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Real life support ranked better than social media for improving mental health

Social media may make it easier for people to engage online, but it does not provide certain benefits of real-life human interactions, according to Michigan State University researcher.

“Problematic social media use has been associated with depression, anxiety and social isolation, and having a good social support system helps insulate people from negative mental health,” said Dar Meshi, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations at MSU. “We wanted to compare the differences between real-life support and support provided over social media to see if the support provided over social media could have beneficial effects.” The research was published online April 29 in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

While social media support did not negatively impact mental health, it did not positively affect it either.

“Only real-life social support was linked to better overall mental health,” Meshi said. “Typical interactions over social media are limited. We theorize that they don’t allow for more substantial connection, which may be needed to provide the type of support that protects against negative mental health.”

Meshi and Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware and a co-author on this paper, conducted a survey of 403 university students to identify how problematic their social media use was and their degree of social support in real-life and on social media. The survey also measured depression, anxiety and social isolation, the researchers could see how the students’ social media use and social support related to their mental health.

Problematic social media use is not a recognized addictive disorder, but there are similarities in the symptoms of someone with a substance use disorder and a person displaying excessive social media use. Examples include preoccupation with social media and signs of withdrawal, such as irritability, when prevented from using social media.

“It appears that the more excessive one’s social media use is, the less social support that person gets in real life, which leads to poor mental health,” Ellithorpe said. From these results researchers encourage people who are using too much social media to reach out to people in real life for social support.

Read this article on Science Daily: Michigan State University. “Need to vent? Turn to real-life support, not social media: Research finds social support provided over social media does not improve mental health for excessive social media users.” sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/05/210503104605.htm.


Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD

Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Santa Rosa California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.

In-person and Online Video Counseling Services are now available. Short-term sessions, single sessions or ongoing support to meet your needs. Contact Dr. Holland to schedule an appointment at 707-479-2946.

Family well-being at risk during pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, many families found themselves suddenly isolated together at home. A year later, new research has linked this period with a variety of large, detrimental effects on individuals’ and families’ well-being and functioning. A study — led by Penn State researchers — found that in the first months of the pandemic, parents reported that their children were experiencing much higher levels of “internalizing” problems like depression and anxiety, and “externalizing” problems such as disruptive and aggressive behavior, than before the pandemic. Parents also reported that they themselves were experiencing much higher levels of depression and lower levels of coparenting quality with their partners.

Mark Feinberg, research professor of health and human development give insight into just how devastating periods of family and social stress can be for parents and children, and how important a good coparenting relationship can be for family well-being. “Stress in general — whether daily hassles or acute, crisis-driven stress — typically leads to greater conflict and hostility in family relationships,” Feinberg said. “If parents can support each other in these situations, the evidence from past research indicates that they will be able to be more patient and more supportive with their children, rather than becoming more harsh and angry.”

Feinberg added that understanding what can help parents maintain positive parenting practices, such as a positive coparenting relationship, is key for helping protect children during future crises — whether those crises are pandemics, economic shocks or natural disasters. While cross-sectional studies have suggested there has been a negative impact of the pandemic on families, the researchers said this study is one of the first to measure just how much these factors have changed within families before and after the pandemic hit.

According to the researchers, previous research has found that periods of financial stress, such as the Great Depression and the 2008 recession, have led to higher levels of parent stress, mental health problems and interparental conflict, which can all lead to more harsh, and even abusive, parenting. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Feinberg said it led to not only financial stress within families, but also problems related to being isolated together, issues managing work and childcare, and general fear related to the sudden health threat that was poorly understood.

For the study, the researchers used data from 129 families, which included 122 mothers and 84 fathers, with an average of 2.3 children per family. The parents answered an online questionnaire that asked them about their depressive symptoms, anxiety, the quality of their relationship with their coparent, and externalizing and internalizing behavior they observed in their children, among other measures. Because the participants were part of a longer study measuring these factors over prior years, the researchers already had data on these parents and children from before the pandemic.

The researchers found that parents were 2.4 times more likely to report “clinically significant” high levels of depression after the pandemic hit than before. They were also 2.5 times and 4 times more likely to report externalizing and internalizing problems, respectively, in their children at levels high enough that professional help might be needed. Feinberg said that while it makes sense that families would experience these difficulties, he was shocked at the magnitude of the declines in well-being.

“The size of these changes are considered very large in our field and are rarely seen,” Feinberg said. “We saw not just overall shifts, but greater numbers of parents and children who were in the clinical range for depression and behavior problems, which means they were likely struggling with a diagnosable disorder and would benefit from treatment.” Feinberg put the size of the declines in parent and child well-being in perspective by pointing out that the increase in parents’ levels of depressive symptoms in the first months of the pandemic was about twice as large as the average benefit of antidepressants.

The researchers said that as the risk of future pandemics and natural disasters increases with the effects of climate change, so will the likelihood of families facing stressful conditions again in the future. “Getting ready for these types of crises could include helping families prepare — not just by stocking up on supplies, but also by improving family resiliency and psychological coping resources,” Feinberg said. “In my view, that means providing the kinds of family prevention programs we’ve been developing and testing at the Prevention Research Center for the past 20 years.”

Read this article on ScienceDaily: Penn State. “COVID-19 pandemic may have increased mental health issues within families.”


Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD

Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Santa Rosa California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.

In-person and Online Video Counseling Services are now available. Short-term sessions, single sessions or ongoing support to meet your needs. Contact Dr. Holland to schedule an appointment at 707-479-2946.

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Unresolved disputes can lead to long term health issues

Unresolved disputes can lead to long term health issues

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New study reveals the long term impact of an unresolved argument on overall health and well-being.

A recent Oregon State University study found that when people feel they have resolved an argument, the emotional response associated with that disagreement is significantly reduced and, in some situations, almost entirely erased.That reduction in stress may have a major impact on overall health, researchers say.

"Everyone experiences stress in their daily lives. You aren't going to stop stressful things from happening. But the extent to which you can tie them off, bring them to an end and resolve them is definitely going to pay dividends in terms of your well-being," said Robert Stawski, senior author on the study and an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. "Resolving your arguments is quite important for maintaining well-being in daily life."

Researchers have long been aware of how chronic stress can affect health, from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety to physical problems including heart disease, a weakened immune system, reproductive difficulties and gastrointestinal issues. But it's not just major chronic stressors like poverty or violence that can inflict damage.

"Daily stressors -- specifically the minor, small inconveniences that we have throughout the day -- even those have lasting impacts on mortality and things like inflammation and cognitive function," said Dakota Witzel, lead author and a doctoral student in human development and family studies at OSU.

For the study, Stawski and Witzel used data from the National Study of Daily Experiences, an in-depth survey of more than 2,000 people who were interviewed about their feelings and experiences for eight days in a row. The researchers looked at reports of both arguments and avoided arguments, defined as instances where the person could have argued about something but chose to let it slide so as not to have a disagreement. They then measured how the incident affected the person's reported change in negative and positive emotions, both for the day of the encounter and the day after it occurred.

The measure of how an experience affects someone emotionally, an increase in negative emotions or a decrease in positive emotions, on the day it occurs is known as "reactivity," while "residue" is the prolonged emotional toll the day after the experience occurs. Negative and positive affect refer to the degree of negative and positive emotions a person feels on a given day. Results showed that on the day of an argument or avoided argument, people who felt their encounter was resolved reported roughly half the reactivity of those whose encounters were not resolved. On the day following an argument or avoided argument, the results were even starker: People who felt the matter was resolved showed no prolonged elevation of their negative affect the next day.

The study also looked at age-related differences in response to arguments and avoided arguments and found that adults ages 68 and older were more than 40% more likely than people 45 and younger to report their conflicts as resolved. But the impact of resolution status on people's negative and positive affect remained the same regardless of age. The researchers had several explanations for older adults' higher rate of resolution: Older adults may be more motivated to minimize negative and maximize positive emotions as they have fewer years remaining, which is consistent with existing theories of aging and emotion. They may also have more experience navigating arguments and thus be more effective at defusing or avoiding conflict.

"If older adults are really motivated to maximize their emotional well-being, they're going do a better job, or at least a faster job, at resolving stressors in a more timely fashion," Stawski said. While people cannot always control what stressors come into their lives -- and lack of control is itself a stressor in many cases -- they can work on their own emotional response to those stressors, he said. "Some people are more reactive than other people," he said. "But the extent to which you can tie off the stress so it's not having this gnawing impact at you over the course of the day or a few days will help minimize the potential long-term impact."

Read this article on Science Daily: Oregon State University. "Want a longer, healthier life? Resolve your arguments by day's end." www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210325084833.htm.


Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD

Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Santa Rosa California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.

In-person and Online Video Counseling Services are now available. Short-term sessions, single sessions or ongoing support to meet your needs. Contact Dr. Holland to schedule an appointment at 707-479-2946.

Study examines benefits of social connectedness

New study seeks to understand how much we feel connected to others we have never met and how that predicts people’s sense of selfless concern for the well-being of others.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people who recognize the connections they share with others are more likely to wear a mask, follow health guidelines and help people, even at a potential cost to themselves, a new University of Washington study shows. Indeed, an identification with all humanity, as opposed to identification with a geographic area like a country or town, predicts whether someone will engage in “prosocial” behaviors particular to the pandemic, such as donating their own masks to a hospital or coming to the aid of a sick person.

The study, published March 10 in PLOS ONE, is drawn from about 2,500 responses, from more than 80 countries, to an online, international study launched last April. Researchers say the findings could have implications for public health messaging during the pandemic: Appealing to individuals’ deep sense of connectedness to others could, for example, encourage some people to get vaccinated, wear masks or follow other public health guidelines.

“We want to understand to what extent people feel connected with and identify with all humanity, and how that can be used to explain the individual differences in how people respond during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, who co-led the study with postdoctoral researcher Nigini Oliveira at the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science and Engineering.

In psychology, “identification with all humanity” is a belief that can be measured and utilized in predicting behavior or informing policy or decision-making. Last spring, as governments around the world were imposing pandemic restrictions, a multidisciplinary team of UW researchers came together to study the implications of how people would respond to pandemic-related ethical dilemmas, and how those responses might be associated with various psychological beliefs.

Researchers designed an online study, providing different scenarios based in social psychology and game theory, for participants to consider. The team then made the study available in English and five other languages on the virtual lab LabintheWild, which co-author Katharina Reinecke, an associate professor in the Allen School, created for conducting behavioral studies with people around the world.

The scenarios presented participants with situations that could arise during the pandemic and asked people to what extent they would:

  • Follow the list of World Health Organization health guidelines (which mostly focused on social distancing and hygiene when the study was run between mid-April to mid-June)
  • Donate masks of their family’s to a hospital short on masks
  • Drive a person exhibiting obvious symptoms of COVID-19 to the hospital
  • Go to a grocery store to buy food for a neighboring family
  • Call an ambulance and wait with a sick person for it to arrive

In addition to demographic details and information about their local pandemic restrictions, such as stay-at-home orders, participants were asked questions to get at the psychology behind their responses: about their own felt identification with their local community, their nation and humanity, in general. For instance, participants were asked, “How much would you say you care (feel upset, want to help) when bad things happen to people all over the world?”

Researchers found that an identification with “all humanity” significantly predicted answers to the five scenarios, well above identifying with country or community, and after controlling for other variables such as gender, age or education level. Its effect was stronger than any other factor, said Barragan, and popped out as a highly significant predictor of people’s tendency to want to help others.

The authors noted that identifying with one’s country, in fact, came in a distant third, behind identification with humanity in general and one’s local community. Strong feelings toward one’s nation, nationalism, can lead to behavior and policies that favor some groups of people over others.

“There is variability in how people respond to the social aspects of the pandemic. Our research reveals that a crucial aspect of one’s world view — how much people feel connected to others they have never met — predicts people’s cooperation with public health measures and the altruism they feel toward others during the pandemic,” said co-author Andrew Meltzoff, who is co-director of I-LABS and holds the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair in psychology.

Since last spring, of course, much has changed. More than 2.5 million people worldwide have died of COVID-19, vaccines are being administered, and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially regarding masks, has evolved. If a new survey was launched today, Barragan said, the research group would like to include scenarios tuned to the current demands of the pandemic and the way it challenges us to care for others even while we maintain physical distancing.

For COVID-19 and future humanitarian crises, the ethical dilemmas presented in the study can offer insight into what propels people to help, which can, in turn, inform policy and outreach.

“While it is true that many people don’t seem to be exhibiting helpful behaviors during this pandemic, what our study shows is that there are specific characteristics that predict who is especially likely to engage in such behavior,” Barragan said. “Future work could help people to feel a stronger connection to others, and this could promote more helpful behavior during pandemics.”


Read this article on Science Daily: University of Washington. “Helpful behavior during pandemic tied to recognizing common humanity.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210310204202.htm.


Cognitive behavioral therapy shown to improve job opportunities

If depression is making it more difficult for some unemployed people to land a job, one type of therapy may help, research suggests. In a new study, 41% of unemployed or underemployed people undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) found a new job or went from part- to full-time work by the end of the 16-week treatment for depression.Those who had a job but found it difficult to focus on and accomplish work tasks because of depression said the treatment helped to significantly reduce these problems.

“For the most part, researchers have focused on showing that therapy relieves symptoms of depression,” said Daniel Strunk, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. “But reducing symptoms isn’t the only goal people have when they start CBT. Many are hoping to find a job or improve their productivity at their current job. Here we found that therapy can help people achieve these goals, as well.”

This study involved 126 people who participated in a 16-week course of CBT at the Ohio State Depression Treatment and Research Clinic. CBT teaches coping skills that help patients counteract and modify their negative beliefs, Strunk said. “It works on the idea that people with depression invariably hold these overly negative views of themselves and their futures,” he said. “For example, if an unemployed patient doesn’t get one job they interviewed for, they may think ‘no one is ever going to hire me.'”

In this study, 27 patients were seeking to improve their employment status (land a job or go from part- to full-time) at the beginning of treatment. Eleven of them (41%) had succeeded by the end of the 16 weeks.

“It is hard to say exactly how good this success rate is since we don’t know how many would have gotten jobs without the treatment,” Strunk said. “But the findings were encouraging and suggest that the CBT is having an impact.”

CBT had a clear impact for those who had jobs and reported at the beginning of the treatment that depression was hurting their effectiveness.

“Working patients reported at the end of treatment that they were much more successful at concentrating and accomplishing tasks at their jobs,” he said. Findings showed that one way CBT had this effect was by reducing patients’ “negative cognitive style,” or the extent to which patients view negative events in overly pessimistic ways, according to Strunk.

“CBT helps patients overcome these views by teaching them that the experience of depression is not their fault and that they can take steps to improve their concentration and accomplish work more successfully even when experiencing depressive symptoms,” Strunk said.

Read this article on Science Daily: Ohio State University. “Depressed and out of work? Therapy may help you find a job: Treatment also helps workers be more effective, study finds.” ScienceDaily www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210222164224.htm.


Dr. Jenny Holland PsyD

Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD

Dr. Holland is a psychotherapist practicing in Santa Rosa California, providing cutting edge, integrative and evidence-based mental health care, proven effective with depression and anxiety, life transitions; pregnancy, parenting, ageing, loss, and caring for a parent or loved one during a health crisis or decline.

Teletherapy – Online Video Counseling Services — Short-term sessions, single sessions or ongoing support. Contact Dr. Holland to schedule an appointment at 707-479-2946.

Outcomes for autistic people improved by teaching social acceptance

Efforts to improve the social success of autistic adolescents and adults have often focused on teaching them ways to think and behave more like their non-autistic peers and to hide the characteristics that define them as autistic. Psychology researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas, however, have been focusing on another approach: promoting understanding and acceptance of autism among non-autistic people.

The researchers published their findings online Jan. 20 in the journal Autism. The study showed that familiarizing non-autistic people with the challenges and strengths of autistic people helped to reduce stigma and misconceptions about autism, but implicit biases about autism were harder to overcome.

Desiree Jones, a psychology doctoral student in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS), is the corresponding author of the paper, and Dr. Noah Sasson, associate professor of psychology, is the senior author.

Autism is characterized by differences in thinking, sensing, and communicating that can make interaction and connection with non-autistic people difficult. Some autistic people are nonspeaking and need a lot of support in their everyday lives, while some are highly verbal and need less support. Jones’ work focuses specifically on the experiences of autistic adults without intellectual disability.

“Previous work in our lab has shown that autistic people are often stereotyped as awkward and less likeable,” Jones said. “Some might think that autistic people don’t want friends or don’t want to interact with people. We want to combat those ideas.”

Promoting autism knowledge among non-autistic adults represents a shift in philosophy about how to improve the social experiences of autistic people. Jones explained that this tactic borrows from research on race and ethnicity.

“Targeting autistic behavior places the burden of social exclusion on autistic people, when we should really be challenging the attitudes that lead others to stigmatize autistic behaviors,” she said. “Research on race suggests that people who have racial biases tend to view that race as a monolith, assigning every member the same features. By exposing them to different people from the group, you can challenge those stereotypes. We believe the same principle applies to autism.”

The study participants — 238 non-autistic adults — were split into three groups. One group viewed an autism acceptance video originally developed as a PowerPoint presentation by researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in collaboration with autistic adults. Jones updated it and had narration added. The second group watched a general mental health training presentation that didn’t mention autism, and the third received no training at all. Participants then were tested on their explicit and implicit biases about autism.

“The autism video presents autism facts and promotes acceptance. It gives tips on how to befriend an autistic person and talk to them about their interests,” Jones said. “It also discusses things to avoid, such as sensory overload and pressuring them into engaging.”

Subsequent testing of explicit biases included capturing first impressions of autistic adults in video clips, measuring participants’ autism knowledge and stigma, and gauging their beliefs about autistic functional abilities. Implicit biases also were examined, gauging whether participants unconsciously associate autism with negative personal attributes.

As anticipated, the autism acceptance training group demonstrated greater understanding and acceptance of autism on the explicit measures, including expressing more social interest in autistic adults and resulting in more positive first impressions. However, participants continued to implicitly associate autism with unpleasant personal attributes regardless of which training they experienced.

“Explicit biases are consciously held, evolve quickly and are constrained by social desirability,” Sasson explained. “Implicit biases reflect more durable underlying beliefs — associations reinforced over time that are more resistant to change.”

Many of the stubborn stereotypes about autism are reinforced by portrayals in the media, whether from TV shows like “The Good Doctor” or movies like “Rain Man.”

“A common trope exists of the white male autistic person with savant abilities,” Jones said. “They are really smart but very socially awkward. They can be portrayed as flat or without emotion or passion. These beliefs can be harmful and do not reflect how variable these characteristics are among autistic people. They belie the range of unique difficulties and skills that autistic people can have.

“There’s a saying that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. The community varies so much in individual needs, strengths and difficulties that there’s not a very useful prototype. So getting to know actual people and getting away from preconceptions can hopefully help us improve social outcomes for the autistic community.”

Jones said that autistic individuals themselves are integral in plotting the path forward.

“Autistic people often feel that they simply aren’t listened to, that they are dismissed or not cared about,” she said. “A big part of being welcoming is simply acknowledging actual autistic people telling us what they like and what they want research to be. In our lab, we have several autistic master’s and undergraduate students who play a big role in our research, and they’ve taught me a lot.”

Sasson described the results as promising and indicative of the promise of well-done training, although the staying power of such effects remains unclear.

“This half-hour presentation was engaging and entertaining and included a lot of compelling first-person narratives,” he said. “The fact that non-autistic people experiencing the training were more interested in social interaction with autistic people, had fewer misconceptions about autism, and reported more accurate understanding of autistic abilities after completing it is a success story of sorts.

“Whether the effects persist over time is another question. It could very well be that the benefits are transient, which would significantly limit the promise of training programs like this.”

In future work, Jones and Sasson hope to establish a connection between inclusion and acceptance and the mental health and well-being of autistic people, who experience higher levels of depression, anxiety and suicide than the general population.

“It’s not easy to be autistic in a predominantly non-autistic world, and making the social world a bit more accommodating and welcoming to autistic differences could go a long way toward improving personal and professional outcomes for autistic people,” Sasson said.

Read this article on ScienceDaily: University of Texas at Dallas. “Reducing biases about autism may increase social inclusion, study finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 February 2021. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210208085441.htm.


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New Study Highlights Importance of Talk Therapy During Pandemic

Ongoing pandemic stresses leaves some people more susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Even at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, people around the world became more fearful of what could happen to them or their family. A new university study of 1040 online participants from five western countries explores people’s response to the stresses of the escalating pandemic, finding more than 13% of the sample had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related symptoms consistent with levels necessary to qualify for a clinical diagnosis.

With ongoing economic and social fallout, and death toll of more than 2 million, the team of psychology researchers warn more needs to be done to cope with the potential short and long-term spike in PTSD cases resulting from the pandemic — as well as related mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, psychosocial functioning, etc.

“While the global pandemic does not fit into prevailing PTSD models, or diagnostic criteria, our research shows this ongoing global stressor can trigger traumatic stress symptoms,” says lead researcher Associate Professor Melanie Takarangi. “We found that traumatic stress was related to future events, such as worry about oneself or a family member contracting COVID-19, to direct contact with the virus, as well as indirect contact such as via the news and government lockdown — a non-life threatening event,” says co-author Victoria Bridgland, who is undertaking a PhD studying the triggers of PTSD.

PTSD is a set of reactions, including intrusive recollections such as flashbacks, that can develop in people exposed to an event that threatened their life or safety (e.g., sexual assault, natural disaster). “Our findings highlight the need to focus on the acute psychological distress — including the perceived emotional impact of particular events — associated with COVID-19 and build on other research from the past year that demonstrates the damaging psychological impact of COVID-19 on mental health,” says Ms Bridgland.

Comprehensive long-term documentation of COVID-19 related traumatic stress reactions will allow health professionals to help people who could otherwise fall through the cracks, the research team concludes. The online survey examined a range of responses to common post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as repeated disturbing and unwanted images, memories or thoughts about the COVIC-19 pandemic. COVID-19’s psychological fallout has been dubbed the “second curve,” predicted to last for months to years, the paper notes.

“Notably, while most of our participants reported experiencing some form of psychological distress and 13.2% of our sample were likely PTSD positive when anchoring symptoms to COVID-19, only 2% of our total sample reported they had personally tested positive to COVID-19, and only 5% reported that close family and friends had tested positive. It therefore seems likely that the psychological fallout from COVID-19 may reach further than the medical fallout,” the paper concludes.

Read this article on ScienceDaily: “PTSD link to pandemic fears.” ScienceDaily, 22 January 2021. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210122102024.htm


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COVID-19 front line workers vulnerable to mental health problems

COVID Stress Takes a Toll on Mental Health with Health Care Worker

The daily toll of COVID-19, as measured by new cases and the growing number of deaths, overlooks a shadowy set of casualties: the rising risk of mental health problems among health care professionals working on the front lines of the pandemic. A new study, led by University of Utah Health scientists, suggests more than half of doctors, nurses, and emergency responders involved in COVID-19 care could be at risk for one or more mental health problems, including acute traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, problematic alcohol use, and insomnia. The researchers found that the risk of these mental health conditions was comparable to rates observed during natural disasters, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.

"What health care workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat," says Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the U of U Health Occupational Trauma Program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute and the study's corresponding author. "Although the majority of health care professionals and emergency responders aren't necessarily going to develop PTSD, they are working under severe duress, day after day, with a lot of unknowns. Some will be susceptible to a host of stress-related mental health consequences. By studying both resilient and pathological trajectories, we can build a scaffold for constructing evidence-based interventions for both individuals and public health systems."

The study appears in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. In addition to U of U Health scientists, contributors include researchers from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; University of Colorado, Colorado Springs; Central Arkansas VA Health Care System; Salt Lake City VA Healthcare System; and the National Institute for Human Resilience. The researchers surveyed 571 health care workers, including 473 emergency responders (firefighters, police, EMTs) and 98 hospital staff (doctors, nurses), in the Mountain West between April 1 and May 7, 2020. Overall, 56% of the respondents screened positive for at least one mental health disorder. The prevalence for each specific disorder ranged from 15% to 30% of the respondents, with problematic alcohol use, insomnia, and depression topping the list.

"Front line providers are exhausted, not only from the impact of the pandemic itself, but also in terms of coping day to day," says Charles C. Benight, Ph.D., co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. "They're trying to make sure that their families are safe [and] they're frustrated over not having the pandemic under control. Those things create the sort of burnout, trauma, and stress that lead to the mental health challenges we're seeing among these caregivers."

In particular, the scientists found that health care workers who were exposed to the virus or who were at greater risk of infection because they were immunocompromised had a significantly increased risk of acute traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. The researchers suggest that identifying these individuals and offering them alternative roles could reduce anxiety, fear, and the sense of helplessness associated with becoming infected.

Alcohol abuse was another area of concern. About 36% of health care workers reported risky alcohol usage. In comparison, estimates suggest that less than 21% of physicians and 23% of emergency responders abuse alcohol in typical circumstances. Caregivers who provided direct patient care or who were in supervisory positions were at greatest risk, according to the researchers. They say offering these workers preventative education and alcohol abuse treatment is vital. Surprisingly, health care workers in this study felt less anxious as they treated more COVID-19 cases.

"As these health care professionals heard about cases elsewhere before COVID-19 was detected in their communities, their anxiety levels likely rose in anticipation of having to confront the disease," Smith says. "But when the disease started trickling in where they were, perhaps it grounded them back to their mission and purpose. They saw the need and they were in there fighting and working hard to make a difference with their knowledge and skills, even at risk to themselves."

Among the study's limitations are its small sample size. It was also conducted early in the pandemic in a region that wasn't as affected by the disease as other areas with higher infection and death rates. Moving forward, the researchers are in the final stages of a similar but larger study conducted in late 2020 that they hope will build on these findings. "This pandemic, as horrific as it is, offers us the opportunity to better understand the extraordinary mental stress and strains that health care providers are dealing with right now," Smith says. "With that understanding, perhaps we can develop ways to mitigate these problems and help health care workers and emergency responders better cope with these sorts of challenges in the future."

Read this article on Science Daily: Dr. Smith, Hannah M. Wright, Tiffany M. Love, and Scott A. Langenecker of University of Utah Health contributed to this study. The study, "Pandemic-related mental health risk among front line personnel," was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.


Teletherapy – Online Video Counseling Services

Short-term sessions, single sessions or ongoing support

Contact Dr. Holland to learn more and to schedule an appointment or call 707-479-2946.

Pandemic Taking a Toll on Mental Health and Addictions

COVID Presents Increased Risk of Addiction for Unusual Groups

The pandemic’s effect on addiction has become a hot topic for researchers and mental health specialists alike. "The COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly grave risk to the millions of Americans with opioid use disorder, who—already vulnerable and marginalized—are heavily dependent on face-to-face health care delivery," researchers stated in "An Epidemic in the Midst of a Pandemic: Opioid Use Disorder and COVID-19," a recent study that examined the effects of the unprecedented situation.

In addition to those wrestling with addiction even before the pandemic created challenges in receiving care, it is now being reported that everyone from retired baby boomers with no preexisting addictions to millennials struggling with job loss and COVID related family challenges are now finding it harder to put a limit on emotion-numbing substances.  According to national surveys alcohol sales are up 250 percent, a trend that is compounding both emerging and preexisting mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, and depression.

“In my practice I have been working with a lot of people during quarantine around addiction,” explains Dr. Jenny Holland, PsyD. “The longer COVID restrictions continue, the more potential there is for temporary behaviors based on escaping emotional turmoil to turn into full blown addictions.”

Addiction is not always about drugs, alcohol, or other substances. It can also take on forms including uncontrolled gambling, shopping, gaming, smoking, food, and sex addiction. When these activities become compulsive or unstoppable, they have essentially hijacked the brain’s otherwise 'normal' pleasure functions. At this point, when a behavior becomes a habit or addiction, getting back to ‘normal’ or getting control over compulsions can be a challenge for most anyone.

The Toll of Long-Term Use

Addiction is defined by the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) as a brain disease indicated by cravings, an inability to abstain from the behavior or substance, dysfunctional emotional responses, and a loss of behavioral control. Compulsive behaviors are often unconscious and can result in making questionable choices. Although breaking an addiction is tough, it can be done. The sooner it is addressed, the better the chances are for recovery.

With any addiction, the recognition that something that may have started out as a distraction has now become a problem is the first step on the road to recovery. While denial over the loss of control that leads to addiction may be a way of coping with sudden changes in behavior, knowing when to seek help is key to recovery.

Healthy alternatives to addictive behavior

“My job as a mental health professional is to help my patients restore balance by guiding them toward healthier coping mechanisms,” explains Dr. Holland. “The focus of addiction therapy in my practice highlights how attachment and connection is the opposite of addiction.”

Treatment also incorporates behavioral therapies, counseling, and other supportive measures to build new and improved habits and life skills. Through this process stress and anger management as well as communication skills are combined with relapse prevention tools to create new coping mechanisms that support well-being.

As a highly qualified drug and alcohol counselor, Dr. Holland provides the most effective treatments for managing compulsive behaviors and addictions and offers individualized therapy to address the unique behaviors that the client may want to change.

Teletherapy – Online Video Counseling Services

Short-term sessions, single sessions or ongoing support

It’s no question that these are very trying times for all of us, so I want to let you know that you are not alone. No matter what is coming up for you right now it is important to allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. I invite you reach out to me to see how we can start getting you on the path to feeling better now.

Contact Dr. Holland to learn more and to schedule an appointment or call 707-479-2946.