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!

Science Fiction and Mental Health:The Lost Opportunity

In the course of writing my book, I made an assumption – one which I would ultimately find to be incorrect: That mental illness and science fiction would be very popular subgenres. They are not. I’ve been surprised by this. In fact, thus far, I’ve only been able to find one other book which intermixes mental health, science fiction and young adult – Portals by Kristy Acevedo. That’s a REALLY great book, by the way – if you liked Redemption, you’ll like Portals – Kristy Acevedo was kind enough to do a blog interview with me. That’s here.

I thought the two genres would go much better together. The reason? The sheer freedom of it. I’ve written two books now – Tweets and Consequences (which was a non-fiction look at social media, politicians and epic failures) and Redemption. Obviously non-fiction is a little bit more limiting. But, even fiction can be very constraining. If you write a regular YA book, for example, you are limited by the realities of the genre. For example, It’s not a good or consistent book if your YA character suddenly grows wings and flies away.

Science fiction and fantasy, of course, are different. All bets are off. You set up your world, it’s limits, and then you go from there. In Redemption, I created a Lord of the Flies-like world – on a space ship – and we were off to the races. The extremes of the world in Redemption allow me to explore the mental illness of the main character, Ash. Clearly, it’s science fiction, but the constraints of the world are still pretty similar to this one. As such, I get the opportunity to explore mental illness in a whole new light, but one that is simultaneously interesting/entertaining (at least, I hope!) and relevant to the reader.

Portals does a similar exploration – it creates a fantasy world with aliens from the future who are trying to save the world. The main character has debilitating anxiety issues, and the extreme stress of the world has major impacts on her mental health, her limits, and what she learns about herself and those around her.

But again, I’ve been surprised. I haven’t seen a ton of interaction between these subjects, and that, in my estimation, is a lost opportunity. Science fiction allows you to break traditional boundaries. I’ve actually always thought that the best science fiction just takes advantage of the weird elements it creates. Star Wars isn’t about space, it’s about good vs. evil. Star Trek (which one reviewer on the Amazon page was kind enough to compare Redemption to!) isn’t about the damn United Federation of Plants, it is about social justice and an exploration of the galaxy and the human psyche. It seems like mental illness and it’s related topics would be a perfect fit for this universe, but alas, unless I have been mistaken, this is not a topic which has seen much interaction.

Am I wrong? I’d love to be wrong. If I am wrong, please correct me – leave your best book recommendations in the comments below!

Six questions: An interview with Mia Siegert, author of Jerkbait

So, as my book is coming out on June 5, I want to kick off a new part of this blog. Countless authors have addressed the topic of mental health in young adult books before, and I wanted to get their perspective on the topic. To that end, I started reaching out to some of these authors.
The first to respond – thanks so much! – was Mia Siegert, who wrote Jerkbait. Here’s the blurb, and the interview:
Even though they’re identical, Tristan isn’t close to his twin Robbie at all—until Robbie tries to kill himself. Forced to share a room to prevent Robbie from hurting himself, the brothers begin to feel the weight of each other’s lives on the ice, and off. Tristan starts seeing his twin not as a hockey star whose shadow Tristan can’t escape, but a struggling gay teen terrified about coming out in the professional sports world. Robbie’s future in the NHL is plagued by anxiety and the mounting pressure from their dad, coach, and scouts, while Tristan desperately fights to create his own future, not as a hockey player but a musical theatre performer. As their season progresses and friends turn out to be enemies, Robbie finds solace in an online stranger known only as “Jimmy2416.” Between keeping Robbie’s secret and saving him from taking his life, Tristan is given the final call: sacrifice his dream for a brother he barely knows, or pursue his own path. How far is Robbie willing to go—and more importantly, how far is Tristan willing to go to help him?
1) Can you talk about your own experiences with mental health and how it impacted the book? This is the question that I always ask because it certainly impacted mine.
I’ve been open for many years about my struggles with depression, PTSD, and anxiety. I think by default, a lot transferred into JERKBAIT, especially as I used to be a teen athlete (show jumping) and my Olympic dreams were shattered with a career-ending injury. A lot of people unknowingly and often unintentionally glamorize mental illness–recently, a best seller made a statement about how people should date “broken” people because they were beautiful, and I threw up in my mouth a little. That sort of mentality prevents a person who’s struggling from getting better because they end up internalizing that thought–am I only beautiful if I’m broken? It’s not helpful.
A huge part of writing JERKBAIT was to be as authentic as possible and show that no, mental illness is not something to romanticize. It’s hell. It’s something that I think I’ll always personally struggle with although I’m not ashamed of it. I actively promote discussion of mental illness to fight the stigma.
 
2) Your book obviously deals with sexual orientation and sports. How much instruction did you get from the experience of real life athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins?
When I was competing, I was in a very gay-friendly sport (emphasis on that as the other letters connected in the LGBTQ+ community were not particularly welcome, and I did experience a lot of this). In JERKBAIT’s process and completion, I partnered with You Can Play–a nonprofit to support the treatment and rights of LGBTQ+ athletes. For all 31 teams in the NHL, there is at least one spokesperson for YCP. Being in the community, I’ve faced a lot of hostility over the years so it was an unfortunate reality.
 
3) Whether intentional or not, Jerkbait seems to address the perpetual nature vs. nurture debate of the impact of genetics and depression. Did you mean to do that?
Yes, very intentional. I also really wanted to discuss toxic masculinity, especially in sports. One could easily say that the toxic environment Robbie and Tristan experience on a daily basis from their parents to their coach to their peers would affect depression and anxiety–that’s absolutely correct. But also, without question, genetics play a role. Even if there was less pressure on the Betterby twins, I think they would still have depression–they would be able to manage it better. Without giving away spoilers, the end of JERKBAIT goes into this a bit.
 
4) I ask this question because it seems to clearly come across in this book: The notion that societal pressure to succeed is (literally) killing today’s teens. How much of an impact do you think society is having on today’s youth and the recent spike in depression, and what can teens do to mitigate that pain?
Without question, the high pressure is contributing to youth (and also young adults). There are pressures that exist currently that weren’t an issue before, such as not being able to survive (literally) because of the GOP removing resources. Three weeks ago, a person on FB I thought I was friends with mocked the idea of a “Cry Closet”–literally a small room in a library that was developed so that people, if overwhelmed, could go somewhere for a few minutes, recollect, and then go on with their day successfully. Their suggestion for solving the problem of these “wimps” was “school shootings.” I’m not joking. When I said it was a terrible joke, they replied saying dead kids were preferable to wimpy kids (aka anyone who’s looking for help). The people speaking and agreeing with it were all in their 60s and up.
The problem isn’t with youth today. The problem is that older generations are preventing people from getting help, literally. For example, if you make too much for medicaid but don’t make a “minimum wage,” you are ineligible for tax credits for healthcare. Teens and even younger kids see their parents struggle to make ends meet and survive and find a way for their kids to have a better life–it feels overwhelming and impossible. Even as an adult, I struggle with this daily.
 
5) What’s your advice to teens who have experiences like Robbie? How can they cope when their personal and family lives are as bleak as his get?
If possible, go to a nonprofit (or school counselor) for help. Nonprofits like Jewish Family Services might have a waitlist, but there are trained professionals who can work with budgets (sometimes seeing people for free) to help. There’s a stigma against getting help, and most don’t know about these resources. There are also other organizations like The Trevor Project that are absolutely superb.
Also, I want teens to know that if they seek counseling, it is confidential. Please talk to someone if at all possible. And also, less time on social media. It can be tied to so much drama. I’m a writer so I’m bias but I strongly encourage spending time each week (if not 15 mins/day) reading for pleasure. A book is a great way to escape and refresh.
 
6) Just as importantly: What’s your advice for teens like Tristian, whose families are collapsing around them and who have less-than-stellar family support when they need it most?

About the same sort of feedback I’d give for Robbie, honestly. Mental illness is something that affects many people. It doesn’t discriminate. Counselors will focus on different things for each person’s needs.

If young adult books that deal with depression, anxiety and mental health are your thing, than I encourage you to check out my YA/Sci Fi book, Redemption, coming out on June 5.