’s best for me to keep the same basic routine. I try to be back in my hotel room by 8-9, putz around for a bit, go to sleep by 11 and wake up early enough to get to the gym. Having a standard routine no matter where I go is really helpful, as it gives me a sense of comfort and normalcy, no matter where I am.
While I know I’m not the only one with travel anxiety, the idea that others could share my periodic troubles on family vacations were new to me. But, to my surprise, when I googled “vacation depression,” I found a ton!
Anyway, after doing some research, here are the best tips that I could find, along with some of my own thoughts.
  • First, and this is just me stalking, stick to your routine. Get up around the same time. Keep a normal bedtimes. Try to keep at least one meal you eat similar to what you’d eat at home. A sense of routine can avoid a shock to your body.
  • Go easy on yourself. Remember that vacations aren’t about expectations or THINGS I HAVE TO MUST DO RIGHT NOW NOW NOW – they are about relaxing, unwinding and a break from the stresses of normal life. If you suffer from depression, this may mean that you still suffer – and that’s okay. That’s who you are. Give yourself permission to be in pain and don’t berate yourself for it.
  • Choose a vacation that matches your personality. Placing pressure on yourself to go on a vacation you think you’re “supposed” to go on will only add to the depression you’re feeling. Instead, select a destination that will allow you to get what you want out of the vacation. Going somewhere you can’t fully enjoy or a place that makes you feel inadequate will only make your depression worse (via WikiHow)
  • Avoid comparing yourself to others. Many people with depression fall into the trap of comparing others’ vacations to theirs. You may look at the vacationers around you and wonder why you’re not enjoying yourself as much as they are. Placing pressure on yourself to enjoy what you think you should can make you feel worse. Instead, realize you probably aren’t seeing the bigger picture (via WikiHow)

There’s more out there, and if you have any tips, I’d love to hear them. Leave them in the comments below!