For Teens, Smartphone Dependence Predicts Later Depression

We have known for years that excessive smartphone use is correlated with depression. However, until recently, the direction of causality was not known. Does excessive smartphone use cause people to become depressed? Or do people who are already depressed use their smartphones more often, leading to unhealthy dependence? A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health lends support to the former hypothesis. This study, which followed adolescents between the ages of 17-20, found that dependence on smartphones at the start of the study predicted depression and loneliness three months later.

Although the mechanism of action here is not yet known, I have several thoughts about why and how excessive smartphone use can lead to depression. First, there’s the neurobiological effect of the smartphone use itself, which activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (“fight or flight” response), increases threat perception, and disrupts sleep. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is designed to protect us from danger by elevating heart rate, increasing levels of cortisol, and giving us the burst of energy we need to fight off a predator or flee from danger. The SNS is meant to be activated periodically, and for limited durations of time, when danger is present until danger passes. It is not meant to be activated every few seconds, all day long, each time we receive a notification on our iPhone. Over time, chronic SNS activation leads to depletion and depression. So does sleep deprivation.

Second, there’s social comparison. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to peer influence and frequently compare themselves to others to gain a sense of their social standing. Teens who spend excessive amounts of time scrolling through social media are likely to judge themselves unfavorably compared to others. It is all too easy for these teens to conclude that other people are prettier, thinner, happier, more successful, and having more fun than they are. Of course, most people only post pictures of themselves looking great, having fun, and doing interesting things, even if the majority of their lives are spent looking average and completing mundane tasks like homework and chores. Nonetheless, upward social comparisons such as these tend to lower self-regard, and poor self-esteem fuels depression.

Finally, excessive smartphone use has to replace other activities. There are only 24 hours in a day. If a teen is spending 15 hours per day on his smartphone, what is he NOT doing? Well, for starters, he is probably not getting a good night’s sleep. He is probably not eating balanced meals with his family, or if he is, he’s eating mindlessly while scrolling through social media rather than engaging in meaningful conversation with his parents and siblings. He is probably not present or engaged in class, and he is constantly distracted while doing homework (if he even does homework), which means he is not learning much nor reaching his academic potential. He is not getting much physical activity or time outdoors. He may not be participating in social activities (of the in-person variety), or clubs, or hobbies, or lessons, or volunteer work, or religious services. In other words, the habits and activities that have been proven to help us stay healthy and balanced and socially connected, that give us a sense of meaning and purpose in life, are notably absent in those who are dependent on smartphones.

In my clinical practice, I strongly encourage teens and young adults to limit their screen time. To promote restful sleep, which is essential for both physical and mental wellbeing, I recommend turning off all electronic devices one hour before bedtime and leaving them off overnight. It is remarkable how much better teenagers sleep, and how much better they feel during the day, when they turn off their phones and computers by 10:00 pm, relax before bedtime, and sleep a full 8 hours.

For individuals who experience body image distress or social anxiety, limiting use of social media can help reduce symptoms. This could involve unfollowing certain people who are especially triggering, or simply limiting the amount of time spent on social media to 30 minutes per day, for example. I will never forget the 15-year-old girl who suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder who, upon getting rid of SnapChat for a week, experienced complete relief from her symptoms! Unfortunately, she later returned to SnapChat and began experiencing more anxiety. Eventually, she figured out a way to set limits on her SnapChat use, which allowed her to remain connected with her friends while causing only a slight increase in anxiety. Personally, I would have gotten rid of SnapChat completely and permanently, but try telling that to a very social, strong-willed 15-year-old.

Like many technological advances that preceded it (the automobile, the television, the internet), the smartphone is a wonderful invention that has improved the quality and efficiency of our lives. But there is a fallout from many technological advances, particularly when they are used carelessly or in excess (e.g., global climate change, couch potatoes, cyber-bullying). The smartphone is no exception.

Kids who Diet: There’s an App for That, But Shouldn’t Be

WW International, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, recently launched an app called Kurbo which is designed to help children ages 8-18 to diet and lose weight. The app is marketed as a “health coaching” tool, but a closer look at the company’s website reveals testimonials of children losing weight and dropping BMI points, complete with “before” and “after” photos. In recent years, the words “diet” and “dieting” have been replaced with words like “wellness” and “healthy eating” in popular nomenclature. But more often than not, when people refer to “eating healthy,” they are talking about restricting calories, reducing carbohydrates, and decreasing portion sizes. In other words, dieting in pursuit of weight loss. The brilliant marketing team at Weight Watchers, aware of this cultural shift in nomenclature, re-branded themselves as WW (Wellness that Works) to stay in vogue with their client base: people living in larger bodies.

But make no mistake: Kurbo is a diet app designed to help children lose weight. Although the app is touted as being based on years of scientific research, the very existence of this app defies the best available scientific evidence, which strongly suggests that CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS SHOULD NOT DIET.

Why? Let me count the reasons.

  1. Bodies are meant to be diverse in size and shape. The very notion that a child or adolescent should lose weight in order to have an acceptable body flies in the face of genetics and natural size diversity.
  2. Weight loss disrupts crucial physiological processes in the growing bodies of children and adolescents. Puberty requires significant weight gain to ensure proper development of the brain, bones, reproductive organs, and other vital body systems. Losing weight during adolescence can halt puberty, stunt vertical growth, and alter hormone levels.
  3. Dieting is not effective at producing long-term weight loss, but it reliably predicts weight gain and depression. More often than not, dieting leads to weight cycling: losing weight in the short-term but regaining weight and ending up at the same weight, or a higher weight, in the longer-term. Our bodies have evolved to protect us against famine by slowing down metabolic processes when food is scarce (such as, when we are dieting and losing weight) and ramping up hunger signals and cravings, which often leads to overindulgence or binge eating. Weight cycling is associated with negative health outcomes, including increased risk of depression. Individuals who diet frequently experience cycles of shame, guilt, and feelings of failure each time they regain lost weight.
  4. The normalization and glorification of diet culture is harmful and toxic to all children. When a person in a position of authority (e.g., doctor, parent, teacher, coach) tells a child or adolescent to lose weight, or places that child or adolescent on a diet, the message being sent (either subtly or overtly) is: “Your body is not acceptable as it is, and you must work very hard change your body in order to be attractive, healthy, happy, or socially accepted.” This message is damaging to a young person’s self-esteem, confidence, and body image.
  5. Diet culture disproportionately targets and stigmatizes individuals in larger bodies, thus perpetuating weight stigma.
  6. Although dieting itself does not cause eating disorders, dieting (or food restriction of any kind) can trigger the onset of an eating disorder in a child who is genetically vulnerable. Further, diet culture creates a toxic environment for individuals who are recovering from eating disorders. Eating disorders are dangerous, debilitating, difficult to treat illnesses that have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Thankfully, there are many other individuals and organizations who share my sentiments on this matter and are publicly condemning this app.

  1. Healthcare Providers Against Kurbo. A group of physicians, psychologists, therapists, and dietitians who specialize in treating eating disorders has formed a petition protesting the Kurbo app. You can read and sign the petition here.
  2. Registered Dietitian Christy Harrison published an article in the New York Times explaining why the Kurbo app is harmful to children.
  3. FEAST (Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment for Eating Disorders) posted a position statement condemning this app.
  4. NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) published a position statement expressing grave concerns about the app.

So, you might ask, if dieting is not the answer, then what should we do about childhood obesity? The answer, based on the best available scientific research, is that obesity per se is not the problem, and thus the pursuit of weight loss per se is not the solution. Instead, adults who are charged with the task of caring for our youth (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, and doctors) should encourage health-promoting behaviors in children across the weight spectrum. Children of all weights will benefit from eating balanced family meals containing a wide variety of foods from all food groups. Children of all weights benefit from adequate sleep, daily physical activity, and limited screen time. Children of all weights should be taught body acceptance and should be educated about size diversity. This is true health promotion. In some cases, these health-promoting behaviors will result in weight loss for higher-weight children, and in some cases, they will not. But regardless of what happens to the child’s weight, these health-promoting behaviors bring about genuine improvements in the child’s physical and mental well-being. And – this is important – NO HARM IS DONE.

Sorry, WW Kurbo app – you’ve got it all wrong.

Updated Summary of Treatment Outcomes

Since opening my private practice in 2009, I have been privileged to work with over 300 individuals and families, providing consultation, evaluations, and treatment for a variety of mental health conditions.  I believe in being transparent and straightforward about the services I provide and why I provide them.  Individuals who are seeking mental health services for themselves or for their children have a right to know what treatment with a particular provider will actually be like, how long it will last, what outcomes they can expect, and what factors contribute to a more or less favorable outcome.

To this end, I collect detailed information on my patients’ treatment outcomes and publish the results on my blog.  Here is an updated summary of treatment outcomes for the disorders I most commonly treat.  For more detailed information on the types of treatment provided and treatment outcomes in my practice for each of these disorders, click on the category heading.

Treatment Outcomes for Anorexia Nervosa

  • 50% of patients who entered treatment with me completed a full course of treatment with me. 26% dropped out of treatment prematurely.  22% were referred to other providers who could better meet their needs.  3% moved to other geographic locations during treatment.
  • 97% of patients who completed treatment achieved full remission. The remaining 3% achieved physical remission.
  • The majority of patients who completed treatment did so in a time frame of somewhere between 7 months and 2 years.
  • A full course of treatment required, on average, 27 sessions over the course of 17 months.
  • Patients with co-morbid conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression, required more sessions, on average, than those without co-morbid conditions.
  • All patients who completed treatment achieved 100% full weight restoration, as indicated by a return to their pre-AN percentile patterns of growth for height and weight.
  • Average time to achieve weight restoration was 3.6 months.
  • Patients who recovered with individual therapy took longer, on average, to achieve weight restoration than those who recovered through Family-Based Treatment (FBT).
  • Patients receiving FBT were almost twice as likely to recover as those receiving individual therapy.
  • Patients receiving individual therapy were almost twice as likely as those receiving FBT to drop out of treatment prematurely.
  • Individuals with restrictive Anorexia Nervosa were twice as likely to achieve full remission as those with binge-purge Anorexia Nervosa.
  • For treatment drop-outs, there was a significant correlation between length of time spent in treatment and progress made. All treatment dropouts who were in treatment with me for at least 2 months had made significant progress towards treatment goals at the time of drop-out.  Patients who dropped out of treatment after one month or less had not made any progress at the time of drop-out.

 

Treatment Outcomes for Bulimia Nervosa

  • Over half of patients with bulimia nervosa (54%) discontinued treatment prematurely after making significant progress towards treatment goals, but prior to achieving full remission.  15% percent of patients were referred to other treatment providers or types of treatment that could better meet their needs, after making little or no progress in treatment with me. 8% of patients moved to other geographic locations and were thus referred to providers near their new homes.  23% of patients completed a full course of treatment with me.
  • Of those who completed a full course of treatment, 100% achieved full remission from their eating disorder.
  • A full course of treatment required, on average, 13 sessions over the course of 5 months.
  • Patients who took Prozac during treatment were more likely to achieve full remission than those who did not take medication.
  • Patients with a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa were less likely to recover from Bulimia than those who did not have a prior history of Anorexia Nervosa.
  • The presence of a comorbid diagnosis was not related to likelihood of achieving full remission from Bulimia.
  • Level of family involvement in treatment was not related to the likelihood of achieving full remission. This finding is in stark contrast to my outcomes for Anorexia Nervosa, in which family involvement was strongly correlated with positive treatment outcome.

Treatment Outcomes for Mood Disorders

  • Only 18% of patients who presented with a primary diagnosis of a mood disorder completed a full course of treatment with me. 50% discontinued treatment prematurely for unknown reasons, 15% moved to other geographic locations, and 18% were referred to other providers who could better meet their needs.
  • Of those who completed a full course of treatment with me, 83% achieved full remission from their mood disorder and the remaining 17% made significant progress towards their treatment goals.
  • Length of time to complete treatment varied dramatically (from 1 month to 3 years) based on individual needs, symptom severity, and progress. On average, a full course of treatment required 23 sessions over the course of 16 months.
  • High levels of family involvement predicted treatment completion and full recovery for adolescent patients but not for adult patients.
  • Patients who were self-referred were more likely to complete treatment and achieve full remission than those who were referred by another professional.
  • Predictors of less favorable treatment outcomes included hospitalization during treatment and taking psychotropic medication during treatment, most likely because these variables are markers for more severe forms of mental illness.
  • The following variables did NOT predict treatment outcome: age at intake, gender, ethnicity, duration of illness, diagnosis (type of mood disorder), presence of co-morbid diagnoses, rate paid for services, type of treatment received with me, or history of hospitalization prior to starting treatment.

Treatment Outcomes for Anxiety Disorders

  • Half of patients who entered treatment for anxiety disorders completed a full course of treatment with me.
  • Of those who completed a full course of treatment, 88% achieved full recovery and the remaining 12% made significant progress towards their treatment goals.
  • Length of time required to complete a full course of treatment varied dramatically from 1 month to 19 months, with a median treatment duration of 3 months.
  • Of those who discontinued treatment prematurely, 63% had made significant progress towards their treatment goals as of their final session with me, and the remaining 37% had made some progress.
  • Predictors of positive treatment outcome included high levels of family involvement in treatment, younger age at intake, shorter duration of illness, being self-referred to my practice, paying full rate for services, and having good attendance at therapy sessions.
  • Predictors of less favorable treatment outcome included presence of a comorbid diagnosis, taking psychotropic medication during treatment with me, and being referred to my practice by a psychiatrist.

General Conclusions

  • Across diagnostic categories, less than half of patients who enter treatment with me complete a full course of treatment with me.
  • I tend to set the bar high for my patients, striving to engage them and help them continue to progress until they reach full remission.
  • Many individuals and families decide to discontinue treatment after making significant progress towards treatment goals, but prior to achieving full remission.
  • I hope that those who discontinue treatment after making significant progress, but prior to achieving full remission, continue to move forward and eventually achieve full remission with the support of their families and/or with other professional supports.  My primary goal in working with families is to empower the parents to help their child.  My goal is to become obsolete for that particular family.   For this reason, when a family reaches a point where the parents are confident that “We’ve got it from here!” and my involvement is no longer necessary, then I have done my job well.    Therefore, dropping out of treatment prematurely, after making significant progress in treatment, may not necessarily be a negative thing.
  • Across all diagnostic categories, patients who complete a full course of treatment with me do very well in recovery. The vast majority achieve full remission from their illness.

 

 

End of Treatment Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders (2009 – 2017)

Description of the Sample

This analysis includes all patients with a primary diagnosis of a mood disorder who participated in an evaluation followed by a minimum of one therapy session with me between the start of my practice in 2009 and spring 2017.  Given that this is an analysis of end of treatment outcomes, patients who are currently in treatment with me were not included in this sample.

The sample includes 34 individuals (29 females and 5 males) who ranged in age from 12 – 59 years old, with a median age of 20.  The majority of patients in this sample (65%) had a primary diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder.   Other primary diagnoses included Unspecified Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Mood Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, and Persistent Depressive Disorder (formerly known as Dysthymia).

More than half of these patients (56%) had a secondary diagnosis.  The most common secondary diagnoses were anxiety disorders. Other secondary diagnoses in this sample included ADHD, eating disorders, and PTSD.

Approximately 30% of the sample had a history of psychiatric hospitalization, most commonly for suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, prior to staring treatment with me.

Description of Treatment Received

The length of treatment varied dramatically, from one week to 3.7 years.  Number of sessions attended also varied dramatically, from 1 session to 135 sessions.  The broad range of treatment duration and sessions attended reflects the reality that some individuals decided not to proceed with treatment after one or two sessions, whereas other individuals attended sessions off and on, as needed, for the duration of their high school or college years.  The average duration of treatment was 11.9 months and the average number of sessions attended was 28.  So, a typical patient with a mood disorder attended approximately 28 sessions over the course of one year.

The type of treatment received was tailored to the individual patient, based on his or her presenting symptoms, circumstances, age, and preferences.  Forty-one percent of patients received Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), 18% received a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills-based approach (NOT a comprehensive DBT program), 30% received integration of CBT and supportive counseling, and 11% interpersonal psychotherapy or supportive counseling.

Level of family involvement varied depending on the patient’s age, presenting symptoms, preferences, and living circumstances.  For the purposes of this assessment, high level of family involvement means that at least one family member attended all or most sessions with the patient.  Moderate level of family involvement means that family members attended some sessions and maintained ongoing communication with me throughout treatment.   Low level of family involvement means that at a family member was involved in the evaluation and/or at least one session, but most sessions were individual.  Among all patients in this sample, 18% had a high level of family involvement, 21% had a moderate level of family involvement, 18% had a low level of family involvement, and 44% had no family involvement.  Degree of family involvement was higher, in general, for adolescent patients than for adult patients, with all patients under age 18 having at least some family involvement in their treatment.  Fifty percent of adolescent patients (under age 18) had a high level of family involvement, while 42% had a moderate level of family involvement and the remaining 8% had a low level of family involvement.

Nearly ¾ of patients saw a psychiatrist and took psychotropic medications during treatment.  Nearly ¼ of patients were hospitalized during treatment, most commonly for suicidal ideation or suicidal gestures.

Treatment Completion and Recovery Rates

Of all patients who began treatment with me for a mood disorder, 15% achieved complete recovery, 24% made significant progress, 41% made some progress, 15% made no progress, and 6% regressed.  For a detailed description of what terms such as “complete recovery” and “significant progress” mean, please see this blog post from 2013.

Eighteen percent of patients completed a full course of treatment with me.  Completing a “full course of treatment” was defined as a mutual ending in which the patient, his/her family (in cases where family was involved) and I mutually agree that treatment goals have been met and treatment is no longer needed.  Of these “treatment completers,” 83% achieved full recovery and the remaining 17% made significant progress towards treatment goals.

The length of time required to complete a full course of treatment varied dramatically from person to person, depending on symptom severity and progress in treatment.  Time required to complete treatment ranged from 1 month to 3 years, with a mean of 16.6 months.  Likewise, number of sessions required to complete treatment varied dramatically between individuals.  Number of sessions attended for treatment completers ranged from 4 – 96 sessions, with an average of 23 sessions.  So, on average, individuals who were most successful in treatment (e.g., those who completed treatment and achieved full remission from their mood disorders) attended an average of 23 sessions over the course of 16 months.

Fifteen percent of patients moved to another geographic location during their treatment (either to attend college or to live elsewhere permanently), prior to completing a full course of treatment with me.  As of their last session with me, 60% of these “movers” had made significant progress in their treatment and the remaining 40% had made some progress.  These individuals were referred to other treatment providers in near their universities or new homes for continued treatment.

The dropout rate for patients with mood disorders was fairly high: 50% of patients discontinued treatment with me prematurely.  As of their last session with me, 18% of these “discontinuers” had made significant progress towards treatment goals, 59% had made some progress, and 24% had made no progress.   On average, individuals who discontinued treatment sooner made less progress, while those who remained in treatment longer made more progress towards their treatment goals.   Three quarters of the individuals who made no progress dropped out of treatment after just one or two sessions, and the remaining one quarter dropped out after 5 sessions.  In contrast, those who made significant progress prior to dropping out of treatment attended an average of 20 sessions.

I do not have data on what happens to patients after they discontinue treatment, so this is purely speculation, but I believe several factors contribute to the high dropout rate among patients with mood disorders.  First, depression frequently interferes with a person’s motivation and ability to carry out tasks, and tends to make people hopeless and pessimistic.  Individuals with these symptoms may have a more difficult time persisting towards a goal, such as scheduling appointments and continuing with treatment over a number of months, and they may feel less hopeful about having a positive outcome in treatment.  Second, some patients and families may be satisfied with “good enough,” and may drop out of treatment after making good progress but before achieving all treatment goals.  In contrast, I have high standards for my patients: I believe that full recovery is possible for most people, and when full recovery does not seem achievable, then a full and meaningful life with well-managed symptoms is an alternative good outcome.  I work diligently with patients and their families in pursuit of these goals.

Eighteen percent of patients with mood disorders were referred to other clinicians who could better meet their needs.  I made these referrals when a patient was not progressing in treatment, and when it did not appear likely that they would make progress in the near future.  As of their last session with me, 17% of referred patients had made significant progress, 33% had made some progress, 17% had made no progress, and 33% had regressed.

Predictors of Treatment Outcome

Not surprisingly, completion of a full course of treatment emerged as a strong predictor of positive treatment outcome.  83% of individuals who completed treatment achieved full recovery, while the remaining 17% made significant progress towards treatment goals.  None of the individuals who discontinued treatment prematurely achieved full recovery.

Another strong predictor of positive treatment outcome in this sample was referral source.  Eighty percent of individuals who achieved full recovery were self-referred (e.g., they found my practice through an online search), while the remaining 20% were referred by word of mouth (e.g., by a friend).    In contrast, none of the individuals who were referred to my practice by their psychiatrist, pediatrician, or another therapist completed a full course of treatment or achieved full recovery, although a number of them made significant progress.  My interpretation of this finding is that individuals who proactively sought my services of their own volition may be especially dedicated to improving their mental health, more invested in their treatment, and thus more likely to persevere through a full course of treatment and achieve recovery.   In the case of self-referred adolescents, their parents were the ones who actually brought their children to treatment.  These parents, on the whole, were particularly attuned to their child’s needs and struggles, researched their child’s symptoms and the variety of treatment approaches available, sought my services proactively, and were especially motivated to help their child recover.  Perhaps this parental conscientiousness, attunement, and empowerment helped facilitate recovery for their children.

Level of family involvement in treatment predicted treatment completion and full recovery for adolescent patients but not for adult patients.  All of the adolescents who completed treatment and recovered had moderate or high levels of family involvement.  In contrast, 75% of the adults who completed treatment and achieved full recovery had no family involvement in their treatment, while the remaining 25% had a low level of family involvement.

Individuals who took psychotropic medication were somewhat less likely to recover than those who did not: 40% of individuals who achieved full recovery were taking medication during treatment, whereas 76% of individuals who did not achieve full recovery were taking medication during treatment.  It is unlikely that taking psychotropic medication caused patients to have a worse outcome.  I believe the most likely explanation for this finding is that taking psychotropic medication is a marker of severity: individuals with more severe forms of mood disorders (e.g., Bipolar Disorder, Severe Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder) are more likely to need medication and are perhaps less likely to achieve complete remission of symptoms.

Hospitalization during treatment emerged as a predictor of less favorable outcome.  None of the individuals who were hospitalized during their treatment with me completed a full course of treatment or achieved full recovery.  It is unlikely that being hospitalized actually caused patients to quit treatment or caused them to make less progress in their treatment.  It is more likely that hospitalization, like taking psychotropic medication, is a marker of severity, and those individuals with more severe illnesses are less likely to experience complete remission of symptoms.

The following variables did NOT predict treatment outcome: age, gender, ethnicity, duration of illness, diagnosis, presence of co-morbid diagnoses, rate paid for services, type of treatment received, or history of hospitalization prior to starting treatment.

There’s an App for That!

Technology can be used in a variety of ways to enhance mental health and aid in recovery from psychological disorders.   For example, patients can use smart phone apps to help them track moods and symptoms, implement coping strategies, and reach out for help from clinicians and peers when needed.   Most evidence-based, behaviorally-oriented treatments for mental health problems – such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – require some degree of self-monitoring.  These types of treatments also strongly encourage daily practices to enhance well-being, such as journaling, identifying and challenging negative thoughts, diaphragmatic breathing, or mindfulness meditation.

Most of the teenagers and college students I work with are far beyond the old pen-and-paper logs and worksheets I was trained to use during graduate school.  It seems there’s an app for everything these days, and so many of these apps are relevant to mental health and wellness.  Today’s young people organize their lives on their smart phones anyway, so it is only natural that we would look to the smartphone to help them self-monitor their symptoms, complete their therapy assignments, and keep track of the strategies they use to help themselves.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of apps that are useful to people with mental health conditions.  Here are a few of my favorites:

The Recovery Record app helps patients with eating disorders self-monitor their meals and snacks as well as thoughts, feelings, and urges that arise around food.

The Insight Timer app offers a meditation timer, thousands of free guided meditation tracks, groups for like-minded meditators, and the ability to track quantitative statistics such as how many minutes the user spends each day in meditation.

DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach is an electronic version of the Diary Card used in standard DBT practice, which helps the patient track target behaviors and utilize DBT skills from the modules of Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Effectiveness.

The nOCD app helps patients with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder implement their exposure and response prevention treatment while compiling objective, real-time data on their experience.

I am a firm believer that what transpires in the therapist’s office is only a fraction of the treatment package.  Most of the healing process results from consistent changes that patients and their families make on a daily basis at home, at school, and in various social settings.   Thanks to modern technology, individuals who are committed to improving their well-being are now able to hold new tools, literally, in the palms of their hands.

Fighting Stigma: The Gift of a New Generation

Somehow, sometime in the past several years, I crossed some invisible line from “young adult” to simply “adult.”  Polite strangers call me “ma’am” at least as often as they call me “miss.”  Shopping at Forever 21 now seems scandalously inappropriate.  And I can’t remember the last time I was still awake to watch Saturday Night Live.  Now that I seem to be old enough to complain about the younger generation (They think women’s empowerment is posting bikini-clad selfies!  They use social media excessively! Their pivotal relationship conversations take place over text message!), it seems only fair that I also recognize the strengths of this cohort.  And they do have tremendous strengths.

Teenagers and young adults these days, for the most part, have grown up in an era where it is socially acceptable, even encouraged, to speak openly about mental health issues.  Just about every high school and college student who walks into my office has at least a couple of friends with mental health diagnoses.   Most of my patients have one or more members of their extended family, if not their immediate family, who has dealt with a mental illness.   And they know this because they talk openly about it.

And that excessive use of social media I complained about a minute ago?  Well, social media has allowed famous people to speak candidly to a wide audience about their experiences with mental illness, seeking treatment, and ultimately recovering.   Actress Kristen Bell has struggled with depression.   Writer/producer/actress Lena Dunham has received treatment for OCD.  Singer Demi Lovato has spoken openly about her struggles with bipolar disorder and her recovery from an eating disorderJohn Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, has chronic anxiety which he is able to control with therapy and medication.  Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has a diagnosis of ADHD.  These individuals have been extremely successful in their professions and have had the courage to speak publicly about their psychiatric problems.

Even more courageous than these celebrities, though, are the regular people who attend school, play sports, hold down jobs, pay bills, raise families, volunteer in their communities, and maintain friendships while also dealing with mental illness.  These are the people who have a lot to lose from the stigma surrounding mental health issues.  These are also the people who have the most to gain from breaking down the stigma.

The younger generation is fighting this stigma.  Australia’s National Youth Mental Health foundation has created an organization called Headspace dedicated to supporting adolescents and young adults with mental illnesses as well as combating stigma surrounding these issues.  In the UK, Prince William, Princess Kate, and Prince Harry have created Heads Together, a charity dedicated to fighting stigma surrounding mental illness and improving the mental well-being of all citizens.  Here in the US, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is running a Stigma-Free campaign.

The message of these organizations is simple and straightforward: mental illness is common and treatable.  Mental health problems are as much a part of the human condition as any other health problem.  Untreated mental illness can have dire effects on the individual, on the family, on the community, and on society as a whole.  People who have psychiatric diagnoses can overcome them and live fulfilling, successful, meaningful lives.  Learn about it.  Talk about it.  Seek treatment when needed, and support others in doing so as well.  Silence and shame help no one.

I can’t recall ever hearing these messages as a teenager or young adult.  If these messages existed at all back in my day, they were eclipsed by the OJ Simpson trial, overshadowed by the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, drowned out by the Spice Girls and ignored amidst episodes of Friends.  It is an honor and a privilege for me to treat the teens of this generation, who live their lives with more knowledge, understanding, and acceptance than the generation before them.

Let’s Get Physical: Exercise in the Treatment of Mood and Anxiety Disorders

As the Olympic Winter Games are commencing tomorrow in Sochi, I feel inspired to write about the role of physical activity in mental health. This post will focus specifically on exercise in the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise improves mood in people with mild to moderate depression. For those with severe depression or bipolar disorder, exercise alone is rarely sufficient, but exercise can play an adjunct role in helping patients recover and prevent relapse.

We know from Newton’s law of motion that an object at rest stays at rest unless a force acts upon it, and an object in motion stays in motion unless some force makes it stop. The same is true for human bodies. Paradoxically, sedentary people tend to have less energy and active people tend to have more.

Now, of course this begs the question of the chicken or the egg – it is likely that people become sedentary because they have little energy or stay active because they have a surplus. This is true. People seem to have “set points” for activity level just as they do for weight and mood. That being said, physical activity has an almost immediate effect on mood and energy level. Over time, consistent exercise helps to stabilize moods, improve sleep, reduce stress, and enhance motivation to continue moving.

For these reasons, I strongly encourage my patients who suffer from mood disorders or anxiety disorders to exercise regularly. In my opinion, exercise is every bit as important as therapy, medication, and sleep when it comes to mood and anxiety disorders.

As I have emphasized in previous posts, the mind is a series of conscious functions carried out by the brain, and the brain is part of the body. Physical health and mental health are one in the same. Despite what society, popular wisdom, and health insurance companies may tell us, there is no actual difference between a physical illness and a mental one. When you exercise your body, you are exercising your brain.

Unlike therapy or medication, exercise is cheap or even free. Unlike medication, which can have unpleasant or dangerous side effects, exercise is generally safe so long as you do it sensibly and moderately. Unlike therapy, which requires another person and an appointment, exercise can be done alone if you choose at a time that suits your schedule. Unlike therapy, which is typically one-on-one and indoors, exercise can be enjoyed inside or outside with your family, friends, classmates, or teammates.

Numerous times, I have been amazed at how much exercise improves my patients’ mental health. This is especially true for people who have historically been sedentary and embark on a new exercise routine as part of their treatment plan. For example, I am working with a 15-year-old girl whom I’ll call Elsa who suffered from severe depression and crippling anxiety. When I met Elsa last year, she hated exercise and barely had the energy to get out of bed. After months of encouraging her to try different enjoyable physical activities, she finally started biking with her mom and jogging with her neighbor. She is now in full remission from her depression, making excellent progress in tackling her anxiety, and training for her first 5K. She now wakes up at 7:00 am with plenty of energy and really enjoys exercising. I am so proud of her.

One of the more challenging aspects of incorporating exercise into a patient’s treatment plan is that sometimes the mental illness itself is part of the reason why the patient is inactive. Depressed people tend to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. They feel unmotivated and chronically exhausted. Clearly, it is a challenge for them to do essential things like get dressed and go to school, let alone something “extra” and “optional” like exercise.

For these patients, I use a behavioral technique called behavioral activation. Here’s how it works: we agree upon a small, realistic exercise goal such as walking for 10 minutes three evenings a week. [Elsa’s initial idea was to do the Insanity DVDs she saw on an infomercial. Given that she hadn’t exercised in years, I told her that this idea was, frankly, insane, and I suggested something more moderate.] I have the patient choose an activity they enjoy (or at least one that they don’t hate) and a time of day when they’re likely to follow through (for example, not at 5:00 AM if they aren’t a morning person).

When possible and feasible, I encourage patients to exercise socially by attending a class, joining a sports team, taking lessons, or doing something active outdoors with their families. We make this activity part of their weekly schedule, writing it down (or, often, putting it in their smart phone) as if it were any other appointment or commitment. Most of the time, the patient achieves their initial goal because it is small, realistic, specific, and planned.

Achieving this initial exercise goal creates a feeling of success and personal satisfaction and enhances the person’s motivation to keep going. In addition, they experience a bit of a mood boost from the activity itself. Once the patient achieves the initial exercise goal, it is increased a little bit in frequency or duration.

Using the example above, the patient may walk for 20 minutes during the second week and 30 minutes during the third week. This gradual increase in frequency and duration continues for a number of weeks or months. Eventually, the patient has incorporated regular exercise into her lifestyle. The stress reduction, mood enhancement, and improvement in fitness level enhance her internal motivation to continue exercising.

Anxiety can also interfere with a patient’s plans to exercise. Many people who experience panic attacks are afraid of the physical sensations that result from exercise (rapid breathing, increased heartbeat, sweating), which closely resemble those of a panic attack.

Patients who have social anxiety may shy away from joining sports teams, taking dance classes, or going to gyms because they worry about being judged or making a fool of themselves. For example, Elsa had enjoyed dance classes and swimming in elementary school but later became socially anxious and self-conscious about wearing a leotard or swimsuit in front of her peers. For this reason, she chose to do biking and jogging which did not require such revealing attire. And now, for the record, Elsa does wear a swimsuit with only mild anxiety when she goes to the beach or the pool with her friends. Did I mention how proud of her I am?

For patients with eating disorders, exercise is altogether a different story. That will be the topic of my next blog post.

Sleep and Mood Disorders: Implications for Mental Health Care

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone. Well-rested bodies and brains are healthier, more resilient, and more energetic. For those with depression and other mood disorders, getting plenty of sleep must be a priority. In fact, research has demonstrated that people with insomnia are ten times more likely to develop depression than those who get sufficient sleep. Further, new research has shown that sleep disturbances can trigger psychiatric illnesses in those who are vulnerable.

Sleep is every bit as important as medication and therapy in the treatment of mood disorders. For this reason, I make a point of discussing and monitoring sleep patterns with my patients, and I integrate sleep hygiene into their treatment plans.

A recent study financed by the National Institute of Mental Health and published in The New York Times found that a psychological treatment called CBT-I (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) doubled the effectiveness of antidepressant medication in the treatment of depression.

This was not surprising to me. I was trained in CBT in graduate school and I have seen cognitive-behavioral techniques work wonders in many of my patients. But the implications of this study, and the fact that the results have made it into the popular media, are quite significant.

One of the most disturbing and unfortunate trends in mental health care in recent years has been the overuse of psychotropic medication and the corresponding underuse of behavioral and psychological interventions. This trend is especially bothersome to me because I am keenly aware – thanks to my training and experience as a psychologist – that certain evidence-based psychological treatments are as effective, if not more effective, than medication for treating certain illnesses.

Unfortunately, most people outside the field of psychology don’t know this. Americans are bombarded daily with advertisements for psychotropic medication on television, online, and in print. It’s only natural, then, that consumers who are suffering from depression or anxiety would request medications from their doctors, even when they have a problem that can be successfully treated by other means.

Don’t get me wrong – I am by no means anti-medication. I am thankful that we have effective, relatively safe medications on the market now that can help people effectively manage serious illnesses which were once disabling. Indeed, psychotropic medication can be extremely helpful – even life-saving – for many people. My concern is that psychotropic medications are prescribed too frequently to people who may not need them, often without the necessary monitoring, and often without the corresponding psychological and behavioral interventions that have been proven effective.

As a psychologist who practices said psychological and behavioral interventions, rather than a psychiatrist who prescribes said medications, am I biased? Well, obviously. I believe in what I do and I chose this profession for a reason. But still.

My hope is that, with articles such as this one, the general public will learn that evidence-based psychological treatments exist which can reduce their suffering and improve their quality of life. I would like people to be fully informed about their options when it comes to mental health treatment. I look forward to the day when people experiencing psychiatric symptoms routinely ask their primary care physicians for referrals to psychologists who practice evidence-based treatments, rather than, or in addition to, asking for prescriptions.

Giving Thanks

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I am faced daily with stories of tragedy, trauma, illness, conflict, and loss. Each therapy session is a window into private suffering.

“Isn’t it hard?” people ask me. “Isn’t it awful to listen to people’s problems all day long? Doesn’t it make you depressed?” My answers to these questions are: “Yes,” “No,” and “Quite the opposite.” It is painful to witness people suffering, but it is endlessly rewarding to help them triumph.

Rather than letting other people’s pain drag me down, I feel honored that they have shared it with me and privileged that I am in a position to help them cope with it. I am intimately aware of the obstacles people face – and overcome – every single day. Being a clinical psychologist provides me with daily opportunities to participate in stories of healing, strength, opportunity, resolution, and empowerment.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many Americans begin to think about expressing gratitude for the things we take for granted the rest of the year. Consider these:

If you get out of bed next Thursday, give thanks.
There are those with depression who cannot do so without herculean effort.

If you are preparing to host relatives in your home, give thanks.
There are those with crippling social anxiety for whom a house full of guests would be unthinkable.

If you are planning to travel across several time zones to spend the holiday with relatives, give thanks.
There are those with mood disorders for whom jet lag can trigger an episode of mania or depression.

If you are looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, give thanks.
There are those with anorexia nervosa for whom a holiday feast is an object of fear, loathing, and guilt.

If you set the table next Thursday in under five minutes, give thanks.
There are those with OCD who cannot relax unless every napkin, fork, and knife is lined up precisely.

If you sit on the couch after dinner to watch football with your uncles and cousins, give thanks.
There are those with bulimia nervosa who will be pacing around the house, waiting for an opportunity to purge unnoticed.

If you settle into bed with a good book later that evening, give thanks.
There are those who will be cutting their forearms with a razor to numb themselves from the intolerable emotions triggered by the day’s events.

If you go to bed Thanksgiving night satiated and content, give thanks.
There are those whose restless worry keeps them up until sunrise.

If you have never even considered feeling grateful for these ordinary things, give thanks.
Our mental health, and that of our family, should not be taken for granted.

Summary of Treatment Outcomes

My blog posts from June through November 2013 have been devoted to describing my patients’ treatment outcomes. I’ve been advised that my recent posts have been too data-heavy and too detailed, but hey – that’s how I roll. I like to be thorough, meticulous, and transparent. Prospective patients and their families deserve to have access to this information. But for those who prefer brevity, I’ve summarized my treatment outcomes below. Click on the headings in bold for details.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anorexia Nervosa


Fifty-seven percent of my former patients with Anorexia Nervosa (AN) completed treatment. Of the “treatment completers,” 94% reached full remission and the remaining 6% reached physical remission. Patients required, on average, 28 sessions over the course of 17 months to complete treatment.

Forty-three percent of my former patients with AN did not complete treatment with me. Of the “treatment non-completers,” 23% were referred to other treatment settings which could better meet their needs; 15% moved to other geographic locations during treatment and thus were referred for treatment near their new homes; and the remaining 62% dropped out of treatment prematurely.

    Outcomes for Patients with Bulimia Nervosa and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified


Thirty-three percent of my former patients with Bulimia Nervosa (BN) and Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) completed treatment. One-hundred percent of those who completed treatment reached full remission. On average, patients took 15 sessions over the course of 10 months to complete treatment. Amongst patients with BN, 44% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely. For patients with EDNOS, 17% made significant progress prior to discontinuing treatment prematurely.

    Outcomes for Patients with Mood Disorders


Twenty-nine percent of patients my former patients with primary diagnoses of mood disorders completed treatment. Of the patients who completed treatment, 83% achieved full remission and the remaining 17% made significant progress. On average, patients took approximately 23 sessions over the course of 11 months to complete treatment.

Thirty-eight percent of mood disorder patients quit treatment prematurely, 24% were referred to other treatment providers who could better meet their needs, and 9% moved to other geographic locations during their treatment and were referred for treatment near their new homes.

    Outcomes for Patients with Anxiety Disorders


All of my former patients with primary diagnoses of anxiety disorders who attended more than two sessions experienced substantial improvement in anxiety symptoms as well as significant improvement in functioning, even if they did not complete a full course of treatment. Patients with anxiety disorders attended an average of 10 sessions over the course of 6 months.

Amongst those who completed a full course of treatment, 75% achieved full remission and the remaining 25% made significant progress.