Jan 09

Spirituality is good for the brain!

WexlerPsychiatryWinter
by Dr. Micaela Wexler

Turns out that religion and spirituality are good for the brain! A strong connection to spirituality actually makes the brain tissue itself stronger.

For years, psychiatrists have known that religion and spirituality protect against depression. Studies have shown up to a 90% decreased risk of depression in people who had a strong religious or spiritual connection.

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2011 showed that having strong religious or spiritual beliefs prevented a recurrence of depression. In this study, led by Lisa Miller, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College, assessed the influence that a strong connection to religion or spirituality had on the mental health of 114 adult children of both depressed parents and non-depressed parents. The study found that those who reported a high personal attachment to religion or spirituality had only a one fourth risk of experiencing depression as those who did not.

WexlerSpritualBrainReligion and spirituality also protected those with a family history of depression. For people whose parents had depression, a strong attachment to religion or spirituality reduced their risk of experiencing depression to just one tenth.

It turns out that a connection to religion or spirituality actually affects brain tissue.

In a new study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, a strong attachment with religion or spirituality was associated with thicker cortices in multiple brain regions. Thicker brain cortices are associated with decreased risk of developing depression. Depression has been found to cause the brain cortices to thin. The theory is that if they are thicker to begin with, they are less likely to thin to a level that causes depression.

WexlerPrayDepressionAwayYou don’t need organized religion. The same studies showed no correlation between frequency of attendance and protection against depression. Nor did they find any particular denomination offered increased protection. In other words, it was the connection to spirituality or religion that offered protection rather than level of participation in an organized religion. What this means for you is that to protect yourself against depression, you just have to find your own spiritual path. So pray your depression away in whatever manner suits you. Your brain will thank you.

Jan 05

When you lose a parent to suicide

PeaceWinter2By Dr. Micaela Wexler
The loss of a parent is devastating for any adult. As a psychiatrist, it is one of the most painful transitions I encounter. Your status in the world is dramatically changed. Immediately upon the death of your parent, you are plunged into a sea of nostalgia, and it is easy to feel unmoored. You are no longer being tugged by the larger vessel that guided you your entire life. Now YOU are that vessel that will have to take the lead. It is a transition that we all anticipate but for which we can never truly be prepared.

When the death is due to suicide, it is not a transition; it is a calamity. While an accidental death brings shock and denial, death from suicide generates horror, anger, guilt, confusion and shame. Add to this the fact that there is still a great deal of stigma about suicide, which can become a significant obstacle to getting help. This is most likely why people who have lost a parent to suicide are at increased risk for committing suicide themselves: the feelings are overwhelming and it is difficult to know where to turn.

It is natural to turn to family members for help. They are the ones who knew your parent best, they have been part of your entire life, and there is no need to overcome the stigma of suicide with them. However, they are not the best choice in the immediate aftermath for the simple reason too have suffered a tragedy and are devastated, and therefore unable to offer much support.
This is a time when psychiatric or mental health care is absolutely essential.

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are well aware of the magnitude of this event, and will treat it with the urgency it requires. Besides needing someone with whom to talk, chances are that the suicide has caused enough of a physiological shock that you also need at least a short course of pharmacological assistance until you start your recovery. A psychiatrist or therapist can assist you in this manner safely. (A therapist will refer you to a physician if you need medication.)

It’s difficult to think while in such a state of shock, so I have provided the following advice and information.

First, call your primary care physician and ask for a referral.

If that doesn’t work, call your local emergency room. They will give you the number to local resources.

If you feel utterly incapable of doing either of the two previous items, then you need emergency care. Call 911.

If you have a family member who has become non-functional due to a family member’s suicide, do not put yourself in the position of being their main support. This is risky for both of you, especially if you were also affected by the suicide.

Helping someone else before you have coped with your own feelings is simply a bad idea. You are very likely to bury your own feelings while giving someone inadequate care.

If you and your loved one were both hit by a car while crossing the street, no one would expect you to become the primary care provider. With a family suicide, you are even more incapacitated than you would be if you were hit by a car.

So, in the aftermath of a family suicide, get a psychiatrist or therapist to help you and your family.

For more information, please visit my post on losing a loved one to suicide.

Jan 01

More suicides during the holidays?

PeaceWinter2By Dr. Micaela Wexler

Holidays are associated with a higher suicide rate. Is this true? It turns out that this is largely a myth. As a psychiatrist, I can tell you that suicides are actually pretty low in December, compared to other months. Spring and fall are the seasons which have larger numbers of suicides.

The reason for this myth is most likely due to greater impact on families and friends when a suicide occurs during a holiday season. If a family member commits suicide on Christmas Day, for example, that holiday is forever marked for the family.

Despite this myth it is important to remember that people DO commit suicide during the holidays, and people with addiction disorders are at increased risk. Suicide is just as fatal, no matter when it happens.

Preventing suicide is a good New Year’s Resolution.

Start by learning the warning signs for suicide. An easy mnemonic has been developed by the American Association of Suicidology: IS PATH WARM (Ideation, Substance Abuse, Purposelessness, Anxiety, Trapped, Hopelessness, Withdrawal, Anger, Recklessness, Mood Swings). Students should know where to turn for immediate help if they suspect a fellow student is suicidal.

If you are wishing you were dead yourself, you must get help immediately. Call 911 if you don’t know what to do. Or, call one of the following numbers:
1-800-SUICIDE
1-800-273-TALK

If you just need someone to talk to, you should also call those numbers. They can point you to resources in your area.

Websites where you can go for help:

www.suicidology.org – American Association of Suicidology – has a section for survivors

allianceofhope.org - provides an online support group. They have different forums for the different types of survivors, ie parents, children, co-workers.

www.suicide.org – a list of resources for those at risk as well as resources for those who have lost a loved one to suicide.

www.suicide.com – created by a suicide attempt survivor to help people who are suicidal

attemptsurvivors.com – a good blog to help understand the WHY behind suicide, blog posts written by people who have survived a suicide attempt

No Time To Say Good-bye, surviving the suicide of a loved one, by Carla Fine – carlafine.com – the best book on this subject which I have read

And, a reminder: if you need IMMEDIATE help, call 911.

Dec 10

When you call a girl a slut

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
When I say “girl,” I am talking about females who have not yet reached adulthood. Girls start being subjected to this abuse starting at the age of 10, if not earlier. By “slut,” I am not just referring to the actual word, but also to any language that shames a girl for expressing her sexuality. And, when I say “you,” I am limiting myself to the adults in girls’ lives who do this who are supposed to be supporting and nurturing these girls: parents, step parents, parents’ girlfriends, aunts, older sisters, teachers, neighbors.

This behavior is so wide spread that a word defining this behavior is now part of our lexicon: slut-shaming. Slut-shaming is defined as “publicly or privately insulting a woman because she expressed her sexuality in a way that does not conform with patriarchal expectations for women.” As a child psychiatrist, I hear slut-shaming several times a day. And, sadly, it is usually women who engage in this behavior. Examples I have heard include:

- a teacher I spoke to about a bullying incident said, of the 12 year old in question, “excuse my language, but if she didn’t dress like a slut . . . ”
- a woman, speaking about her stepdaughter: “she is 15, and she’s already a slut”
- another stepmother, speaking of her husband’s 14 year old daughter, “she goes prancing out the door with skirts up to here, make up that makes her look cheap, to hang out with a bunch of kids to do who-knows-what. I don’t like that sort of behavior around my 12 year old son. You should see how he looks at her. I wish she would just go away.”
- a woman whose boyfriend has a 16 year old: “instead of making her babysit (their one year old), he let her go out with her friends. All she does is go out and screw everyone she sees.”

The implications behind this slut-shaming behavior is that these girls are unworthy of our love, support and protection. In each of these examples, the girls’ behavior was being used as a rationale for not considering her needs. In the first example, the teacher is absolving herself of any responsibility for protecting a 12 year old girl because of how she DRESSES. The other examples all involve stepchildren. So, not only do the girls in question have to suffer the calamity of their parents’ divorce, but they now have a new slut-shaming person in their lives.

In every single example, the needs of the girls are completely ignored. The 14 year old girl mentioned above is entitled to safety in her own home regardless of how she dresses. The 12 year old son would benefit from being taught to respect females rather than watching the behavior that is undoubtedly being demonstrated. If it really is true that the 16 year old is “screwing everyone she sees,” that is a tragedy, not an opportunity for derision.

As a child psychiatrist, I have to think that the women in these slut-shaming examples, and others like them, do not truly wish these girls harm. The teacher chose a helping profession and has dedicated several years to serving middle school children. All the mothers in these examples are incredibly nurturing to their own children.

So, why do you do this? One reason, in my opinion, is that you are truly overwhelmed by the daunting task of shepherding girls through these turbulent years. Raising teenagers, both boys and girls, has become very complicated. Families face constant intrusion from the world at large, through the media, social media, as well as from economic pressures that expose families to risky situations. Many of you are the products of a society that gave you negative images and limited opportunities. You live in a world that offers your family very little support.

I have to believe, also, that you are unaware of the damage this behavior causes. Slut-shaming causes deep, long lasting damage to a girl’s self perception. When girls are slut-shamed by the adults in their lives, they are shunned, isolated, left to navigate the dangerous waters of the teenage world alone, without protection, information and support. This places boys at risk, as well. Slut shaming leaves boys without any meaningful tools they can use in communicating with girls. They are being asked to view potential friends and romantic partners in a negative, one dimensional fashion which ignores who they are as people.

When we make negative comments about how a girl dresses, we are are objectifying that girl, and teaching her, and her male peers, that her value is based on how she looks. Whenever we slut-shame, we make it harder for these girls to defend themselves against rape, child molestation and relationship abuse. We also make it difficult for these girls to develop a healthy sexual identity. Some girls react by exaggerating this behavior. Other girls react by shutting down their sexual side, acquiring negative attitudes about their sexual feelings.
By slut-shaming, you are adding to the turbulence all teenagers face. Since I know that this is not at all your intention, I ask, for the sake of all teenagers, that you examine this behavior and why you engage in it. Next time you get the urge to do this, instead find out what the girl’s behavior means about how she feels as a person. Reach out to her and help her navigate the treacherous waters she and all teenagers find themselves in.

Nov 27

Genital warts: what to tell your teenager

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
One wouldn’t expect a child psychiatrist to be writing about this, but it turns out a common source of severe anxiety for teenagers is discovery of a sexually transmitted infection. Genital warts is one such infection, which is poorly understood by teenagers. Once they have it, they hear just two things: 1) it’s forever; 2) it’s transmittable. In most cases, no one has ever sat down and had an in depth discussion with them about genital warts.

First, parents always want to know: HOW do you talk to your teenager about GENITAL WARTS?

Here’s a way I know of that has worked for parents. This is the phrase that you can use for just about anything:
“This may not ever happen to you, but I was reading an article about it, and I want you to be prepared if it does happen to you, or if it happens to anyone you know.”

Practice saying that to yourself, and then practice saying that phrase to your teenager. Start by using it for a topic that isn’t so sensitive, like, how to avoid being pick-pocketed. You can then segue to topics about health, like, how to treat a urinary tract infection, how to avoid constipation, all the way to talking about sex.

Once you’ve used it a few times on these less sensitive subjects, don’t waste your currency. Dive in and use it before it “expires.” You can say, “now that we’re on the topic of things I’ve read about, what do you know about genital warts?”

Here’s the skinny on genital warts.

Genital warts are warts that are located near or in the genital areas. In a female, that means on or near the vulva (the outside genital area), vagina, cervix, or anus. In a male, that means near or on the penis, scrotum, or anus. They look like bumps or growths. They can be flat or raised, single or many, small or large. They tend to be whitish or flesh colored. They do not cause pain. They do not drain or ooze.

Genital warts are caused by a type of virus, the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). There are 100’s of types of HPV warts, and they infect multiple parts of the body. Some types of HPV cause plantar warts, which appear on the bottom of one’s foot. Other types infect the genital area, and a smaller subset of those can cause cancer.

Typically, a wart will show up between three weeks to six months after exposure. Sometimes warts can take even longer, up to years, to appear; the virus can live in the body for a very long time without causing any symptoms. This makes it difficult to know who gave you HPV.

Because warts are caused by a virus, they need to INCUBATE in order to cause a visual wart. In simple terms, what this means is that the virus needs to take over the cell’s genetic machinery, and then change those cells to become cells that look like warts. This takes time; it doesn’t happen in just a few days. And, while the virus is going through all the steps of creating a wart, our body’s immune system is fighting the virus at each step. So, if a person is healthy with a good immune system and living a stress free life, the body could potentially fight off HPV enough to keep a wart from appearing.
To better understand this, think about chicken pox, which is also caused by a virus which causes skin eruptions. The chicken pox virus is much stronger than the HPV virus: no matter how healthy and stress free you are, you’re going to get skin eruptions after being exposed (unless you have been vaccinated). Chicken pox requires at least 10 days to incubate and cause skin eruptions, ie, it takes at least that long after exposure to get the chicken pox rash.

How contagious are warts?

HPV transmission can be complicated. If you have a wart, or a lesion, then you are very contagious. For women, this can be a problem, because they could potentially have an eruption on a part of the body they can not see, like the vaginal canal, and not even know they have HPV. The male sexual partner could then get the virus on his penis, and then give that virus to another female, and SHE could get HPV. All of this could happen without anyone knowing anyone has HPV. This complicated transmission is a strong case for using condoms. However, condoms are not 100 per cent protective, because a male could have a virus on his scrotum and transmit it to a woman’s vulva.

How dangerous are genital warts?

Some types of HPV can cause cancer. In women, they can cause anal or cervical cancer. In men, they can cause penile cancer. For this reason, they should not be ignored. Because of the complicated transmission described above, ALL women are advised to get annual pap smears. (Pap is short for papilloma.) Men should examine their genital area on a regular basis, including the penis, the scrotum and the anal regions. If they see or feel a lesion, they should have it looked at by a doctor. Some physicians provide “anal pap smears” for people who have engaged in receptive anal sex.

How can genital warts be prevented?

The only 100 per cent way to prevent genital warts is to abstain from all sexual activity. For many people, especially married people, this is highly impractical. There are ways to reduce the risk of genital warts: 1) use condoms; 2) get the Gardisil vaccine; 3) know your sexual partner well enough to examine the genital area; 4) get annual pap smears; 4) let your partner know you have “tested positive in the past for HPV.”

The last one is important. Many teenagers will neglect to tell their partners out of fear that they will be ostracized, or accused of intentionally spreading STDs. However, saying “I have tested positive for HPV” is clinically no different than saying “I have genital warts,” but much easier to get out of your month. If teenagers are informed with the knowledge in this article, they can at least have the proper “ammo” to disclose this important information.

Click here for more information on genital warts.

Nov 14

Is your depression keeping you from losing weight?

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
If you are having trouble losing weight, it could be due to depression. As a family psychiatrist, this link is very obvious to me, but not to my patients. Studies show that depression and obesity are linked to each other. A meta analysis study published in JAMA in March 2010 shows a that depression can lead to obesity and obesity can lead to depression. (1) A study of Dutch teenagers, published in Obesity in March 2010, showed a clear association between weight status and suicidal behavior in obese adolescents. (2) The same link was found in a later study done on Korean teenagers. (3)
Depression causes physical changes which affect interest, sleep, appetite, sexual drive, and thought processes. Some types of depression cause people to eat and sleep more than normal. If you are having trouble finding the willpower to exercise it might be due to decreased motivation, which might be due to depression.

Are you finding it hard to lose weight even though you are exercising and sticking to your diet? This could also be due to depression because depression makes the body’s metabolism change. When a person is depressed chemical changes take place that make it harder to lose weight. Some of these changes can cause weight gain and fatigue.

Depression can also cause a change in eating patterns. The chemical imbalances caused by depression make it harder for people to connect hunger with food intake, which is why some depressed people eat even when they are not hungry. Or, they are hungry even after eating.

It is easy to blame your weight on lack of willpower. But, if you are having trouble losing weight, it is important to make sure you are not depressed. Besides causing weight gain, untreated depression can cause more serious problems like diabetes, heart disease, and suicide. And, studies show that treating depression leads to weight loss.

Do you feel sad or hopeless? Are you having trouble sleeping? Have you lost interest in things like hobbies or TV shows or fun activities? Do you have trouble motivating yourself to do things? Are you short-tempered? Do you have negative thoughts about yourself? All of these are signs that you might be depressed.

If you’re having any of these signs, go see a therapist or a doctor or call your local mental health center. Start treating your depression so it doesn’t keep you from losing weight.

1) Overweight, Obesity, and Depression
A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Studies FREE
Floriana S. Luppino, MD; Leonore M. de Wit, MS; Paul F. Bouvy, MD, PhD; Theo Stijnen, PhD; Pim Cuijpers, PhD; Brenda W. J. H. Penninx, PhD; Frans G. Zitman, MD, PhD

2) Weight status, psychological health, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in Dutch adolescents: results from the 2003 E-MOVO project.
van Wijnen LG, Boluijt PR, Hoeven-Mulder HB, Bemelmans WJ, Wendel-Vos GC.

3) The relationship of weight-related attitudes with suicidal behaviors in Korean adolescents. Kim JS, Lee K. Department of Family Medicine, Busan Paik Hospital, Inje University College of Medicine, Busan, South Korea.

4) Pagoto S, Schneider KL, Whited MC, et al. Randomized controlled trial of behavioral treatment for comorbid obesity and depression in women: the Be Active Trial. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013 Mar 5. [Epub ahead of print]

Oct 05

College students and mental health

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
As a family psychiatrist, I have noticed this is the time of the semester when college students first face mental health challenges. These can include issues like homesickness, anxiety about exams, alcohol abuse, difficulty with focus and concentration, romantic break ups, roommate conflicts, insomnia and time management challenges. Though these are common, and not considered serious, they can interfere with a student’s progress. These issues are easily treated, and should be addressed by students and the people in charge of supporting them.

The mental stress that is part of the college experience can trigger episodes of serious mental disorders. It is at this time of the semester, when first exam grades have been posted and class withdrawal deadlines are approaching that students with issues like bipolar mood disorder, eating disorders, severe OCD, or more rarely, psychoses or delusional disorders are especially overwhelmed. A significant number of people with these disorders are not diagnosed until early adulthood, so if they are in college when the first episode occurs, they usually find themselves alone, without psychiatric care.

It has become routine on college campus for a review of mental health services to be part of new student orientation. Many colleges offer a number of free counseling sessions to every student. However, when students are faced with an actual mental health crises, their thinking process tends to be derailed and they don’t always know what do to. The most frustrating aspect of mental health care is that oftentimes, even people with severe mental illness may fail to recognize they are at risk and need help.

College students can play an important role when it comes to mental health by being attentive to their peers. Students should trust their instincts and take action when they sense a fellow student is under mental duress.

All students should know the warning signs for suicide. An easy mnemonic has been developed by the American Association of Suicidology: IS PATH WARM (Ideation, Substance Abuse, Purposelessness, Anxiety, Trapped, Hopelessness, Withdrawal, Anger, Recklessness, Mood Swings). Students should know where to turn for immediate help if they suspect a fellow student is suicidal.

Students do not need to sense a problem is as serious as suicide to take action. If a fellow student seems down, or has stopped eating, is losing or gaining weight rapidly, or getting intoxicated frequently, that person may need help. Help can take many forms. A student could ask a peer directly, “are you ok?” If that feels awkward, a student could bring up the topic in a general way, ie, by talking about something they heard in class, or on the news, ie, “I heard that severe stress in college can trigger (an eating disorder, a drinking problem, severe OCD, hearing voices). What do you think?”

Or, a student could say to a peer, “you have seemed really worried lately. Would you like to talk about it?”

A student should not take it upon themselves to be the sole source of support for a student in need. Before approaching the student in need, a college student should speak to a professor, resident assistant, a mental health provider, just in case the situation is more serious. This can easily be done in a way that protects the other student’s privacy and dignity.

On the other hand, talking with other students about the student having problems without ever offering support to the person who is depressed or behaving erratically is not only unkind, but potentially dangerous. There is still a great deal of stigma regarding mental health issues, and contributing to this should NOT be part of the college experience. Nowadays there are effective treatments for even the most serious of mental health challenges. Taking positive action in the face of mental duress can be rewarding for college students. Preventing mental health tragedies is something which will enhance the college experience for everyone involved.

Sep 10

“Suicide prevention starts with you.”

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
Whenever I say this to people, they think I mean for them to help prevent suicide in other people. They immediately think about their families, friends, co-workers, children, spouses. In most cases, they are eager for tips on how to join in the fight to stop suicide.

“I mean YOU, specifically. Suicide prevention starts with YOU.”

Suicide is something that can happen to anyone. While we all need to help each other in preventing this tragedy, you can’t prevent someone else from committing suicide unless you prevent yourself from committing suicide.

“Well, that’s easy,” people tell me, “I don’t believe in suicide. Suicide is a selfish act; I would never do that to my loved ones.”

It turns out that people who commit suicide were once just like you: they didn’t believe in suicide. Like you, they had children, parents and friends. They loved them very much and did not want to hurt them. Just like you, they had religious beliefs that once gave them strength and comfort. They had goals and dreams and plans. They had crushes. They had love affairs. They had marriages.

So, to prevent suicide, you have to start by examining yourself.

Do you find yourself doing things you never did before like yelling at the grocery checkout person? Are you snapping at your husband? Does your best friend suddenly make you fly into a rage? Are you drinking more than you ever did? Are you in a financial crisis you feel you have no way out of?

Do you find yourself being careless about your safety: being less careful about locking doors at night; not slowing down for yellow lights; driving recklessly on the freeway?

Many people have these thoughts. That doesn’t mean you should ignore their seriousness. Letting thoughts like these pile up can put you on the road to developing a serious depressive episode. That is the most common reason for suicide.

If you are having these thoughts, then you are not taking care of yourself. You are not taking time to enjoy life. You are losing sight of your dreams and goals. Maybe you are not spending enough time with friends who appreciate you. Maybe you are working too much, at the expense of socializing and exercising.

You can do things immediately if any of these situations pertain to you. Right now, take a deep breath and think of something positive you will do for yourself TODAY. It can be something simple like taking a walk, calling a good friend, making plans to go watch a movie, buying yourself a new song, playing a computer game.

Look at your schedule and see what items are on it that make you feel good. How can you add more? You may not be able to get out of your financial crisis, but you can probably find someone to talk to, either about your problem, or something completely unrelated, to take your mind off your crisis.

If you are having the thoughts I’ve mentioned, this is a sign you need to find time to reflect on what is good about you and your life; you need to make it a DAILY practice; you need to refocus on your hopes and dreams. You need to reach out to loved ones, clergy, maybe a therapist, or the employee assistance program.

There are some thoughts that will require much more than than what you can do alone. There are thoughts that are a sign of something serious that needs immediate professional attention.

Do you feel you have no purpose in life? Do you feel completely hopeless? Do you ever find yourself having thoughts about what it would be like to be dead? Do you find yourself thinking that people would be better off without you in their lives? Do you find yourself going beyond simply not slowing down for yellow lights, and actually running red lights? Do find yourself wondering what it would be like to go toppling off the overpass? Do you notice you are preoccupied with the after life?

These are all thoughts that are a sign of serious suicide risk. Do not ignore this. There are several options for immediate help, from calling 911 and talking to the police, to calling 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-273-8255, 1-800-784-3433) or going to the emergency room. Either one of these options will lead to a trained professional who can help determine the type of help you need immediately.

Nine out of ten people who commit suicide had a diagnosable mental disorder. But, only THREE out of 10 people who die by suicide received mental health care in the year prior to their suicide.

So, start preventing suicide by taking a look at yourself. Because, trust me, we need you around.

Aug 18

Talk to your kids about sex (love)

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
Whenever I perform a psychiatric evuation on a new teenage patient, I always take a sexual history. In ideal situations, I am able to do this outside of the parents’ presence, and then bring it up again when the parents have re-entered the room. Sadly, the ideal situation is rare, as I tend to encounter a great deal of resistance from parents and teenagers alike.

Too often I find that my adolescent patients have never had an in depth discussion about sexuality with their parents. In the best case scenarios, they have been told about pregnancy and STDs, but usually sex has been presented as a a forbidden activity, with the emphasis on religious prohibitions, and it is obvious that the topic has been presented in an atmosphere of discomfort and embarrassment. There is rarely any discussion about relationships, intimacy, sexual expression, body image, masturbation and acceptable behavior. Parents seem to be oblivious to the fact that according to the Guttmacher Institute, 46% of teenagers age 14-19 report having had sex at least once.

Failing to talk to your teenager about sexuality puts him or her at grave risk for a variety of dangers ranging from the obvious – pregnancy – to others that are less obvious but potentially more life threatening, like depression and relationship abuse. Depression is the greatest risk factor for teenage suicide. Romantic break ups are a common trigger for depression in teenagers. Teenagers most at risk for depression following a relationship break up are those who have limited support and poor coping skills. Parental support is a potent protection against teen dating violence.

It is never too early to talk to your child about sex. Ideally, the “sex” talk should begin at birth. Use correct words for genitalia when changing diapers or giving your child a bath. Make positive statements about their body (and yours) throughout their childhood. Early childhood is when boundaries should be taught, that their private parts are their own and no one else should touch them. The same is true about other people’s private parts. Introduce the physiological aspects of sexuality in the elementary school years, with anatomy lessons, including the different processes that occur, such as hormonal and physical changes, pregnancy and orgasms.

I recommend that birth control and STD protection issues be brought up during elementary school years, even if you are a strong believer in abstinence before marriage. Hearing about both birth control and abstinence at the same time does not lead to children engaging in sexual activity earlier. Parents should remember that children hear alternative, even conflicting views about many topics in their lives. Presenting children with choices teaches them decision making skills.

Children are being exposed to sexual topics outside of the home at an earlier age, and they will be safer if they have heard about them from you. In addition, talking about birth control and STDs helps children open up about other sexuality related topics; they are less shy about sharing what they have been exposed to at school and in the media. Don’t be afraid of letting them know the meanings of words they hear, ie blow jobs, fuck, cunt, etc. These are valuable opportunities for parents to express their views on acceptable sexual behavior.

Explore your own thoughts and feelings about sexuality. If you are uncomfortable discussing the topic of sexuality, try to figure out why. Are you unhappy with your own sex life? Are you disappointed with the level of satisfaction you are achieving? Maybe you have a history of domestic abuse or childhood sexual abuse. Were you taught negative views about sexual expression during your own childhood? Or, perhaps you are mourning the loss of a relationship. Getting in touch with your own emotional feelings regarding your sexuality will help you address the emotional impact sexual expression has on your teenager.

Studies show that most parents do not discuss the emotional aspects of sexuality with their teenagers. They do not discuss intimacy, relationship conflicts and violence in relationships. Teenagers are left to navigate the confusing world of dating, relationship building, sexual expression without any skills and with no one to turn to when problems occur. Whether they are engaging in sexual activity or not, teenagers experience very strong emotions when it comes to relationships. Due to their raging hormones, every aspect of the relationship is magnified. This is a dangerous time to withdraw parental support.

Once you have talked to your child about all the concrete aspects of sexuality, you have set the groundwork to talk about the complex emotional issues surrounding sexual expression. It is important to approach the topic in a non- judgmental and non-threatening manner. Open the discussion by asking if their friends are in relationships. Rather than focusing on sex, focus on issues like trust, mutual respect, friendship and honesty. Guide your teenager through a relationship conflict. Be on the lookout for signs of teenage violence. Do not trivialize their feelings. Teach your teenagers that their sexuality is a gift that should be treasured, and that it should never be used to hurt them.

Jul 28

It’s not enough to just get up and move

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
Last month (June 2013) the American Medical Association voted to classify obesity as a disease, a decision which will hopefully lead to a more comprehensive view of this public health issue which affects one third of all Americans, instead of our current narrow focus. As a psychiatrist, it is difficult for me to stand by while the link between obesity and depression is ignored. In recent years, solutions have been focused almost exclusively on diet. Our simplistic view of obesity is evidenced by the widespread support for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. This campaign, and others like it are, at best, short sighted, and at worst, cruel and harmful, especially with regards to children and adolescents. While there is nothing wrong with promoting exercise and healthy eating, especially among young people, focusing solely on diet and exercise ignores other issues which need to be addressed in order to successfully treat this growing health crisis.
The most harmful aspect of these campaign is that it adds to the view that obesity is a moral failing, which contributes to an unhealthy treatment of people with weight issues. At the Building a Healthier Future Summit, this past March, Obama charmed her audience with the following, “We can’t lie around on the couch eating French fries and candy bars, and expect our kids to eat carrots and run around the block. But, too often, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
This view of people with obesity is not only demeaning, but flies in the face of research which shows obesity has many causes: genetics, hormonal influences, mental health status in addition to poor diet and exercise. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between maternal obesity and obesity in offspring. Children born to obese mothers start to have weight problems as early as toddlerhood. Once obesity has set in, hormonal and metabolic conditions in the body make weight loss challenging. Limiting focus to diet and exercise doesn’t take into account the many people who are getting up and moving, like families whose children are involved in sports, but who still find themselves battling obesity. Ignoring these various causes leads to ignoring potential solutions.
As a rural psychiatrist, I am confronted with the challenge of obesity, which is more widespread. A study done by Christie Befort, PhD, published in the fall 2012 issue of the Journal of Rural Health, shows that obesity is significantly higher for adults from rural areas of the United States. The study compared 7,325 urban adults with 1,490 rural adults, and found that after controlling for factors such as demographic, diet and physical activity variables, the obesity prevalence among rural adults was 39.6% versus 33.4% among urban adults.
Studies have established that obesity tends to cluster in families, in part due to genetics. For example, in 1990, a study published in the NEJM comparing the body mass index of identical and fraternal twins reared apart and reared together showed that genetic influences on body mass index are substantial. Although no single gene can account for obesity, as many as 50 genes have been found that are associated with obesity, affecting things such as metabolism, food cravings, fat accumulation and fat storage, to name a few.
The link between depression and obesity is well known in psychiatry. Ignoring this link is especially dangerous when it comes to children and adolescents. A meta analysis study published in JAMA in March 2010 shows a reciprocal link between obesity and depression, ie, depression can lead to obesity and vice versa. (1) A study of Dutch teenagers, published in Obesity in March 2010, showed a clear association between weight status and suicidal behavior in obese adolescents. (2) The same link was found in a later study done on Korean teenagers. (3)
A person who is depressed undergoes physiological changes which affect interest, sleep, appetite sexual drive and thought process. They most likely do not possess the motivation to “get up and move.” Changes in eating patterns, along with a disconnect between food intake and hunger are common in people with depression. Depression itself has been shown to cause weight gain and fatigue; metabolic changes that occur during depression make the body less responsive to diet and exercise. People with depression tend to lose their perspective when dealing with problems in their life. They tend to carry a great deal of shame, as do people with obesity.
As with obesity, the incidence of depression is significantly higher among rural residents than among urban residents. (4). This difference becomes more pronounced with regards to suicide, especially teen suicide. (5) Currently, in the rural setting, the stigma for mental illness is a major challenge in addressing the issue of depression. The same is true for obesity, with many obese people having internalized society’s view that people are that way because they are lazy. Perhaps with the AMA classification, people with obesity will feel more empowered to reach out for help. As the veil of shame is lifted on obesity, so may it also lift when it comes to depression. Addressing the link between depression and obesity will go a long way in decreasing morbidity and mortality among our youth. Then maybe it won’t be so hard for people to get up and move.

1) Overweight, Obesity, and Depression
A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Longitudinal Studies FREE
Floriana S. Luppino, MD; Leonore M. de Wit, MS; Paul F. Bouvy, MD, PhD; Theo Stijnen, PhD; Pim Cuijpers, PhD; Brenda W. J. H. Penninx, PhD; Frans G. Zitman, MD, PhD

2) Weight status, psychological health, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts in Dutch adolescents: results from the 2003 E-MOVO project.
van Wijnen LG, Boluijt PR, Hoeven-Mulder HB, Bemelmans WJ, Wendel-Vos GC.

3) The relationship of weight-related attitudes with suicidal behaviors in Korean adolescents. Kim JS, Lee K. Department of Family Medicine, Busan Paik Hospital, Inje University College of Medicine, Busan, South Korea.

4) Rural-urban differences in depression prevalence: implications for family medicine.
Probst JC, Laditka SB, Moore CG, Harun N, Powell MP, Baxley EG.
South Carolina Rural Health Research Center, University of South Carolina, 220 Stoneridge Drive, Columbia, SC 29210, USA. jprobst@gwm.sc.edu
Fam Med. 2006 Oct;38(9):653-60.

5) A review of the literature on rural suicide