Depression: Physiological differences in teenage boys and girls

By the time they hit 15, teenage girls are twice as likely as teenage boys to suffer from depression.

This could be because girls tend to think more negatively, dwelling on social and body image stressors. They’re also more likely to have experienced sexual abuse and other negative events. On a biological level, their hormones fluctuate more and they’re more vulnerable to inflammation.

A group of scientists from the U.K. and the U.S. wanted to understand what was happening in the brains of depressed teenage boys versus depressed teenage girls. They hooked up both depressed and non-depressed boys and girls to fMRI equipment and gave them a task: Press a button when you see a happy word. Don’t press it when you see a sad word. (Such an activity puts something called cognitive control to the test. Impaired cognitive control has been associated with depression.) Then they watched what happened in the subjects’ brains.

To keep it simple, they saw differences between the sexes, specifically in the brain’s supramarginal gyrus (an area thought to be involved in emotional responses) and posterior cingulate (an area associated with control, awareness, and memory). When faced with a cognitive control task, there’s a lot less activation going on for males with depression compared to healthy males–depressed and healthy female brains were relatively similar in that situation.

So what does this new knowledge do for the study of depression? It emphasizes that teenage boys and teenage girls suffering from depression have different things going on in their brains. The way we treat –and try to prevent –the disorder should, therefore, be different.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

Probiotics to treat depression?

It’s not official yet, but a new study suggests taking probiotics could relieve symptoms of depression.

Remember several months ago, when I wrote about the relationship between your gut and your mental health? I recommended changing what you eat to develop a healthier gut. Well, this new study is along those same lines: Taking a probiotic to treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS–a gut affliction) can also treat depression and anxiety.

It was just a small study with 44 participants. Each had both IBS and mild to moderate anxiety or depression. Half the participants took a probiotic (Bifidobacterium longum NCC3001, to be specific), while half took a placebo.

In the end, 14 of the 22 probiotic takers reported improvement in their depression symptoms, compared to half that number in the placebo group.

The researchers took it further and scanned the participants’ brains: Those whose depression symptoms had improved also showed changes in areas of the brain associated with mood control.

We need to see a larger version of this study before we start jumping on board, but given the established connection between the gut and the brain, I think it’s a promising area of research.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

PTSD in children treatable with a few hours of therapy

A new study brings good news for young people who have suffered a traumatic experience: Children and adolescents with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can be successfully treated with just a few hours of therapy.

Researchers timed the therapy with a stop watch. They found that 2 hours and 20 minutes of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or 3 hours and 47 minutes of Cognitive Behavioral Writing Therapy were enough to reduce posttraumatic stress reactions, anxiety, depression, and behavioral problems for children between 8 and 18 years old.

And the results were lasting: A year later the children were still doing well.

While previous research has shown similar results for adults with PTSD, this is the first time these therapies have been demonstrated to be effective for children.

PTSD is relatively easy to treat, but it’s important to start as soon after the traumatic event as possible. Though only about 16 percent or less of children who have experienced a traumatic event develop the disorder, they should all be carefully screened for it.

Here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • Emotional numbing.
  • Avoidance of memories or situations that trigger memories of the event.
  • Flashbacks of the event.
  • Intrusive memories of the event.
  • Nightmares and night terrors.
  • Fears about death.
  • Worry.
  • Sadness.

Read more about childhood and adolescent PTSD here.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

Good relationship with dad can make all the difference to kids with depressed moms

In honor of Father’s Day, I wanted to highlight a study that shows the wonderful impact a good dad can have on his family.

This relates specifically to families with depressed mothers.

A study published last month detailed the depressed mom’s typical parenting style. She tends to be less sensitive to her child’s needs, and she acts intrusively by taking over when a child could be acting independently, disregarding the child in favor of her agenda. The children in these relationships show lower social engagement when interacting with their mothers.

The dads in these families tend to mimic the mom’s parenting style. The overall result is a family that doesn’t function as well as families with healthy mothers do. There’s less cohesion (emotional bonding), warmth, and expressiveness. There’s more conflict and affectionless control.

Here’s the good news: When a father is sensitive and nonintrusive and engages his children socially, the effects of the mother’s depression disappear. Families can be warm and cohesive despite the mother’s mental health.

So here’s to dads everywhere who are listening to their children, showing love, and making time for their families. You’re making a difference.

Go here to read more on the father’s impact on mental health.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

Lithium for depression: An oldie but a goodie

There are drugs far more fashionable than Lithium these days: Pharmaceutical companies pay their representatives big money to promote their latest offerings, both with mental health care providers and in advertising.

The thing is, I’m not convinced any new and fancy drug can beat tried and true Lithium in effectiveness.

John Cade, the psychiatrist who discovered Lithium’s effectiveness in treating mental health disorders.

Doctors started prescribing Lithium in the 1800s to treat gout, epilepsy, and cancer. In 1948, an Australian psychiatrist named John Cade stumbled upon its usefulness in treating mania. After testing it out on guinea pigs, who became quiet and relaxed with its injection, he took his experiment to the next level by taking Lithium himself for several weeks.

Once he determined it was safe, Cade administered the drug in liquid form to a psychotic man who had been living in a mental asylum for three decades. In three weeks, the patient began to show signs of improvement: He looked after himself, his speech slowed, and erratic behaviors decreased. At the end of two months, the man was released from the asylum and resumed normal life.

It was a game changer for psychiatry. It was one of the first success stories in using drugs to treat mental illness.

Almost 70 years later, those success stories continue — and not just with bipolar depression, its most famous application. It’s been shown to work extremely well with unipolar depression, too.

A recent Finnish study found taking Lithium significantly decreased hospital readmission for those who had previously been hospitalized for unipolar depression. Antidepressants and antipsychotic drugs lacked the same effect. Lithium alone was more effective than lithium in combination with another drug.

The study’s authors are recommending more research into Lithium as well as its wider use as treatment for depression.

Lithium does have a narrow window of effectiveness, so the dose must be carefully watched. Go here to read more about Lithium and its possible side effects.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

Instagram the worst social media platform for mental health

I’ve written before about how social media can be bad for your mental health, but let’s get site specific: Instagram is the worst of the bunch.

A new study surveyed 1,479 teens and young adults in the U.K., asking them about how social media affects them both positively and negatively. They asked about five sites in particular: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitter. Participants ranked how each site improved or worsened each of the following health factors:

  • understanding of other people’s health experiences
  • access to health information
  • emotional support
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • loneliness
  • sleep
  • self-expression
  • self-identity
  • body image
  • real world relationships
  • community building
  • bullying
  • fear of missing out (FoMO)

Adding the effects of all the factors together, YouTube was the only social media app to edge into the net positive range. Twitter was slightly negative, and Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram got progressively worse.

Instagram was found to help with self-expression, self-identity, community building, and a few others, but it had big negative impacts on sleep, body image, FoMO, and several other factors.

In response to their study, the Royal Society for Public Health and the Young Health Movement are calling for the following changes:

  • Introduction of a pop-up heavy usage warning on social media
  • Social media platforms to identify users who could be suffering from mental health problems by their posts, and discretely signpost to support
  • Social media platforms to highlight when photos of people have been digitally manipulated

There are already apps out there you can download that will allow you to set time alerts and scheduled breaks to help you control your social media usage– search your app store for “social media time limit” or something similar. Taking time out to do things that will actually improve your mental health rather than damage it could have a big impact!

To improve your experience within social media, consider unfollowing users who make you feel bad, especially those who post photoshopped images. There are also plenty of positive accounts out there. My favorite is Beauty Redefined,  which posts frequent reminders about what matters more than how your body looks.

Take a look at the study’s report (download here). It’s packed with interesting information and cool graphics.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

Rock climbing for depression

It’s well established that exercise is a great way to relieve depressive symptoms, but there might be some forms of exercise that are better than others. 

Take bouldering, for example. A recent study showed participating in the sport — which involves climbing rocks without ropes or harnesses — reduced depression symptoms from moderate severity to mild.

The study authors had some theories about why bouldering was so effective.

First, it’s a social activity, and depressed people often struggle with isolation. Second, it leads to immediate feelings of accomplishment, which is good for self esteem. Finally, it requires intense mental focus — it’s difficult to entertain negative or obsessive thoughts when you’re concentrating on not falling.

If you’re looking for a new way to get active, both socially and physically, consider trying bouldering. But there are plenty of other sports that would have similar effect — join a tennis league or hiking group, maybe. Whatever you’re drawn to, activities that combine social interaction and physical exertion are great for mental illness.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

PTSD tied to genetic vulnerability

You’ve probably noticed — not everyone who goes through a traumatic event experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Scientists have noticed, too, and they wondered why that is. After analyzing the DNA of 20,000 people, they found that genes are partially to blame for the difference.

To be more specific, 29 percent of the risk of developing PTSD after a traumatic event is explained by genes — at least among women. That’s on par with how much other mental illnesses have to do with genetics. For men, the tie is less significant.

Also, people at higher risk for developing mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are more likely to have a genetic vulnerability to PTSD.

Here’s what study author Laramie Duncan had to say about the findings:

“PTSD may be one of the most preventable of psychiatric disorders. There are interventions effective in preventing PTSD shortly after a person experiences a traumatic event. But they are too resource-intensive to give to everyone. Knowing more about people’s genetic risk for PTSD may help clinicians target interventions more effectively and it helps us understand the underlying biological mechanisms.”

Genetic testing can be useful in preventing and treating many major health problems. I’ve had my DNA analyzed and have found the information to be invaluable. Consider having it done for you and your family!

And regardless of genetics, if you or a loved one experiences something traumatic, it’s a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional sooner rather than later.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

Dirt: Good for your depressed brain

Did you know that simply being around dirt can ease your depressive symptoms?

If you’ve found gardening to be a good a stress reliever, this could explain it: Scientists have determined that a bacterium in soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, activates serotonin-producing neurons in an area of the brain that regulates mood — an effect similar to the effects of Prozac and some other antidepressants.

Researchers have also found that this bacterium triggers immune cells to release chemicals called cytokines. Cytokines fight inflammation, which has been tied to mood disorders.

How can you get more Mycobacterium vaccae in your system? Go for a walk in the wild. Weed your garden. Eat home-grown vegetables.

Someday the bacterium might be part of a new vaccine, but until then, get outside!

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

’13 Reasons Why’: A romanticized look at suicide

About a month ago, Netflix added “13 Reasons Why” to its  streaming content, and teens are obsessed.

The 13-episode series follows a teenage boy trying to wrap his mind around the suicide of his friend, a teenage girl, as he listens to the 13 tapes she left behind to describe events leading up to her death.

In the end, her peers come to feel sorry for what they did to drive her to her tragic decision. It’s revenge by suicide — a dangerous glamorization of a real temptation for many teens.

Mental health experts have come forward with warnings about the show. Here’s what the National Association of School Psychologists had to say:

“We do not recommend that vulnerable youth, especially those who have any degree of suicidal ideation, watch this series. Its powerful storytelling may lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters and/or develop revenge fantasies.”

Who are these “vulnerable youth” the statement mentions? So many teens could fit into that category. Bullying abounds among young people, especially now that social media makes it easy to inflict emotional pain from a distance.

Parents, teachers, and other adults can be on the lookout for signs of suicidal thoughts in the teens around them. Here’s a good list of warning signs from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Talking or writing about suicide — for example, making statements such as “I’m going to kill myself,” or “I won’t be a problem for you much longer”
  • Withdrawing from social contact
  • Having mood swings
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Feeling trapped or hopeless about a situation
  • Changing normal routine, including eating or sleeping patterns
  • Doing risky or self-destructive things
  • Giving away belongings when there is no other logical explanation for why this is being done
  • Developing personality changes or being severely anxious or agitated when experiencing some of the warning signs listed above

Whether you suspect your teen may have suicidal feelings or not, it’s a good idea to talk to him or her about the show. Make sure he or she knows help is available and there is hope.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.