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Teenagers are going to love this finding – in a trial where school started half an hour later than usual, there was a decrease in self-reported depression and unhappiness. Apparently the ideal time for a teenager to get up is 8am, which often doesn’t allow teenagers enough time to get their sleep. So in order to see how teenagers would respond with more sleep in the morning, researchers in America examined what would happen if school opened at 8:30 instead of 8:00 over a three month period.  They found that as well as decreasing tiredness and lateness, the percentage of students reporting unhappiness and depression was decreased from 65% to 45%. Interestingly, students seemed to go to bed 15 minutes earlier.

I’m curious whether eventually the teenagers would get used the extra half hour, and want another half hour, which would start to get less feasible. But nonetheless, this research reminds us of the important link between sleeping well and mental health. If we’re not getting enough sleep this can negatively effect our wellbeing, so it is important to make sure we’re getting enough sleep to keep us healthy. Teenagers, if you’re not getting enough sleep, maybe you can use this research to try to convince your parents and school to let you sleep in for an extra half hour? Otherwise, you’re stuck in the same boat as the rest of us, and may have to try to get more sleep at the other end of the day.

After the previous post which touched on recreational drug use and depression, I thought this recent article from Reuters Health was particularly relevant. They report a study which showed a 50% increase in depression for those who had smoked pot before the age of 17. More research may be needed in order to make sure that smoking pot and depression weren’t the product of some other process, for example, the association between depression and smoking was decreased when childhood misconduct was taken into account. But nonetheless,   I’d err on the side of caution here, and try to avoid pot, especially if you’re depressed. Look at it this way; avoiding pot is looking unlikely to make depression worse. Recreational drug use may seem like a way to deal with issues now, but there are a number of better long term strategies.

I came across a recent video looking at anxiety and drugs by the makers of penny arcade. Penny arcade is a webcomic, mostly revolving around computer gaming. The authors, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik were recently named in the time 100. It’s a sizable video, so apologies for people on slower internet connections, but I found it to be a particularly interesting look at mental illness.

I liked their discussion of how mental illness can be unique. For them mental illness wasn’t about being boring, looking out of a window, seeing the world in bland colours, with nothing to look forward to. They make the point that people respond in different ways, and for them it was telling jokes, responding with humour. Those of you who have read the comic will be aware of Mike and Jerry’s unique sense of humour.

And related to this, they discuss the fear that medication would have caused them to their lose their creativity, their craziness, fearing that mental illness is what makes them have their ability to write webcomics. Mike tells us that he wouldn’t have stuck with anti-depressants if the drugs took away his creativity and made things different. But, as he found out, through drugs he could feel better, while still retaining his creativity, and was still able to ‘be crazy’.

Near the end there was an interesting discussion involving illegal drugs. Jerry saw illegal drugs as similar to medical drugs, and a legitimate way to deal with life, while Mike, having seen his brother overdose was opposed to illegal drugs. I tend to agree with Mike. People with mental illness sometimes self-medicate recreational drugs (including alcohol) because they seem to help in the short term. However, this can create a dependence on the substance, as the substance can quickly become all that the user knows that will make them feel better. Eventually substances need to be taken just to feel normal, which creates a whole other set of problems. Recreational drugs may seem to help in the short term, but it’s probably better to find a longer term solution to the problem.

Overall I found the video to be heartwarming, a frank and friendly discussion of a difficult topic. It was good to hear how they looked out for each other, and how they want to help others by sharing about a personal topic.

There’s quite a comprehensive article in the British newspaper, the independent, looking at a number of factors that make up a good diet. The article is quite comprehensive, so I’m not going to summarize it all, though to give you a taste of what it’s about, the subsections are as follows:

  • Follow a Mediterranean diet
  • Eat selenium
  • Watch your blood sugar
  • Boost your serotonin
  • Get plenty of fish
  • Eat up your greens
  • Drink lots of water
  • What to avoid: False pick-me-ups

If you’re interested in what effects your diet can have on your health, take a look at the article.

Anti-depressant drugs can be one way to deal with depression. One issue with anti-depressants is that there is not one anti-depressant that is effective for everyone. While many may find relief with the first anti-depressant, others need to ‘shop around’ for the right anti-depressant, and still others don’t find one that works for them. Add to this the delay – a number of weeks – between when anti-depressant therapy begins, and when you can tell if it effective, and the process can rather frustrating.

In the future this delay may be minimized. One article on psychcentral describes how brain waves were measured in a study to detect individuals responses to a couple of anti-depressants, with 74% accuracy, much higher than other methods. A recent article in the journal psychophamacology reports that fMRI – a technique using magnetic fields to examine which parts of the brain are active – can be used to predict how likely people with anxiety disorders are to respond to anti-depressants (anxiety disorders and depression are linked, so it’s thought fMRI could be used in a similar way with depression).

If such technologies became widespread it would make finding the right anti-depressant easier. But for now, we have to taking it one day at a time, making sure we have a healthy lifestyle and diet. And as always, it’s good to be supported, to have someone to go when you really need to.

I recently came across an article that highlights some misconceptions about depression. The story is basically this; a woman in the US is off work for depression, getting getting wages covered by an insurance company. But at some point, the insurance company looks at photo’s posted on Facebook, and it appears they decide she looks “too happy” to be depressed, and so they stop covering her, despite the fact she was doing the activities in the photos at the suggestion of her doctor.

Now, I’d be hesitant to make a judgment call about all of this on the basis of one article, but it does bring out some interesting issues.

For a start, it looks like the company may not have a clear understanding of what depression is. While ‘anhedonia’ – a diminished capacity to experience pleasure – is one of the symptoms of depression, there is a lot more to depression than ‘never going out and having fun’. People with depression may have more difficulty doing enjoyable things, and ‘having fun’ may be a part of recovery for some with depression, but to boil down depression to not looking happy – and specifically not having happy looking Facebook photos – is just crazy.

And I guess what is worries me about this story is that it looks like the insurance company is effectively discouraging proper recovery. One can imagine the poor woman struggling with depression, managing to find the energy to enjoy a few good evenings, and perhaps starting to feel like life is good. Suddenly in swoops an insurance company and ruins it all, and tells her to stop enjoying life, to stop doing what she needs to do to get through depression.

Of course, this is all based on a news report, and may be a little on the sensationalist side. However, this story highlights the importance of understanding depression – and an individual’s own experience – before anyone can decide whether someone fits their model of depression.

I recently read the book ‘The How of Happiness‘ by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The book shows some of what has been scientifically been shown to improve happiness. The book is primarily aimed at people without depression, but the author notes that while this book wouldn’t cure depression, people with depression can probably benefit from reading the book.

The main part of the book is divided up into a variety of exercises that one can do to improve one’s happiness, which I may go into a little in later posts, but for now I’m going to deal with the earlier section of the book, which deals with what it is that makes us happy, and what doesn’t make us happy (in the long term).

People, myself included, can be tempted think that our happiness depends on what happens to us. It comes down to the statement; “If … I’d be happy”. If I had a boy/girlfriend I’d be happy. If I was rich I’d be happy. If I was able to loose weight I’d be happy. If I got on with my family I’d be happy. You’ve probably heard other people express similar sentiments, and perhaps even thought such things yourself.

But Lyubomirsky argues that while happiness may be affected by our circumstances, only about 10% of our overall happiness is because of what happens to us. One reason for this is that changes in circumstances only make us happy for relatively short periods of time. While winning the lotto may make you euphoric in the short term, studies looking at lotto winners a year later have shown that a year later their happiness has returned to normal. Similar things have been shown with marriage, where happiness on the wedding day is rated highly, but happiness returns to normal after a couple of years.

A bigger factor in our happiness is how we deal with circumstances. How we deal with our circumstances accounts for four times as much happiness as the circumstances themselves. For instance, when something goes wrong, say we lose a job, we can treat this as the end of the world, or we can treat it as a difficulty, but one that can be overcome – we might be able to find a far better job, and it was time for a change anyway. Alternatively when something goes our way, when we find that better job, we can treat it as a one off event, the result of chance, or we can treat it as something to be celebrated, that shows that we have skills that an employer might want. Reframing activities, like as those used in CBT, are based on this idea.

How we deal with circumstances is quite a big topic, but the important thing to remember is that while our happiness may be affected by circumstances, our happiness is also affected by how we deal with circumstances. This means we don’t have to be victims of circumstance. When things don’t go our way, which they will, and we are going to feel a degree of unhappiness about them. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story – how we deal with circumstances has a big effect on how happy we’re going to be.

There’s a recent article on the bbc website on the ‘Mediterranean diet’, and depression. A recent study found evidence that those who are on a Mediterranean diet are 30% less likely to experience depression than those not on such a diet. The authors of the study state that more research is needed to confirm the results, but in the meantime this result reminds the importance of eating well. If you don’t eat well, your body isn’t going to be as healthy, and if your body isn’t healthy, it’s difficult to be mentally healthy. So with new years is looming, maybe it’s a good time to consider making a resolution to have a healthier diet?

If you’re looking at changing your diet, there are a number of approaches. The general rules are usually pretty well known; It’s important to get your fruit and vegetables (five plus a day!), and it’s usually a good idea to make sure we’re not eating too many calories, especially from animal fats (like KFC) or high glycemic index carbs (like white bread) – unless you’re an athlete, in which case you can eat a little more. It’s also nice to get some fish in your diet, as fish are a good source of omega-3s, and a good source of protein (especially for people who are uncomfortable eating other meats).

Now, looking the Mediterranean diet in particular, it emphasizes a couple of things:

  • High consumption of lots unsaturated fats (generally but not always plant fats), especially olive oil. This is in contrast to saturated (generally animal) fats.
  • High consumption of fruits and nuts, cereals, vegetables and fish
  • Medium consumption of alcohol (e.g. red wine) and dairy products. Personally, I’d exercise some caution with the alcohol, as a high consumption of alcohol is not a good thing for you physically or mentally  – Additionally, alcohol and anti-depressants are a bad combination, so if you’re on antidepressants, I’d be very cautious consuming any alcohol.
  • Low consumption of meat
So there you have it. The Mediterranean diet. If you’re looking to try something new, maybe try and put a bit of Mediterranean into your diet? Get a Mediterranean cookbook (or do a quick google search), and try out a few recipes. If you like a recipe / food that’s healthy, keep it, if you don’t like a recipe / food, look for another one. Make a few changes at a time and build yourself a healthier diet. It’s not going to solve all your problems, but it’s one step towards being healthier.

I know there’s a bit of a rivalry between us and the country across the ditch, but I came across this article in an Australian news paper. I don’t know much about Australian politics, or who Andrew Robb is, but it’s good to hear that he is speaking out about his depression. To use his words: “It’s much easier, I think, if those you love and you work with and your mates … they know about it and they can help you rather than you try and hide it and live a lie.”.

Sharing personal struggles can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding.

I came across an article talking about the benefits of yoga to depression and lower back pain, here. While the article doesn’t really talk much about how Yoga would help depression, I can think of a few reasons why yoga might be good for our mood:

  • Yoga is often done in groups, so you get some social contact. Sometimes we can find people annoying, and sometimes we just want to be alone, but other times it’s good to mix with people.
  • Practicing Yoga it is usually a calming and relaxing exercise, which directly makes us feel better. And most exercise is generally good for the body and the mind.
  • Doing new things often comes a self of self-accomplishment, it’s nice experiencing new things, and adding to our skills.

Come to think of it, part of the benefit is directly yoga, but part of it comes from just getting out there and being active. I wonder if anyone’s done any research on the beneficial effects of starting a new hobby? Whether it’s joining a social netball team, a dance class, or whatever, if it involves doing things with people, and trying out new things, it’s hard to see it not being helpful.

So, if you’re at a place where you have a lot of time on your hands, maybe you should think about getting out there and trying something new? It could be yoga, could be something else. Either way, it’s probably worth giving it a go.

September 2020