Mar 04

SAD? Or just blue?

PeaceWinter2By Dr. Micaela Wexler

Are you feeling the post-holiday let down? After all the parties are over and the guests have left, many people feel anxiety, disappointment and depression. That is normal.

However, if you are feeling depressed, tired, weak, achy or ANGRY, you might be SAD
The “winter blues” might be something more: you might have SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a type of depression that occurs every year during the winter months. It’s not just the “winter blues,” which is a feeling of mild disappointment and irritation most people get as they cope with the challenges of winter.

How do you know if you’re SAD and not just blue?
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People with SAD feel the following:
- worthless, guilty, tense
- fatigue
- down and depressed
- arms and legs feel heavy, achy
- increased headaches
- irritable
- worried, increased checking behavior
- indecisive
- increased urination, heart palpitations, stomach aches
- difficulty focusing
- suspicious, paranoid, think co-workers don’t like them
- increased difficulty starting the day
- increased insomnia

These symptoms go on for at least two weeks at a time and can recur. They start in late fall and fade away in early spring.

It isn’t in your head. Well, actually, it is: it is caused by your hypothalamus, a part of your brain, secreting more melatonin when your eyes are exposed to less sunshine. So, if you’re having insomnia, don’t take melatonin. When light hits are eyes, melatonin starts to go down.

There is also a decrease in serotonin caused by a decrease in physical activity. An additional contributing factor is the disruption of your circadian rhythms by the change in weather, shorter days and change in routine. Many people first notice these symptoms following the time change.

SadWomanWexlerPsychiatryWomen are at higher risk, as are people with a family history of depression. Living far from the equator doesn’t help.

There are some dangerous symptoms you should not ignore:
- feeling suicidal, or feeling that life just doesn’t matter – get help right away
- irritability leading to behavior that is out of character: yelling at co-workers, engaging in physical fights or road rage
- social isolation that is out of character – missing the company holiday party even though you are known as a social person, for example

Why you shouldn’t ignore it:

- Decreased focus can lead to problems with work, increased debt, child neglect
- SAD can become major depression
- suspicious thoughts can cause irreparable harm: premature termination of a job or relationship. Many people file for divorce during these months.
- your immune system can become depressed

Treatment is easy and effective
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- Increase physical activity – increases serotonin levels
- Watch your diet: beware of giving in to carb craving; eat more nuts and fruits – maybe this is why fruitcake is a traditional fruit at this time of year
- Eat more walnuts – have been shown to help make you less SAD
- Make home brighter
- Bundle up and step outside – nothing makes your home feel warmer than stepping in from the cold
- Light box therapy
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Does light therapy work?

Yes. it is supported by at least two meta-analyses. It also works for non-seasonal depression. Most companies will your refund money in 30 days if symptoms don’t decrease.

What type of light works?

Bright sunshine in the morning works best – not available in the winter time
10,000 lux for 30 minutes
5,000 lux for 60 minutes

Light boxes – what to look for:

- beware of blue light – not proven to be effective, may cause macular degeneration
- light must shine in your face
- 10,000 lux – 30 minutes
- research shows the bigger the better, less lux requires longer exposure

Look at lux distance
- 22 inches: normal distance from computer when working
- 28 inches: distance from computer when you lean back in the chair

Dawn stimulators:
- require longer exposure
- effective – eyes more sensitive in the morning
- help reset sleep-wake cycle
- convenient – can use in bedroom

And, I can’t stress this enough, if you feel suicidal, please call 911 or go to the emergency room.

Early diagnosis beneficial in AD
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Appointment information for Dr. Micaela Wexler: wexlerpsych.com

Jan 15

Want to lose weight? SLEEP!

BabySleepBy Dr. Micaela Wexler

Are you overweight? Are you getting enough sleep?

As I was getting ready to plan my New Year weight loss strategy, I was thrilled when I entered the words sleep and obesity in Google and found countless articles showing that lack of sleep, as in less than seven hours a night, leads to increase in weight. Sleep has been shown to affect the level of the hunger inducing hormone leptin secretion in children, and there is no reason to believe the same doesn’t happen to adults; sleep deprivation causes the decision making center of our brain to become less active, and leads to junk food cravings; sleep deprivation leads to decreased energy and motivation, which results in decreased exercising; sleep loss has a negative impact on metabolism, increasing the risk of obesity and diabetes.
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So, if people want to lose weight, instead of starving themselves or hitting the gym, why don’t they just SLEEP more?

As a psychiatrist who listens to people complain of insomnia all day long, I can tell you it isn’t that easy. Many of my patients with sleep problems are also overweight.

Sometimes the reasons people aren’t sleeping are obvious: They have a small baby, they are depressed or anxious, they work nights, they are worried about debt or losing their jobs, they don’t have a job, they have a job but work too many hours (that would be me).

Other times, the reasons are obvious to me and not to them: they have relationship conflicts, they are fighting with or attracted to someone at work, they are watching TV right at bedtime, they are sleeping with smart phones next to their heads and texting and posting all through the night. Some people just have bad sleep hygiene (again, that would be me).
MedicalIssuesInsomnia
Then there are the people with chronic insomnia who have medical issues preventing sleep, such as chronic pain, restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, post traumatic stress disorder, severe mental illness, to name just a few.

So, if you aren’t getting enough sleep, you first need to rule out any medical issues. A medical sleep evaluation includes a physical exam, a medical history, a sleep history and a screening for depression or anxiety.

There are some things you can do in addition to your medical evaluation. Determine what your sleep hygiene is. Sleep hygiene consists of the activities you engage in during the two hours prior to bed time. Do you “work ’til you drop (like I do)? That will keep you up at night. You need to spend those two hours before bed time slowing things down. Don’t expect to fall asleep until at least two hours after you have stopped working. Find relaxing activities to do during that time, such as some stretching exercises followed by a bath. Get your clothes ready for tomorrow, regardless of whether or not you are planning on leaving the house. Plan what your day will be.
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Get yourself moving during the day. You can start with just 10 minutes of walking during lunch. You can also do a simple stretch or yoga routine before bed. Increasing your activity during the day will always lead to better sleep at night.

Anything you didn’t get done today, just put on the list for tomorrow. My feeling is this: if I didn’t get all my tasks done, it’s because I didn’t plan my day properly. Better luck tomorrow. I happen to work as a psychiatrist in a critically under served area, so I’m always going to have too much on my plate. That makes it easy for me to let myself off the hook, which I realize is not true for everyone.

Let’s say you’ve dutifully done your sleep hygiene and you STILL can’t sleep. Something that helps me is to keep a small notebook by my bed and write down the thoughts which are racing through my head. If I forget to put the notebook and pen under the pillow, then my toddler tears my thoughts to shreds the next morning, but, nothing is perfect. That usually means that since I didn’t see her sneak up and get it, then I did get to sleep.

I strongly recommend you use paper and pen rather than your smartphone. You will still be able to read it, even if you write in the dark. (Try it right now: close your eyes and write something with a pen.) And, your mind will be focused only on what you are writing, which is not possible with a smartphone.
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Writing these thoughts down will help you determine why you are not sleeping. You will be able to figure out if you have insomnia because you’re worried about work, or because you are depressed. If you find that you are writing thoughts that reflect hopelessness and doom, or that you are ruminating over the same things over and over again, or you have so many thoughts you can’t get them all written down, then you may need to see a psychiatrist or therapist. Or, both.

If I go too many nights in a row without writing in the dark at night, then I will do get insomnia again. Something that commonly happens to me when I write my thoughts down in the dark is that I dream solutions to my problems. Sometimes I dream that I forgot to put my notebook under my pillow again.
The bottom line is that we have an important weight losing tool at our disposal: sleep. Maybe I’m just lazy by nature, but the way I look at it, before I start starving myself or start killing myself in the gym to lose weight, I think I’m going to start with something a little bit easier: sleep.

Dr. Micaela Wexler also blogs on child psychiatry topics at kidpsychdoc.com.

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

Jul 14

How do I help my mom get over my brother’s suicide?

By Dr. Micaela Wexler
Sadly, as a rural psychiatrist, I have heard several versions of this question. Each time I have heard it, it has been a painful reminder that there really is not much support for families who have lost a loved one to suicide, especially in the rural setting.

When a family loses a loved one to suicide, each member experiences the trauma in their own way. The father might be numb, and in denial. The mother can be incapacitated by her guilt and loss, fearful of losing her remaining children. And, the siblings may be angry; I have heard more than one sibling express a common, and untrue myth about suicide: that the person was motivated by selfishness, and did it to intentionally hurt those left behind.

My patients who have lost a child to suicide are the most bewildered people I have encountered as a psychiatrist. I have tried to put myself in their shoes, and have found those attempts nothing short of overwhelming. I feel I would be pulverized if such an event happened in my life; I would not be able to keep from blaming myself. I don’t feel I would be able to continue living. These are the very thoughts that these parents have shared with me, in the immediate aftermath of a child’s suicide.

However, as a psychiatrist, I know that with the proper support, these thoughts will pass as the parents heal. I have watched parents survive this most horrible of events; I have been a witness as they have made the journey through their grief and learned to live again; I have watched as the healing allows them to eventually continue to advocate for their child by increasing society’s understanding of this monumental problem.

“Where did I go wrong?”
Parents feel a deep sense of guilt, both their own guilt and the guilt which society puts on parents. The guilt is incapacitating in those early days. Mothers will spend hours upon hours day after day trying to go over every single decision they have ever made regarding their child. They will reach far into their history, examining even the most trivial events. Their surviving children will have little patience for this, most likely because it is painful for them to see their parents punishing themselves. Or, they will feel resentful that so much attention is being given to the one child. Hearing their parents express this guilt makes surviving children even angrier at their siblings for doing something so “selfish.”

Surviving siblings are in need of support themselves, and will naturally turn to the people, their parents, they have always turned to first in times of great need, only to find these people completely unable to help them. In those early weeks, it would be ideal for siblings to turn to someone other than their parents for support, and for parents to find someone besides their surviving children with whom to share their grief. However, suicide carries such an immense stigma that it is rarely possible for families to do what is ideal. What happens instead is the surviving family members turn to the only people available, which can result in them further injuring themselves and each other.

“Why?!”
This is one of the most common questions a psychiatrist will hear. Parents will look for any clue possible to explain why their child did this. Their deep need to answer this question will cause them to overburden their surviving children, convinced they hold the key to this secret. This pushes the surviving children, who have not had time to process the loss themselves, to come up with an answer: selfishness. And, so one of the more destructive myths about suicide is given more life.

These families need to learn as much as possible about suicide, so they can understand the true causes, and stop blaming themselves. What I have learned as a child psychiatrist about suicide is that the “why” has nothing to do with selfishness, and everything to do with deep, emotional pain. Research on suicide has shown us that the person has to become sufficiently accustomed to pain to be able to consider something most of us would find too agonizing to carry out. This pain has many sources.

With time, parents will come to understand that they were not, could not, have been the source of so much pain. As a psychiatrist who provides emergency psychiatric care, I treat suicidal patients on a regular basis. What I often hear is that the parents are one of the few sources of comfort in their child’s life.

“What did I miss?”
Parents are convinced they should have seen the signs. Even parents who sought psychiatric help for their children for many years believe they should have been able to prevent their child’s suicide. This causes them to become frightened of “missing something again” with their other children.

Suicide is partly the result of irrational thinking, and this thinking leads children to believe they are causing too much suffering to their parents by being alive. Mental illness carries such a stigma that some people feel their parents are over burdened from having a mentally ill child, and will feel relieved when that child is gone. In their efforts to spare their parents more pain, these children will do everything they can to hide their plans, and their pain, from their parents. I have had suicidal patients in great emotional turmoil tell me they feel good only when they are with their parents, and will genuinely show no signs around them for this reason.

Another sentiment my suicidal patients express is a feeling they are a burden to their parents. This is especially true of gay teenagers who are not out to their parents: they feel they are too great a source of future pain to their parents, which contributes to their suicidal feelings.

With time, as they go through the grieving process, many parents come to understand that they truly were their child’s best, and many times only, advocate. Parents need the space and support, as well as knowledge about suicide, to make this important realization.

“They gave him everything they had.”
The financial toll on parents is a topic I have seen seldom mentioned among my psychiatric colleagues. The costs come from many sources. Chances are the family member lost to suicide was already receiving psychiatric care, placing a financial burden on the parents. The rescue attempt itself can result in astronomical medical costs, especially if the suicide is a teenager or young adult, since every effort will be made to save the patient.

In the case of one family I was familiar with, the suicide (which occurred years ago) took place by gunshot, in the home. That family faced costs in the clean up. The home lost value due to a suicide taking place there. This was compounded by the family’s inability to properly maintain the home during the grieving process. Most people who commit suicide have a compromised financial situation: they generally do not leave assets, many leave behind significant amounts of debt, and surprisingly few have insurance, including burial insurance. The parents are also left with one less child to share in the costs of their care in their later years.

If the surviving family members are able to heal and stay together, ie, adult children moving back in with parents, this has the potential to soften the financial blow. This is one of the advantages families in the rural setting do seem to have. The loss of value to the home will not be as relevant if they are all able to continue living in it for an extended amount of time. With time, they will form new memories in their home, and it will stop being a house where someone shot themselves and become, once again, a home where a family lived, and loved together.

Support in the form of therapy, education and medications, if needed, will go a long way in helping a family properly heal. This, unfortunately, is often in short supply in the rural setting. This is unfortunate because family members who have been given proper support and treatment are society’s greatest hope in helping to prevent future tragedies.

If you have lost a child to suicide, regardless of your child’s age, I highly recommend the following web site: childsuicide.org It is the best resource I have found online for parents dealing with this tragedy.