Kintsukuroi Christians

When I was a kid growing up, there wasn’t much that my father couldn’t repair.

Dad was extremely gifted with his hands, a talent that I certainly didn’t inherit. He was able to take a problem, come up with a practical solution in his mind’s eye, then build it out of whatever scraps of wood, metal or plastic he could lay his hands on. It was the ultimate expression of frugality and recycling that comes from a limited income and four growing children.

Dad was also able to resurrect nearly everything that broke in our house. Plates, cups, teapots, toys, tools … it seemed there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed by the careful application of Araldite.

Araldite, for those unfamiliar with it, is some sort of epoxy resin that, in the right hands, possesses mystical properties of adhesion. It would stick anything to anything.

Dad’s gift for repairing things with Araldite meant that a lot of our things were patched up. Some of our most loved possessions were the most cracked. Despite being glued together several times, each item was still functional. Maybe not as pretty as it may have once been, but still useful, and more importantly, still treasured. Each time the Araldite came out, it taught me that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that shares the same principles. For more than 400 years, the Japanese people have practiced kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi (pronounced ‘kint soo koo ree’) is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, and the deep understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

The edges of the broken fragments are coated with the glue made from Japanese lacquer resin and are bonded back into place. The joints are rubbed with an adhesive until the surface is perfectly smooth again. After drying, more lacquer is applied. This process is repeated many times, and gold dust is also applied. In kintsukuroi, the gold lacquer accentuates the fracture lines, and the breakage is honoured as part of that piece’s history.
Mental illness is a mystery to most people, shrouded by mythology, stigma, gossip or Hollywood hype. It’s all around us, affecting a quarter of the population every year, but so often those with mental illness hide in plain sight. Mental illness doesn’t give you a limp, a lump, or a lag. It affects feelings and thoughts, our most latent personal inner world, the iceberg underneath the waters.

On the front line of medicine, I see people with mental health problems every day, but mental health problems don’t limit themselves to the doctor’s office. They’re spread throughout our everyday lives. If one in four people have a mental health problem of one form or another, then one in four Christians have a mental health problem of one form or another. If your church experience is anything like mine, you would shake hands with at least ten people from the front door to your seat. Statistically speaking, two or three of them will have a mental illness. Could you tell?

It’s a fair bet that most people wouldn’t know if someone in their church had a mental illness. Christians battling with mental illness learn to present a happy façade, or face the judgment if they don’t), so they either hide their inner pain, or just avoid church altogether.
Experiencing a mental illness also makes people feel permanently broken. They feel like they’re never going to be whole again, or good enough, or useful, or loved. They’re often treated that way by well-meaning but ill-informed church members whose idea’s and opinions on mental illness is out-of-date.

The truth is that Christians who have experienced mental ill-health are like a kintsukuroi pot.

Mental illness may break them, sure. But they don’t stay broken. The dark and difficult times, and their recovery from their illness is simply God putting lacquer on their broken pieces, putting them back together, and rubbing gold dust into their cracks.
We are all kintsukuroi Christians – we’re more beautiful and more honoured than we were before, because of our brokenness, and our recovery.

I’m pleased to announce that my book, Kintsukuroi Christians, is now available. I’ve written this book to try and bring together the best of the medical and spiritual.
Unfortunately, good scientific information often bypasses the church. The church is typically misled by Christian ‘experts’ that preach a view of mental health based on a skewed or outdated understanding of mental illness and cognitive neuroscience. I want to present a guide to mental illness and recovery that’s easy for Christians to digest, adopting the best spiritual AND scientific perspective.

In the book, I look at some scientific basics. Our mental world is based on the physical world. Our mind is a function of the brain, just like breathing is a function of our lungs. Just as we can’t properly understand our breathing without understanding our lungs, so it is that if we’re going to understand our thinking and our minds, we are going to have to understand the way our brain works. So the first part of this book will be an unpacking of the neurobiology of thought.

We’ll also look at what promotes good mental health. Then we’ll look at what causes mental illness, specifically looking at the most common mental health disorders. I will only look at some of the most common disorders to demonstrate some general principles of psychiatric illnesses and treatments. This book won’t be an encyclopaedia, and it doesn’t need to be. I hope to provide a framework so that common and uncommon mental health disorders can be better understood. I also discuss suicide, which is sadly more common than most people realise, and is rarely discussed.

I know mental illness is difficult, and we often look at ourselves or others as though the brokenness is abhorrent, ugly and deforming.
My hope is that through Kintsukuroi Christians, you’ll see the broken pieces are mended with gold, and realise that having or recovering from a mental illness doesn’t render someone useless or broken, but that God turns our mental brokenness into beauty.

Kintsukuroi Christians is available to purchase from good Christian bookstores around the world including:

Kooyong = https://www.koorong.com/search/product/kintsukuroi-christians-christopher-pitt/9780994596895.jhtml

Amazon US = https://www.amazon.com/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Amazon UK = https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kintsukuroi-Christians-TURNING-MENTAL-BROKENNESS/dp/0994596898/

Smashwords = https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/720425

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Mental illness can be challenging. Sometimes learning about mental illness can bring up difficult feelings or emotions, either things that you’ve been through yourself, or because you develop a better understanding of what a loved one is going through or has been through. Sometimes old issues that have been suppressed or not properly dealt with can bubble up to the surface. If at any point you feel distressed, I strongly encourage you to talk to your local doctor, psychologist, or pastor. If the feelings are so overwhelming that you need to talk to someone quickly, then please don’t delay, but reach out to a crisis service in your country

In Australia
Lifeline 13 11 14, or
BeyondBlue
Call 1300 22 4636
Daily web chat (between 3pm–12am) and email (with a response provided within 24 hours)  https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

USA = National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

New Zealand = Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline 0800 543 354

UK = Samaritans (24 hour help line) 116 123

For other countries, Your Life Counts maintains a list of crisis services across a number of countries: http://www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines.

Dr Caroline Leaf – credit where credit’s due

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It’s not often I see something positive in Dr Leaf’s work, but today was one such occasion.

I’m often (legitimately) critical of Dr Leaf’s paucity of references and citations for her Facebook posts and social media memes.  Today was different – Dr Leaf made a statement and backed it up with an easily obtainable peer-reviewed journal article.  It’s a shame it wasn’t backed up by an accurate interpretation, but it’s a positive step none-the-less.

Dr Leaf claimed that “People who served others experienced a 68% increase in healing compared to those who only got treatment for themselves.”

Since the article was so easy to find, I decided to look it up.  The article was by Poulin et al, “Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality”, in the American Journal of Public Health [1].  Actually, the article was familiar, because Dr Leaf has written about the same article before, but her social media post that time was more nebulous.

So does the study by Poulin and his colleagues show that people who served others experienced a 68% increase in healing compared to those who only got treatment for themselves?  In a word … no.

First of all, the study wasn’t looking at healing, it was looking at mortality.  They may seem similar, but getting better from something (“healing”) is not the same as not dying from something (“mortality”).

Second, no one in the study was being “treated”.  I’m not sure where Dr Leaf got the idea that the control group was getting “treatment”.  The study compared those who self-reported “helping behavior directed toward close others … in any of 4 unpaid helping activities directed toward friends, neighbors, or relatives who did not live with them” versus those that did not.

Thirdly, there’s no mention of a 68% improvement anywhere in the article.  The article gives its results as hazard ratios.  For the non-statisticians, the hazard ratio is “the ratio of the particular event taking place in treatment group compared to control group.”  The simplest (probably over-simplified way) way of thinking about hazard ratios is to do a simple sum – the hazard ratio minus 1 is the percentage increase or decrease in risk, where a positive number is an increased risk and a negative number is a decreased risk.  So a hazard ratio of 1.13 means that a person in the exposure group has a 13% increased risk compared to the control group (=1.13 – 1).  And a hazard ratio of 0.7 means a 30% decreased risk (0.7 – 1 = -0.3).  So for the helping group to have a 68% decreased risk of dying, the hazard ratio would be 0.32 (0.32 – 1 = -0.68).

If you’re lost in the numbers, don’t stress.  The point is that Dr Leaf was very specific about the helping group increasing in healing by 68%, but there’s nothing in the results to suggest this.  The study authors wrote, “When we adjusted for age, baseline health and functioning, and key psychosocial variables, Cox proportional hazard models for mortality revealed a significant interaction between helping behavior and stressful events (hazard ratio [HR] = 0.58; P < .05; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.35, 0.98). Specifically, stress did not predict mortality risk among individuals who provided help to others in the past year (HR = 0.96; 95% CI = 0.79, 1.18), but stress did predict mortality among those who did not provide help to others (HR = 1.30; P < .05; 95% CI = 1.05, 1.62).”  Unless I’m missing something, there’s nothing in the results that remotely suggests a 68% improvement in anything.

And for what it’s worth, the study shows very weak associations anyway (in statistical terms, the confidence intervals are broad, and almost cross 1), so even if the study really did say something about a “68% increase in healing”, it’s something that is only slightly more likely to occur than by chance alone.  Then there’s other evidence that contradicts this particular study’s findings, so in all fairness, this study shouldn’t be used to base social media memes on in the first place.

Overall, it’s good that Dr Leaf cited an article in her social media meme, but her interpretation of the study was poor, something more at the level of a university freshman than a supposed expert in her field.  And it reflects badly on the Christian church that this is the level of ‘expertise’ that the church accepts and then promotes.

I would encourage Dr Leaf to continue to cite references for her memes, but she really needs to learn how to interpret clinical studies if she and the church are going to continue to promote her as some sort of expert.

References

[1]        Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.

Anti-depressants – Not the messiah

 “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy, now go away!” 

 Ah, Monty Python – six university students with a penchant for satire who changed the face of comedy.  They say that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and if that’s the case, Monty Python should be very flattered!  Nearly five decades later, you still hear people throwing around lines from their sketches and getting a laugh.

Their movie, “The Life of Brian” remains one of the most critically acclaimed and most controversial of all movies.  It was the story of Brian, born in the stable next door to Jesus, and who later in life unintentionally becomes the focus of a bunch of people who mistakenly believe he’s the messiah.  One morning he opens his window to find a large crowd of people waiting for him outside his house, leaving his mother to try and dismiss the crowd with that now famous rebuke.

The crowd at Brian’s window aptly demonstrates a quirk in our collective psyche.  We humans have a bipolar tendency to latch on to something that seems like a good idea at the time and blow it’s benefits out of all proportion, only to later discover it wasn’t as good as our overblown expectations and unfairly despise it on the rebound.

Anti-depressant medications are a bit like Monty Python’s Brian.  Back in the late 1980’s when Prozac first came on the market, doctors saw it as the mental health messiah.  Prozac improved cases of long-standing severe depression and was much safer in overdose compared to older classes of psychiatric medications.  The idea that depression and other mental illnesses were related to chemical imbalances fit nicely with the cultural shift away from the Freudian psychotherapy model that was prevalent at the time.  People were describing life changing experiences on Prozac: “One morning I woke up and really did want to live … It was as if the miasma of depression had lifted off me, in the same way that the fog in San Francisco rises as the day wears on.” [1]  Prescribing for Prozac and other SSRI anti-depressants took off.

Fast forward to the present day, where the pendulum has swung back violently.  Anti-depressants are considered by some to be nothing more than over-prescribed placebo medications used by a pill-happy, time-poor culture demanding simple cures for complex problems.  Some commentators have gone so far as to label anti-depressants as an evil tool of the corrupt capitalist psychiatric establishment.

“Anti-depressants are not the messiah, they’re very naughty boys, now go away!” they exclaim.

But are anti-depressants really the enemy, or could they still be friendly, even if they’re not the messiah?

In the Medical Journal of Australia this month, two Australian psychiatrists, Christopher Davey and Andrew Chanen, carefully review the place of anti-depressants in modern medicine [2].  It’s a very balanced and pragmatic view.

They bring together all the evidence to show that while anti-depressants aren’t the elixir of happiness that we once assumed, they also don’t deserve the accusation that they’re nothing but fakes.

When drugs are scientifically tested, they’re usually studied in placebo-controlled trials.  The medications are given to one target group of people and a fake medicine is given to a similar group.  In the best trials, the patients aren’t aware of which they’re actually getting, and the physicians aren’t aware either.  That way personal bias and expectations can be reduced.  To reduce these biases even further, other scientists can pool all of the quality research on a topic in what’s called a meta-analysis.

Trials on anti-depressants initially showed very strong positive results, or in other words, the patients on the drug did much better than those on the placebo.  Anti-depressants lost a lot of their shine in the last decade or so as researchers began pointing out that the placebo effect, the number of patients improving on the fake medicine, was also very high.

There was also the serious, and largely legitimate accusation that drug companies ignored trials with less favourable results to make their drugs look better.  The reputation of anti-depressants was forever tarnished.

One of the most out-spoken critics of anti-depressants, Harvard psychologist Irving Kirsch, tried to show that when all of the trials on anti-depressants were taken together, the placebo effect wasn’t just close to the effectiveness of the real medicine, but was actually the same.

The problem with Kirsch’s analysis is that not all trials are created equal.  Some have negative results because they were poor trials in the first place.  When experts reapplied Kirsch’s methods to the best quality trials, the results suggested that anti-depressants are still effective, but for moderate and severe depression [1].  Anti-depressants for mild depression weren’t of great benefit.

This is take home point number one: Don’t believe the hype.  Anti-depressants are useful, but not for all cases of depression. #happypillshelp

So if anti-depressants aren’t useful for all cases of depression, are other therapies better? This is where psychological therapies come in to the equation.  Those who are the most vocal opponents of modern psychiatry and psychiatric medications are also the most vocal promoters of the benefits of talking therapies.  They won’t admit it, but there’s usually an ideological bias or financial incentive driving the feverish worship of talking therapies and their overzealous defence.

Though in the cold hard light of evidence-based science, talking therapies aren’t much of a panacea either.  Pim Cuijpers, a professor of Clinical Psychology in Amsterdam lead a team who reviewed the effectiveness of trials of psychotherapy, and found that their effectiveness has also been overstated over the last few decades.  Quality studies show that talking therapies are equivalent in effectiveness compared to anti-depressants for depression [3].

What’s important to understand about talking therapies in general is that any benefit they have is related to changing behaviour, but that’s not dependent on changing your thoughts first [4-6].  Talking and thinking differently is fine, but unless that results in a change to your actions, there will probably be little benefit.

This is take home message number two: Talking therapies help, but you don’t need to change your thinking, you need to change your actions. #walkthetalk

The million-dollar question is how to apply all of this.  If talking therapies have the same benefit as anti-depressants, then do we go for tablets before talking or the other way around?  Are both together more powerful than each one alone?

In their paper, Davey and Chanen outline what has become the generally accepted pecking order for anti-depressant therapy.  They recommend that all patients should be offered talking treatments where it’s available.  Medication should only be considered if:

  1. a person’s depression is moderate or severe;
  2. a person doesn’t want to engage with talking therapies; or
  3. talking therapies haven’t worked.

Some overseas guidelines recommend this order based on projected bang for your buck.  While talking therapies are initially more expensive, they seem to have a more durable effect than medications, which are initially cheaper and easier, but have a greater cost with prolonged use [7].  In other words, if you learn better resilience and coping skills, you’re less likely to fall back into depression, compared to the use of the medications.

This is take home message number three: Use talking therapies first, with medications as a back up. #skillsthenpills

At this point in history, we seem to finally be finding some balance.  Just as anti-depressants aren’t the messiah, they’re not the devil either, despite the vocal minority doing their best to demonise them.

With a few decades of research and clinical experience since Prozac was first released on to the market, we’re finally getting an accurate picture of the place of talking therapies and medications in the treatment of depression.  Both are equally effective, and each have their place in the management of mental illness in our modern world.

References

[1]        Mukherjee S. Post Prozac Nation – The Science and History of Treating Depression. The New York Times. 2012 Apr 19
[2]        Davey CG, Chanen AM. The unfulfilled promise of the antidepressant medications. Med J Aust 2016 May 16;204(9):348-50.
[3]        Cuijpers P, van Straten A, Bohlmeijer E, Hollon SD, Andersson G. The effects of psychotherapy for adult depression are overestimated: a meta-analysis of study quality and effect size. Psychological medicine 2010 Feb;40(2):211-23.
[4]        Herbert JD, Forman EM. The Evolution of Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Rise of Psychological Acceptance and Mindfulness. Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011;1-25.
[5]        Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[6]        Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.
[7]        Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.

IMPORTANT

If you have questions about what treatment type might be better for you in your situation, please talk to your local GP, psychologist or psychiatrist, or if you need urgent crisis support, then:

In Australia

  • you can call either Lifeline on 13 11 14,
  • BeyondBlue provides a number of different support options
  • the BeyondBlue Support Service provides advice and support via telephone 24/7 (call 1300 22 4636)
  • daily web chat (between 3pm–12am)
  • email (with a response provided within 24 hours) via their website https://www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us.

In the US
-> call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

In New Zealand
-> call Lifeline Aotearoa 24/7 Helpline on 0800 543 354

In the UK
-> Samaritans offer a 24 hour help line, on 116 123.

 

Lies in the name of God are still lies

Let’s be honest, we all lie, and we lie a lot.

It’s ok, we’re all friends here.  You can admit it – lying is a regular part of everyday social cohesion.  We don’t call it lying, we call it tact, but it’s still lying.

Like when we automatically say to the mother of a newborn baby, “Oh, your baby’s adorable”.  Sure, most of them are, but there are some newborns that, shall we say, need to grow into their features.

Or when a patient walks in and asks, “Hey, have you lost some weight?!”  No, I’ve actually gained five kilos, but thanks for your flattery.

Even some of the most brutally honest people still figure out they have to lie at some point.  My children, for example.  They have absolutely no diplomacy filter between their brains and their mouths, “Aw, Dad … you stink”, or “Dad, you’re really fat.  You need to exercise.”  But when their butt’s on the line, things change, “I only ate one biscuit …”, or, “He started it …”.

Adults are no better.  Sometimes when things are important enough to us, we bend the truth to fit our world-view.  It’s often subconscious, though confirmation bias of our opinions can also be overt.

Sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong, and sometimes there is no right or wrong, but our beliefs shape our interpretation of the world, and the language and actions that stem from them.  And most of the time, it doesn’t really matter.
“Chocolate is the nicest flavour of ice-cream”.
“Beer is better than cider.”
“The Broncos shouldn’t have lost the NRL Grand Final.”
“Holden’s are better than Ford’s at Bathurst.”
“Donald Trump is a great guy.” **

Hey, if you think Donald Trump is a great guy, then you’re welcome to your opinion.  It ultimately makes no difference, if you like Trump, or I like vanilla ice-cream, or if you’re a ‘Ford guy’.

Though what about when someone in the public sphere lies, or allows their opinion to shape their version of truth?  Is ‘a little white lie’ ever truly acceptable?

For example, is it justifiable if news reporters lie about themselves or their motives to get to the truth of a story?  For example, in an article written as an ethical primer for journalism students at Indiana University, Henry McNulty recalled an expose he was part of in which reporters posed as couples trying to get into the local real estate market.  The investigation exposed some inherent racial prejudice amongst the realtors, and eventually lead to the state governor ordering a formal investigation into real estate discrimination.

While he noted that the investigation had noble goals and positive outcomes for the community, he also concluded that the end should never justify the means.
“Credibility is our most important asset.  And if we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that credibility before a word is written”, he said.

In recent times, the Safe School’s program has come under intense scrutiny.  For those not familiar with it, the Safe Schools program was touted by its supporters as an evidence-based anti-bullying program for mid-late primary school students, although its primary agenda appears to be in promoting the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) lifestyle and ideology.  Or as one commentator put it, “In reality, the debate is between those who support the right to childhood and children’s bodily dignity, the right to an education that educates, not indoctrinates, versus those who believe Marxist activism constitutes sound school curriculum.”

A post came up on my Facebook feed in the last couple of days, titled, “Gender Ideology Harms Children”.  It was published by the American College of Pediatricians, which sounds like an official body, except that the American Academy of Pediatrics is the peak body of paediatricians in America. Then the style of language of the statement was inconsistent with that used by most peak bodies – this statement by the American College of Pediatricians was very strongly partisan.  I couldn’t help but wonder who the American College of Pediatricians actually were.

As it turns out, the American College of Pediatricians are a group that promote a very conservative agenda under the guise of official medical and scientific opinion.

In their core values, they state that their college:
“A: Recognizes that there are absolutes and scientific truths that transcend relative social considerations of the day.
B: Recognizes that good medical science cannot exist in a moral vacuum and pledges to promote such science.”

I’m all for good science, but one has to wonder if they’re going about it the right way, because while they declare their pledge to scientific truth, their next core value is essentially an opinion:
“C: Recognizes the fundamental mother-father family unit, within the context of marriage, to be the optimal setting for the development and nurturing of children and pledges to promote this unit.”

As much as I agree with and share most of their values, their pledge to opinion-based science is somewhat duplicitous, because opinion-based science isn’t absolute truth, it’s still a version of truth relative to their values and presumptions.

The irony hasn’t escaped some of the colleges critics, who have highlighted some of the factual errors and bad science that inevitably occurs when one tries to fit scientific findings into a set of values rather than drawing conclusions from the science.

In fairness, I’m not saying that the LGBT community is faultless either.  I’m sure that an in-depth study of their sources would find some over-zealous misinterpretations of scientific data as well.

My point is that we tend to look for information that suits our own pre-conceived notions, and the Christian community can get itself into trouble by doing this.  Christian lobby groups and church leaders need to be wary selectively accepting ‘scientific’ information that conforms to their world-view.  They need to, in all diligence, ensure that the data they cite really does support their position, not cherry-pick or over-extrapolate.  Otherwise they’re no better than the moral relativists on the other side of the political spectrum, or journalists who would justify mistruth to achieve a higher goal, or my eleven-year-old denying his biscuit binge.

One critic of the American College of Pediatricians wrote something very incisive in the title of his blog, “Lies in the name of God are still lies.”

It’s a fair call.  Misleading with the best of intentions is still misleading.  We may have the best of intentions, and feel justified in picking the science that conforms to our world-view.

Even so, God called us to speak the truth, because Jesus was the way, truth and life, and it’s the truth that sets us free.  And our credibility is our witness.  If we deceive people in order to do our job, we’ve compromised that witness before a word is written.

That’s the honest truth.

** The opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the authors, and are for illustrative purposes only … except the bit about the Broncos … but the rest is just illustrative. 

Let boys be non-stigmatised boys

Boys will be boys ...

“When I was a boy …”

Many a stirring yarn has been started with those exact words, as aging men relive their childhood adventures with sentimental grandiosity increasingly taking over from detail as each passing year blends in with the blur of distant memories.

Ps Greg Gibson wrote an article that caught my attention as it floated across my Facebook feed last night.  Gibson is a pastor in Knoxville, Tennessee.  His “when I was a boy” story recalled his happy times as an energetic child, a serene innocence punctuated by two years of Ritalin-induced misery.

His point: “I think we should let boys be boys, and non-medicated ones at that. Therefore, parents, if at all possible, don’t medicate your boys.”

I think I understand what he’s trying to say, that it’s ok to be an energetic child and to see the extra energy as a strength to harness, not a weakness to control.

That would be fine, except that in trying to normalise energetic behaviour, he also winds up demonising Ritalin.  It may not have been his intention, but whenever someone respected in the community says something negative about stimulant medication or ADHD, it reinforces the oppressive stigma attached to those who suffer from it.

Ps Gibson’s fundamental assumption, that normal but energetic children are being misdiagnosed as ADHD and therefore unnecessarily medicated, happens far less often than the opposite – children with ADHD are misdiagnosed as energetic children that just need to be taught how to control themselves.

Personally, I don’t know of any parent who ever wanted to medicate their child with Ritalin.  If anything, it’s the opposite, because if your child’s on Ritalin, then you must be a lazy parent, or given them too much sugar, or too much screen time, or not hugged them enough as babies, or didn’t practice vaginal seeding, or whatever other form of parent-guilt is being perpetrated by the media at the time. Parents will do everything they can in their power to avoid using Ritalin, because of a culture that blames and shames.

Unfortunately, this means that children who could be helped by Ritalin or other stimulant medication are left behind, because ADHD isn’t the mislabeling of normal energetic children who just need better structure, or better posture, or who learn differently.  ADHD is a real disability, a dysfunctional lack of planning and control that’s abnormal compared to other children, affecting their entire lives.

For example, these children find it hard to play with other kids because they can’t follow basic social rules like the rules of games, or waiting their turn.  These children find school difficult, because they can’t concentrate for long enough to focus on completing a multi-step task, or have a long enough attention span to make new memories for words or facts.

One of my patients, a little boy about seven years old, was brought in by his mother because a chiropractor wanted me to arrange a blood test on his behalf.  When I asked why, the mother said the little boy had dyslexia which the chiropractor was ‘treating’ (actually, this chiropractor was blaming a disease that didn’t exist, and wanted me to arrange a test that was resigned to the pages of history, but that’s another story).  When I talked to the mother about the child’s symptoms, it was pretty obvious that he had ADHD, amongst other things.  After seeing a developmental paediatrician to confirm the diagnosis, and taking Ritalin for just one week, his reading improved three whole reading levels, and after a month, he had not only caught up, but had passed a number of his class-mates.

This is a real life example of how ADHD can hold children back, and how stimulant medication can help.  While there are always exceptions to the rule, stimulant medications help more often than they hinder.  They’re sometimes the difference between a child meeting his full learning potential, or being unnecessarily held back, languishing at the bottom of his class as his peers go further ahead in leaps and bounds.

Our culture needs to move on.  We need to stop our social prejudices making life more difficult than it already is for children and their families who battle with ADHD.  We need to see that medications for ADHD can be the difference between a life of learning and a life unfairly held back.

Let’s change the tune.  Rather than saying, “Let boys be non-medicated boys”, how about we say, “Let boys be non-stigmatised boys.”  It’s only through the break-down of the stigma surrounding ADHD and stimulant medications, that all boys (and girls) can truly meet their full potential, whether they have ADHD or are just a bit more energetic.

If you want more information on ADHD and its treatments, this is a good place to start: http://www.rch.org.au/kidsinfo/fact_sheets/ADHD_an_overview/

If you are concerned that you or your child might have ADHD, talk to your local GP or paediatrician.

Does helping others help you?

John Holmes wrote “There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”

We all know that exercise is good for us, but is the exercise of the heart, “reaching down and lifting people up” just as good for us?

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist.  Her meme of the day today was a claim that “Helping others can increase your lifespan.”  She explained that “Researchers found a link between serving others, improved health and decreased mortality! See more at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3780662/pdf/AJPH.2012.300876.pdf”.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 6.28.07 PM

The journal she referenced was a 2013 article by Poulin et al in the American Journal of Public Health [1].  Poulin and his colleagues examined data from nearly 850 people in the Detroit area.  At the start of their study, they asked their participants about stressful life events in the last year and whether they provided tangible assistance to friends or family members.  They then followed their participants for five years and analysed the characteristics of who died in that time.

According to the study by Poulin, those who helped others were younger, healthier, more likely to be White, of higher socioeconomic status, and higher in social support and social contact than those who didn’t help, all factors that have been shown to influence mortality.  They also noted that 70% of their cohort didn’t experience any stressful life events.  While they adjusted for these variables, their statistics would still be affected by them.  As it turns out, while their results were significant, their numbers had broad confidence intervals, so the effect they found is very weak.

What about other studies looking at the same question but in a different way?  Well, there are mixed findings.  Roth and colleagues published a study in 2013 in the American Journal of Epidemiology which also showed that care-givers had better life expectancy than matched controls [1] but then a number of other studies show the opposite.  The Caregiver Health Effects Study found that those who were providing care to a disabled spouse and who reported some strain associated with that care had a 63% elevated risk of death compared with non-caregiving spouses [2]. Other studies suggest that caregivers have poorer mental and physical health status than non-caregivers [3], and caregiving has been widely portrayed as a serious public health problem in the professional literature [4, 5].

So while Poulin found a loose association between helping others and decreased mortality, Dr Leaf has taken that a step too far:

> Firstly, correlation does not equal causation.  Just because a study found those who helped others had a decreased mortality doesn’t mean that the reverse, helping others increases your lifespan, necessarily holds.  There may be other explanations.
> Secondly, other studies show conflicting results, so Poulin’s study may be a statistical hiccough.

It’s not clear that helping others is actually good for our health.  That doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t help others. I think we should, if for no other reason than the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  But we can’t definitively say that helping others will help us directly by making us live longer.  That’s scientifically still up in the air.

References

[1]        Poulin MJ, Brown SL, Dillard AJ, Smith DM. Giving to others and the association between stress and mortality. Am J Public Health 2013 Sep;103(9):1649-55.
[2]        Schulz R, Beach SR. Caregiving as a risk factor for mortality: the Caregiver Health Effects Study. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 1999 Dec 15;282(23):2215-9.
[3]        Pinquart M, Sorensen S. Differences between caregivers and noncaregivers in psychological health and physical health: a meta-analysis. Psychol Aging 2003 Jun;18(2):250-67.
[4]        Talley RC, Crews JE. Framing the public health of caregiving. Am J Public Health 2007 Feb;97(2):224-8.
[5]        Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. Caregiving, A Public Health Priority.  2010, 7 Dec 2010 [cited 2016 Jan 16]; Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/index.htm

The Prospering Soul – Christians and Anxiety

When you say the word “anxiety”, it can mean different things to different people. To a lot of people, anxiety is the same as being a little frightened. To others, it’s being really scared, but with good reason (like if you have to give a speech and you’re afraid of public speaking).

Medically speaking, anxiety isn’t just being frightened or stressed. After all, it’s normal to be frightened or stressed. God made us so that we could experience fear, because a little bit of fear is actually protective. There are dangers all around us, and if we had no fear at all, we’d end up becoming lunch for a wild animal, or road-kill. So there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of anxiety – in the right amount, for the right reason.

But anxiety in the wrong amount or for the wrong reason, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. That’s the anxiety that we’ll be talking about today.

The official description of anxiety reflects this idea of the wrong amount of anxiety about the wrong things: “… marked symptoms of anxiety accompanied by either general apprehension (i.e. ‘free-floating anxiety’) or worry focused on multiple everyday events, most often concerning family, health, finances, and school or work, together with additional symptoms such as muscular tension or motor restlessness, sympathetic autonomic over-activity, subjective experience of nervousness, difficulty maintaining concentration, irritability, or sleep disturbance. The symptoms are present more days than not for at least several months and result in significant distress or significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” (This is taken from the beta-version of the latest WHO diagnostic guidelines, the ICD-11, but has yet to be formally ratified).

There are six main disorders that come under the “anxiety disorders” umbrella, reflecting either an abnormal focus of anxiety or an abnormal intensity:
1. Panic Disorder (abnormally intense anxiety episodes)
2. Social Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of social interactions)
3. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (abnormally intense episodes of anxiety following trauma)
4. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (abnormally intense and abnormally focussed anxiety resulting in compulsive behaviours)
5. Specific phobias (abnormally focussed anxiety on one particular trigger), and
6. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (abnormal anxiety of everything)

The common underlying theme of anxiety is uncertainty. Grupe and Nitschke wrote, “Anxiety is a future-orientated emotion, and anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain.” [1]

The dysfunctional approach to uncertainty that underlies anxiety is in turn related to genetic changes which affect the structure and function of the brain, primarily in the regions of the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex, which then alters the processing of our brain in five different areas:
> Inflated estimates of threat cost and probability
> Hypervigilance
> Deficient safety learning
> Behavioural and cognitive avoidance
> Heightened reactivity to threat uncertainty

In simpler language:
> the brain thinks that threats are more likely and will be worse than they are
> the brain spends more time looking for possible threats
> the brain fails to learn what conditions are safe, which is aggravated by
> the brain over-using avoidance as a coping mechanism, and
> the brain assumes that unavoidable uncertainty is more likely to be bad.

It’s important to understand at this point that anxiety disorders aren’t the result of poor personal choices. They are the result of a genetic predisposition to increased vulnerability to early life stress, and to chronic stress [2].

The other way of looking at it is that some people are blessed with amazing tools for resilience [3, 4].

It’s not to say that our choices have no impact at all, but we need to be realistic about this. Everyone will experience stressful situations at some point in their lives, and everyone will also make dumb choices in their lives. Some people are naturally better equipped to handle this, whereas some people have genes that make them more vulnerable. It’s wrong to blame yourself, or allow other people to blame you, for experiencing anxiety, just as it’s wrong for other people to assume that if one person can cope with the same level of stress, then everyone else should too.

It’s not to say that you shouldn’t fight back though. Just because your facing a mountain doesn’t mean to say you can’t climb it. It will be hard work, and you’ll need good training and support, but you can still climb that mountain.

Managing anxiety is very similar to managing depression like we discussed in a previous post. Following the tap model, there’s overflow when there is too much going into the system, the system is too small to handle it, and the processing of the input is too slow. So managing anxiety involves reducing the amount of stress going into the system, increasing the systems capacity through learning resilience and coping skills, and sometimes by improving the systems processing power with medications.

Reducing the input – stress management

Sometimes the best way of coping with anxiety is to reduce the stress that’s fanning the flames. It mightn’t seem to come naturally, but as we discussed in the last chapter, there are a few basic skills that are common to all stress management techniques that can form the platform of ongoing better skills in this area.

Engaging the “vagal brake” as proposed by the “Polyvagal Theory” [5] is as important in anxiety as it is in depression. By performing these techniques, the activity of the vagus nerve on the heart via the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system is increased, which not only slows down the heart, but enhances the activity of other automatic parts of our metabolism. Some of the techniques allow a relaxed body to have a relaxed brain which can cope better with whatever is confronting it. The full list will be a blog for another time, but the simplest technique is to breathe!

It’s really simple. Sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.

Increasing capacity – coping and resilience

Like with depression, anxiety responds well to psychological therapies which help to increase coping skills and enhance our innate capacity for resilience. And like depression, anxiety improves with CBT and ACT [6, 7], which enhance the activity of the pre-frontal regions of the brain [8]. For anxiety, CBT teaches new skills to handle uncertain situations, and to re-evaluate the chances of bad things happening and what would happen if they do. ACT puts the train of anxious thoughts and feelings in their place, and teaches engagement with the present moment, and a future focusing on values, and accepting the discomfort of uncertainty by removing the distress associated with it.

Practicing each of these skill sets is like practicing any other skill. Eventually, with enough practice, they start to become more like a reflex, and we start to cope with stress and anxiety better automatically.

Increased processing – Medications

Sometimes, to achieve long-term successful management of anxiety, a little extras help is needed in the form of medication. Like depression, the main group of medications used are the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (or SSRI’s for short). Medications appear to reduce the over-activity of a number of brain regions collectively called the limbic system [8], which are involved with many innate and automatic functions, but in its simplest form, the limbic system controls many of our emotions and motivations, including fear, anger and certain aspects of pleasure-seeking [9]. So essentially, SSRI’s help the anxious brain to make better sense of the incoming signals.

There are other medications commonly used for anxiety treatment, collectively called benzodiazepines. Most people wouldn’t have heard that term before, but would have heard of the most famous member of the benzo family, Valium. Benzos are like having a bit too much alcohol – they slow down the activity of the brain, and induce a feeling of relaxation. When used appropriately (i.e.: in low doses and in the short term), they can be helpful in taking the edge off quite distressing feelings of anxiety or panic. But benzos are not a cure, and after a while, the body builds a tolerance to them, where a higher dose is required to achieve the same effect. Continued long term use eventually creates dependence where a person finds it difficult to cope without them.

The final way to help manage anxiety is prayer. Like for depression, there is limited scientific information on the effects of prayer on, although a small randomised controlled trial did show that prayer with a prayer counsellor over a period of a number of weeks was more effective than no treatment [10].

Though given that anxiety is a future orientated emotion, excessively anticipating possible unwelcome scenarios and consequences, it’s easy to see why prayer should work well for anxiety. Trusting that God has the future in hand and knowing “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28) means that the future is less uncertain. The Bible also encourages us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7) When we give the future to God, he will give us peace in return.

Again, like in the case of depression, it’s sometimes hard for Christians to understand how strong Christians can suffer from anxiety in the first place. After all, we’ve just read how God gives us peace. And the Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).

So when you’re filled with the opposite, when all you feel is overwhelming fear, it makes you feel like a faithless failure. Christians without anxiety assume that Christians with anxiety aren’t living in the Spirit. And it’s the logical conclusion to draw after all – if the fruit of the Spirit is peace, and you’re not filled with peace, then you mustn’t be full of the Spirit.

But like depression, when you look through the greatest heroes in the Bible, you see a pattern where at one point or another in their lives, they went through physical and emotional destitution, including mind-numbing fear … Moses argued with God about how weak and timid he was (Exodus 3 and 4), Elijah ran for his life in panic and asked God to kill him, twice, over the period of a couple of months after Queen Jezebel threatened him (1 Kings 18 and 19). Peter had spent three years with Jesus, the Messiah himself, hearing him speak and watching him perform miracle after miracle after miracle. But Peter denied his Messiah three times when he was confronted with possible arrest (John 18).

For the same pattern is also seen in King David, Gideon, and a number of other great leaders through the Bible. The take home message is this: it’s human nature to suffer from disease and dysfunction. Sometimes it’s physical dysfunction. Sometimes it’s emotional dysfunction. It’s not a personal or spiritual failure to have a physical illness. Why should mental illness be treated any different?

As the stories of Moses, Elijah and Peter testify, being a strong Christian doesn’t make you impervious to fear and anxiety. Hey, we’re all broken in some way, otherwise why would we need God’s strength and salvation? Having anxiety simply changes your capacity to experience God’s peace. As I said in the last chapter, closing your eyes doesn’t stop the light, it just stops you experiencing the light. Being anxious doesn’t stop God’s peace, it just makes it harder to experience God’s peace.

In summary some anxiety, at the right time and at the right intensity, is normal. It’s not unhealthy or sinful to experience some anxiety. Anxiety at the wrong time or at the wrong intensity, can disrupt our day-to-day tasks and make it hard to live a rich and fulfilling life. Anxiety related to a dysfunctional approach to uncertainty, and is a future-orientated emotion because anticipating or ‘pre-viewing’ the future induces anxiety largely because the future is intrinsically uncertain. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating.

Like depression, anxiety disorders can be managed in four main ways, by reducing the amount of stress coming in with stress management techniques, by increasing capacity to cope with psychological therapies like CBT and ACT, and sometimes by using medications, which help the brain to process the uncertainty of each situation more effectively. Prayer is can also useful to helping to manage anxiety.

Christians are not immune from anxiety disorders, and it’s important for the church to understand that Christians who suffer from anxiety are not weak, backsliding or faith-deficient. Having anxiety is not because of making poor choices. Though if you have anxiety, trust in the promises of the Bible, that God has the future under control.

References

[1]        Grupe DW, Nitschke JB. Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2013 Jul;14(7):488-501.
[2]        Duman EA, Canli T. Influence of life stress, 5-HTTLPR genotype, and SLC6A4 methylation on gene expression and stress response in healthy Caucasian males. Biol Mood Anxiety Disord 2015;5:2.
[3]        Wu G, Feder A, Cohen H, et al. Understanding resilience. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience 2013;7:10.
[4]        Russo SJ, Murrough JW, Han M-H, Charney DS, Nestler EJ. Neurobiology of resilience. Nature neuroscience 2012 November;15(11):1475-84.
[5]        Porges SW. The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology 2007 Feb;74(2):116-43.
[6]        James AC, James G, Cowdrey FA, Soler A, Choke A. Cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2013;6:CD004690.
[7]        Swain J, Hancock K, Hainsworth C, Bowman J. Acceptance and commitment therapy in the treatment of anxiety: a systematic review. Clinical psychology review 2013 Dec;33(8):965-78.
[8]        Quide Y, Witteveen AB, El-Hage W, Veltman DJ, Olff M. Differences between effects of psychological versus pharmacological treatments on functional and morphological brain alterations in anxiety disorders and major depressive disorder: a systematic review. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews 2012 Jan;36(1):626-44.
[9]        Sokolowski K, Corbin JG. Wired for behaviors: from development to function of innate limbic system circuitry. Frontiers in molecular neuroscience 2012;5:55.
[10]      Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle WH, Koenig HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med 2009;39(4):377-92.

If you’re suffering from anxiety or any other mental health difficulties and if you want help, see your GP or a psychologist, or if you’re in Australia, 24 hour telephone counselling is available through:

 Lifeline = 13 11 14 – or – Beyond Blue = 1300 22 4636