An Alternative Perspective on the Madness in Washington, D.C.

Like many of you, I watched the events of this past Wednesday with unmitigated shock, horror, fear, and disgust. Armed terrorists – potentially with help from inside of the building – stormed the temple of our democracy. Spurred on by the words of a malignant, craven madman, they forced a massive lockdown of the building, came within feet of some of our most important leaders, and genuinely and truly sought the death of hundreds and a violent overthrow of our government. What happened on Wednesday is unfathomable. It should never happen again.

The political, legal, and financial reckoning of this event are just beginning, I fear. This was really a 9/11-like day, and it is exceptionally fortunate that only five died, including at least one brave police officer. Hopefully, this day will spurn the changes in our society and security that will ensure such madness never occurs again. Maybe it was like the poison needing to get expunged from the body.

I have had many thoughts as both a passionate American and an elected official, and I have been tweeting like crazy about it. I have some political thoughts – mainly that anyone who participated in this election fraud nonsense shares the blame – but that’s not what I want to talk about today. This is a mental health blog, after all, and I want to discuss the major mental health impacts of the event. To be clear, they are there. Participants and reporters and reporting PTSD-like symptoms:

Millions of Americans are more fearful than ever of what comes next.

Standard disclaimer: I’m not a therapist, just a guy with more experience than I care to think about at seeing them. But I do have some thoughts. The best way to get through this – the only way to get through this – is to try your best to change your perspective.

The day was filled with horror. It was also filled with unimaginable bravery. For example, take the good work of Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman:

There’s a full video, but here’s what happens here is nothing short of life-saving. Officer Goodman is the only member the Capitol Police force present at 2:14pm. The direction he is looking leads towards the entrance of the U.S. Senate, where Senators still were, while police frantically tried to seal the doors to the Chamber. That happened at 2:15pm – meaning that Office Goodman is the only thing that stands between the mob and the Senate. Officer Goodman looks towards the Senate entrance and sees it is unguarded. So, he verbally engages with the mob, shoves one of them, and retreats…to his right. Dragging the mob away from the Senate, and potentially saving lives.

The entire wild video is here:

And this says nothing of the countless other people – ordinary citizens and elected officials – who rose about the call of duty. Like the quick-thinking aides who grabbed the electoral votes and made a run for it before the mob could get them. Like Congressman Andy Kim (D-NJ), who stopped to help officers clean up the debris. Or like Congressman Jason Crow (D-CO), who can be seen comforting Congresswoman Susan Wild (D-PA) in this now infamous picture:

Congressman Crow was prepared to fight off the terrorists…with his pen.

Now, let me be clear. This ain’t pollyannic. The day’s events were ugly. There must be justice before there can be unity. Our country faces dark days.

But I would encourage you to take a modified version of the Mr. Rogers approach to the day’s events when trying to process it. Mr. Rogers famously called for people to “look for the helpers.” Go beyond that. Look for the ordinary citizens who rose above the call of duty that day, who risked their lives to save others. Don’t look for those who sank beneath history. Look for those who rose to meet the moment. Evil may be loud. But there’s still more good than bad. Use that perspective to motivate you for the days ahead.

New Years Resolutions Are Stupid

First, and most importantly: HAPPY NEW YEAR, my friends! It has to get better? Right?

::ducks as flaming murder hornets covered in plague and looking like Carol Baskin fly my way::

Anywho, we’re now at the start of a new and hopefully better yeah. 2021 – like every new year – means new beginnings, a chance to make a better year and a better you. So, that means it’s time for New Years Resolutions, right? Time to pledge to lose weight, get in shape, learn that 8th language, whatever.

Please…don’t do that. Don’t make a resolution. Just make the change.

32 pounds and eight and a half years ago, I was sitting on the couch with my wife. I was complaining about my wife. I weighed way, way too much. My pants were tighter. The scale was making me sad. I was only 29 but I felt much older. After a disappointing trip to the scale, I turned to my wife and complained. Finally, she said the magic words to me:

“So, what are you going to do about it?”

It was the only question that mattered. And she was right, of course. I downloaded the LiveStrong app, began counting calories, and got myself into shape. It obviously wasn’t easy, but I’m now 37 and in the best shape of my life.

For purposes of this story, here’s the important point: It wasn’t New Years. It wasn’t a resolution. I just felt lousy and decided to make a change. No, of course it isn’t that easy. But New Year’s resolutions typically suck. In my mind, it’s a deferral. “After New Years, I’m gonna get into shape.” Why wait? Why not just start doing something about it now?

This has always just been my personal belief, but as it turns out, I’m not wrong! Mental health organizations have previously warned that, since so many New Year’s resolutions fail, they can be bad for mental health, triggering feelings of inadequacy or failure. There can be so much pressure from New Year’s resolutions that it can actually put us into a bit of a depression!

According to other writings, this comes from unrealistic expectations that New Years Resolutions often engender. According to that article, most resolutions don’t even make it past January. This, in turn, can lead to fears of failure. A better approach? Make a bunch of little goals that are more realistic, centered around a larger goal. This gives you an obtainable target, one that you then feel better about when you hit. Then you move to the next one.

Yeah, this wasn’t a strictly mental health blog, per se. But it is one that can be a major source of stress for some. And, more to the point, I think it’s really important that we keep a sense of agency about ourselves and our lives. You don’t have to wait for the new year to make that change. To quote my wife, “What are you gonna do about it?”

The Connection Between Physical Appearance & Depression

I caught a post on Reddit and it got me thinking about the broader connections between physical appearance – well, really, more like self-perceived physical appearance – and depression. The results, as you can probably imagine, are not particularly pretty.

First, the study in question. A new survey shows that there is a strong correlation between rates of depression and perceived physical appearance. According to the study, 61% of people suffer from some form of body dissatisfaction. Strikingly, a study found that body dissatisfaction at the age of 14 was related to increased risk of depression as a teenager gets older. Those risks varied, but could increase depression risks by 50% – 285%. Interestingly enough, the severity of the depression was higher in women than in men, somewhat counterintuitively. The study does not that increasing body satisfaction can potentially reduce depression in teenagers.

As usual, standard disclaimer: Correlation does not equal causation, and it is very difficult to determine whether or not the body dissatisfaction causes the depression, if the reverse is true, or if there is another factor that makes these levels of depression and body dissatisfaction occur.

However, this obviously isn’t the first piece of research that makes a direction connection between body dissatisfaction and depression, and many other studies have made this connection in the past.

So, what do we do here? Of course, increasing body satisfaction is an obvious solution, but…good luck with that. I still sort of hate the way I look and I’m 37. I mean, really. How many people like the way they look?

I’m starting to veer into an area that I’ve done in the past, but again, I’d point out that this is yet another example of broader cultural connections making a big input on our mental state. Indeed, I would love to see more research on this topic. The above study, for example, took place in the United Kingdom. Other studies, like this one from Singapore, have made similar findings. This begs the question: How severe is this connection in America? Given the cultural and financial value we tend to place on issues of looks in America, I’d bet that the connections are very strong. But…what about countries that don’t culturally emphasize physical appearance the way that we do? Do they have the same level of connection between body satisfaction and depression?

I’d bet no. And if I’m right about that guess, this is even further proof: Issues of mental illness simply cannot be separated from broader cultural and societal priorities.

Is your job causing your depression? Here’s a way to find out

All of us know what it is like to have work-related stress, to have issues falling asleep because of work, or to have those periods where you just can’t bear the thought of going into the office. Thankfully, generally speaking, these are temporary periods that fade.

But, what if it’s something more?

Allow me to introduce you to what might be the most depression survey you’ve heard of in a while: The Occupational Depression Inventory, a tool designed to help, “quantify the severity of work-attributed depressive symptoms and establish provisional diagnoses of job-ascribed depression.”

Sigh.

A new survey about the ODI claims that it, “showed strong reliability and high factorial validity.” This means that it can reliably determine if someone is showing depressive symptoms as a result of workplace issues. It consists of ten statements, such as, “My work was so stressful that I could not enjoy the things that I usually like doing” and “My experience at work made me feel like a failure.” Survey takers are supposed to rate their agreement with the statements on a scale of 0-3, with 0 meaning never or almost never and 3 meaning nearly every day. A higher score means more of a chance that your work is responsible for causing your depression.

So, what do you do if you score high? Learn to cope?

Gah. I mean, look, the fact that this tool exists, and that there is enough of a demand for it, shows that we might be at a point in society where we need to reexamine our priorities. Obviously I get the need for it, and it makes perfect sense. But, as I’ve said time and time again on this blog, we have to remember that societal facets are often a huge factor in causing depression, and I worry that this is something we have lost sight of. 

I don’t mean this as a knock on the ODI or the people who developed it. It is clear there is a need for such a survey, and perhaps this survey can help people make more positive psychological changes to their lives. But what it doesn’t address is what happen when someone is at a job because they have zero financial choice and no other skills. It doesn’t deal with the fact that our society safety net, job retraining options and educational systems are all woefully inadequate. It doesn’t address the non-stop financial pressure that we all feel in order to provide for our kids, our parents, ourselves, our debt…nada. And this is why so many people stay at dead end jobs, get depressed and then take a survey like the ODI. 

For the millionth time, as a society, we have to make a choice. If we want to reduce depression, for real, we have to reduce the causes of depression, and that is often financial stress and the non-stop fear of what happens if someone loses employment. There is so, so much more to depression than mental health! This is more proof of the truth behind that statement. 

 

Four tips on how to cope with Zoomsgiving

Ahh, Thanksgiving, time to…yeah, this sucks. No two ways about it.

Experts have all but begged us to skip traditional Thanksgiving with our families this year, noting that the prospect of massive gathers from people that come from numerous communities is a perfect caldron to allow for (even more) explosive growth of COVID-19. There’s no question that Thanksgiving has the potential to be deadly for hundreds of thousands of Americans, as we’ve seen with every holiday since COVID-19 began.

Need further proof of the danger that Thanksgiving presents to all of us? Just look at what happened in Canada. Canadian Thanksgiving is October 11. Experts there begged Canadians to skip their usual holiday. Many listened. Many did not. The result: Massive spikes.

Okay, fine, you get it. We have to skip our usual Thanksgiving this year and turn another life event digital. God, this sucks. I mean, let’s all be clear about it. This sucks. So, how do you cope? Some thoughts.

First, yeah, we’re all tired of Zoom…but it’s better than nothing. To their infinite credit, Zoom is waving their forty minute limit on free calls in an effort to get people to stay home. Yes, of course this is marketing, but let’s give credit where credit is due, it’s a good move. I’d even go one step further if you are truly worried about Thanksgiving: Get your damn laptop and put the person who is missing in the seat where they would normally be. Want to really sell the illusion to yourself or your kids? Set a place setting. Does it sound silly? Sure. Who gives a damn. We’re eight months into a flipping pandemic. Go to town. Do you. All that matters on this one is that you and your family feel good.

Second, if you’re going to sell the illusion of togetherness, do it. Arrange the Zoom call and make sure your family is eating at the same time. If they are close by, do what my wife is doing: Make a “care package” meal for the family, and have them pick it up (outside, while wearing a mask). Eat at the same time. It’s not the same. Of course, it’s not the same. But again – we’re so blessed when you get right down to it. We have the ability to be together, even if we cannot actually be together. Can you imagine if this happened in 2000? Even 2010?

Third, start a new tradition. What works for you? How can you celebrate without truly being with all of your family? What event can you do together that will make the day more special, even if you aren’t in the same room? I’d add one twist to this: Whatever your new tradition is, be it a game, movie, special walk – make it something expandable. Remember, God willing, this will have passed by next year. What can you do that you can incorporate your family into when we’re all together again next year?

Fourth, practice some self-care – and maybe “us” care. This sucks. Don’t pretend it doesn’t. If you have kids who desperately want to hug Grandma and Grandpa (sigh), let them feel their pain. Don’t tell them nothing is wrong – allow them to express their feelings and their pain. From there, take care of them. Help them work through their pain, and then do something nice together. My wife has introduced our kids to “spa baths” where they get a bath, but with bubbles, candles, and spa music – and then I have to put a damn towel in the drier so they have warm towels…anyway, it’s a nice touch. But do something nice for yourself and your loved ones.

I get it…I really do. We’re all so, so tired. But, again, we’re blessed…there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We have to get through this tough winter, and a better day is likely ahead.

“…how life sometimes simply gave you a whole new perspective by waiting around long enough for you to see it.”

I recently finished the Midnight Library by Matt Haig. When I read it, I had absolutely no idea the book would have such strong mental health implications – hell, it was recommended to me by my Mom, who just thought I would like the book because it had a neat plot. That being said, it was a fantastic book, and well worth reading if you have an interest in mental health or suicide prevention.

First, the true story of why I had heard of the author, Matt Haig:

Matt Haig, as noted on his profile, his a suicide attempt survivor:

I didn’t exactly realize it when I started reading it, but the Midnight Library deals with suicide. The summary:

Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better?

In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.

From here, spoilers ahead.

Continue reading ““…how life sometimes simply gave you a whole new perspective by waiting around long enough for you to see it.””

New Study Reveals The Mental Health Impacts Of COVID

Hello, everyone!

First, I apologize. Candidates for political office who try to manage too many aspects of their life wind up losing track of something, and in this case, the blog bit the dust for a bit. That’s my bad. Thankfully, I won reelection by a pretty good margin. I was planning on getting back to this last weekend, and then things went to heck again as I entered another election – this one also with good results!

Anyway, I’m back and hoping to get back to my one blog entry a week schedule.

Wish I had happier things to write about, though.

So, here’s the latest of the COVID-19 chronicles. A new study has revealed some devastating mental health information about the disease: 1 in 5 people who recover from COVID-19 develop a mental illness. This comes from a study that was published in The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world. According to the interpretation of the study:

Survivors of COVID-19 appear to be at increased risk of psychiatric sequelae, and a psychiatric diagnosis might be an independent risk factor for COVID-19. Although preliminary, our findings have implications for clinical services, and prospective cohort studies are warranted.

The study further warns that this does happen even to patients who had no previous diagnosis, with anxiety issues among the most commonly diagnosed issues that came in the aftermath of COVID.

There are a lot of implications from this study. The first may be the most frightening: Does COVID-19 cause long-term mental illness in some biological way? There is preliminary evidence to suggest that there may be long-term health concerns, although more evidence is unquestionably needed before definitive conclusions can be drawn.

Another possibility is something that we’ve spoken about regularly on this blog: The interaction between real life and mental health. Getting COVID-19 must be a terrifying experience. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid it so far, as has everyone in my life who I love, but let’s face it, we’ve all spent months absolutely terrified of the concept. We all hear the horror stories, see the businesses closing, the people retreating into isolation after a potential exposure. To get the disease – particularly if you have a difficult time coping with it or recovering – must be an exceptionally frightening experience.

Then add the socio-economic factors: The isolation from your family and friends. The inability to work and make money – particularly if you are economically insecure – and all the anxiety in the world makes sense.

Oh, and have we mentioned how the mental health system is going to be even more overwhelmed than it already is?

Is the news all bleak? No, of course not. We know it’s coming. We know that we need to spend more time and money on our mental health system. We have the chance to react. And hopefully, our federal and state governments will.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Any mental health experiences with COVID that you want to share? Let us know in the comments below!

The Coming Depression Onslaught

If this study is to be believed, we’re in trouble.

A study from Boston University conducted a major survey on adults and depression, using previous scores as a baseline measurement. The study used the PHQ-9 questionnaire, which is a nine-question screening method that can be used to determine if someone may be suffering from depression. A 2017-2018 study found that 8.5% of adults were suffering from depression. 

The results were horrifying: 27.8% of Americans are now clinically depressed, according to the results of the study. That is more than a tripling of depression rates. It is massive, it is significant, and it cannot be treated by the current state of our mental health system. 

The study, of course, attributed much of this rise to COVID-19 and the economic stressors placed on society by this disease. The study also found that people with less than $5,000 in savings 50% were more likely to be depressed, further showing the connection between economics, a social safety net, and mental health.

I have a couple of broader thoughts – first, on the general situation, and second, what this study shows us.

First, I think it’s important to keep in mind that this is catastrophically bad but not as bad as it appears! Yes, I said that. First, the good news. This will abate as the pandemic abates and economic damage mitigates. That will happen. It will take time, but I don’t think this represents a fundamental shift in our moods or economic status for the majority of people who took this study.

The bad news? Let’s say this only permanently affects 5% of America. Uhh…that’s tens of millions of people. That is fundamentally, catastrophically terrible. We could be staring down the barrel of millions of people who will never recover without assistance that we cannot hope to provide. Before this crisis, we were looking at a major shortage of mental health workers. There is no way our system has the capacity to deal with all of the people who will need help. 

About two months ago, I attended a hearing on mental illness and the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the things I asked some of our panelists was whether or not there had been an increase in suicides. The answer: Not yet. Emphasis on yet. They were worried that, as the economic toll continues, you’d have a lot of people who would be more likely to die by suicide. This study furthers my concern there.

What can we do? Well, if you believe that economics and mental health are connected – and I do – that means we need to support people in their times of need and provide generous economic supports to get them through this crisis. That means working to prevent evictions and foreclosures. To extend unemployment assistance. To throw money at small businesses in order to keep them open.

This is a catastrophe in the making, but it doesn’t have to be this way. A strong government can stop the economic damage and can abate this crisis, and I don’t think it’s too late. But that’s what we need to get us through the physical, economic, and mental health disaster that we are currently experiencing. 

Three symptoms of depression you may not be aware of

Depression, when you have it, can be all-consuming. I mean, all consuming. It seems to devour your life like a monster, changing your life in countless ways that you may never have anticipated. Indeed, this is one of the greatest problems with depression – it completely changes everything you knew and loved.

Most people are familiar with the basic symptoms of depression – sadness, apathy, fatigue, etc. However, you what you may not be familiar with is the other, more random symptoms of depression that can be just as problematic as the more basic ones.

To that end, here’s a look at three symptoms of depression that you may never have heard of.

Lowered memory function

There is a reason the term “depression fog” means so much to so many. When you are depressed – when you are really in it – your entire brain can feel like it is no longer functioning. As it turns out, this is more than just a perception – it’s very, very real.

Depression can cause memory loss. This has been backed up by multiple studies that show that people with depression have trouble with their short-term memory. It is also possible that certain forms of treatment for therapy – like electroconvulsive therapy or certain medications – can cause memory loss. It’s always worth checking out if you suspect it to be something else, but yes, depression can hurt your ability to store and recall things.

What can you do about it? Chalk it off. I remember being a kid and having major depressive or anxiety episodes. In my mind, I would say, “It’s a day,” and try to move on. Don’t kick yourself over it. It isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. It is a symptom of your disorder. If you treat your depression, your memory loss will fade.

Appetite changes

Here’s another very random one: When you are depressed, your appetite changes. This isn’t as random as you might think – indeed, it’s so common that unexplained weight gain or loss is actually one of the symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of depression.

Why is this the case? If you eat less, it can be a reflection of a lack of energy or interest. If you eat more, it can be because of emotional eating – you feel emotions that make you miserable and cause you to overeat.

Ironically, and sadly, this is a huge problem. Both overeating or undereating can cause depression to get worse. That’s why appropriate diet when you are depressed is so vitally important.

And, as an aside: This is so me. I stop eating when depressed.

Irritability

So, this is a bad of a random one, and sometimes it may not make sense. It seems to strike more in men, as research shows that men are more likely to be irritable and angry when depressed. Symptoms like these, along with hostility, are more likely to appear in men, and to serve as a mask for depression.

Why is this the case? I can think of a bunch of reasons…but many come down to cultural and familial. In many cases, the way someone is raised will alter the expression of their depression, and depression can easily display itself as irritability or anger. As such, if you know someone who is more irritable than usual lately, it’s absolutely worth checking in on them.

It’s worth noting that, sometimes, these symptoms may appear before other, more severe ones. There have been times I’ve lost my appetite, not been sure why, then realized that my depression was back and it was pissed. Something I actually just read while doing this blog entry: Appetite changes can be an early warning sign of a relapse. That has certainly been the case for me.

Broadly speaking, one of the biggest challenges with mental health is that it is so hard to get any sort of standardization. What works for some may work catastrophically badly for others, and what is a clear cut symptom for one person may not be as clear for someone else.

As always, if you are worried about your own mental health, seek help as soon as you can – the sooner the better. Thankfully, the vast majority of people respond well to mental illness. If this is you, seek help today.

As always, I turn it over to you. What random depression challenges have you had that you never would have believed? Let us know in the comments!

How Can You Forget?

So, as I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have developed a fun case of tinnitus. It is not fun. I’m still hoping it goes away on its own, which it might – it comes and goes – but a huge part of tinnitus really seems to be psychological. The good news is that tinnitus is insanely common and that even if it is chronic, a full 98% of people eventually habituate. Habituate occurs when someone gets so used to something that they no longer even notice it.

And that leads me to today’s entry.

Look, this whole thing sucks. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually – many famous and successful people have – but it has made me think about a broader problem: How can you try to forget something?

The truth – I think – is that you can’t. You can’t actively forget something. And that is a statement that has major impacts on someone’s mental health. If you lose someone, experience a trauma, or have an event occur you’d prefer to forget, you can’t. Just like I can’t forget this damn tone in my left ear.

Memory is quite a pain in the ass if you ask me. There are no filters on it. There’s no recycle bin. You just…have to figure out how to cope.

So, how can you forget, when you can’t forget? A few thoughts.

First, I think one of the best things you can do is accepting that something occurred. In my case, there’s no cure for tinnitus, although there is ample evidence that therapy and time can help alter your perception. That being said, to some extent, this annoyance may always be with me. But if I fight against that, I stir up more feelings of pain, guilt, and more. The same may apply to you and your situation. I’ve read people say that they realized that they had to accept their tinnitus and embrace it – turn into it – not try to run away from it or muffle it with noise. I’ve come to appreciate that perspective.

However, that brings me to my second point. Accepting that something will always be with you – be it the memory of an assault or the ringing in your ear – does not mean that you are accepting a lifetime of pain and trauma. Quite the opposite. You accept so you can heal, so you can deal, not so you can lie down and die. You are not a prisoner of your memory or your experiences, and I think there’s a power in accepting something. What does that mean? Well, to quote a question my wife once asked me: So, what are you going to do about it?

No matter your experience or your pain, odds are good that someone has been there first. I exchanged Emails with a guy named Matt Tanner, a HR professional who developed acute, chronic tinnitus after a cold. He showed me an incredible webinar by Dr. Bruce Hubbard, a psychologist who developed severe tinnitus distress after he got tinnitus. That video discusses how people deal with tinnitus and gave me a great deal of hope.

Let me take that and bring it back to you. Whatever you have gone through – whatever your pain or trauma – I am sorry. But keep in mind, odds are very, very good that your issues have been experienced before. To that end, find others who have spoken about their pain and their trauma. Ask them how they dealt, how they got through. Their advice may be invaluable and life-saving.

Third, remember, there is always something you can do. If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know what an advocate for good therapy I am. Therapy can be a life-saver in almost any instance, and I am so grateful to have someone I can talk to about my various issues – including this. I’ll add that other things can help: Exercise, meditation, or a good hobby can be incredibly valuable and have therapeutic value on their own. All of these items have something in common: They can give you a sense of control and agency. They can help you learn a growth mindset that is so critical for any sort of recovery.

Back to the title of this entry: How can you forget? You can’t. You probably can’t. Instead, you can learn. You can grow. The only way over is through.