Metamorphosis: Long-Term Therapy with Young Adults

One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is the opportunity to engage with patients in long-term therapy.  In my practice today, I have a number of patients who began treatment with me years ago, in adolescence, and are now in their 20’s.  These patients first presented in my office with their parents during middle school or high school, suffering from severe eating disorders or depression or debilitating anxiety or, in some cases, all of the above.  Some entered treatment kicking and screaming; others reluctant but resigned; still others wanting help and suffering desperately but requiring immense parental support to stay afloat.

 In many cases, these adolescent patients received intensive Family-Based Treatment for six months or a year or more.  In other cases, the teenage patients received individual Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy with active parental involvement.   All of them made substantial progress in treatment.  The majority recovered fully from their initial presenting diagnosis.  Those who have not recovered fully are doing significantly better, living independent, fulfilling lives, but still experiencing symptoms and receiving ongoing care to keep their illness at bay.  Now, years later, some of them continue with weekly therapy sessions.  Others come in once or twice a month, or perhaps biannually like dental cleanings (we call this “mental hygiene”).  Still others elect come in on an “as needed” basis, scheduling a few sessions here and there to help them cope with life events, navigate relationships, manage stress, or deal skillfully with bouts of depression or anxiety. 

What unites these incredible young men and women is the fact that they have taken full responsibility for their well-being.  They have chosen to engage in long-term individual therapy as an act of self-care.  Through their adolescent suffering, they have become acutely aware of their susceptibility to mental illness.  They are choosing to receive therapy not only to prevent relapse of illness but also to pursue optimal health.   Many of these young adults have chosen to abstain from drugs and alcohol, even as their peers regularly smoke pot and drink to excess.  Many of them have adopted consistent home practices of meditation or yoga.  They make conscious, health-promoting choices when it comes to sleep, nutrition, stress management, and physical activity.  When faced with an important decision about which graduate program to pursue, which job offer to take, which city to live in, or even which person to date, they carefully consider the impact of these choices on their quality of life.

Engaging in long-term therapy with patients like these involves a number of gradual but significant transitions for all members of the therapeutic relationship: the patient, the parents, and me.   For the parents and for me, there is the progression from the crisis management of an acutely ill adolescent to the joy of stepping back into a supportive role for young adult in his own quest for greater levels of well-being.  The parents and I often begin our relationship communicating multiple times per week to put out fires and to ensure that we are in lock-step as we form a circle of safety around a suicidal or eating disordered patient.  As the patient gradually assumes responsibility for her own well-being (which often takes several years for those with adolescent-onset mental illness), communication between parents and me subsides into an occasional email or phone call.   The patient is now a much healthier, more mature young adult, and is trusted to schedule, attend, participate meaningfully in her own therapy sessions.  In many cases, she pays for her own treatment as well.

The therapy itself goes through a significant evolution as I shift from being directive and prescriptive, setting firm limits around dangerous or debilitating symptoms, to engaging with the patient in deep psychological work and collaborative goal setting.  For the patient, there is the very welcome shift from being told what she must do, in therapy and at home, to deciding what issues are important to her and taking the initiative to seek support, both therapeutic and familial, in achieving personally relevant goals.    For the patient, this shift brings with it a transformation from a defensive posture (as evidenced by panicking, shutting down, or lashing out in therapy and at home) to a stance of openness and receptivity (as evidenced by increased self-disclosure and self-awareness along with the display of more vulnerable emotions). 

I cannot begin to describe how rewarding it feels to support a frightened, malnourished, deeply depressed teenager as she blossoms into a healthy, confident, independent young woman who is attending college or graduate school in another state, working at an exciting full-time job, getting married, or giving birth to her first child.  It is fulfilling beyond words to join with young adult patients in the journey of long-term wellness as they clarify their personal values, decide who they want to be in this world, and take concrete steps towards achieving their dreams.

Those of you who have engaged in long-term therapy, either as a therapist, as a patient, know well how deeply personal and meaningful these relationships can be.  There is a level of emotional intimacy that surpasses even that between spouses, between parent and child, or between the best of friends.   In many ways, engaging in long-term therapy with self-motivated young adults is the polar opposite of Family-Based Treatment (FBT) for Adolescent Anorexia Nervosa.   For most patients in my practice, the former would not have been possible without the latter.   

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.

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.

Mental Hygiene

This post has been inspired by the absurd number of no-shows and last-minute cancellations I have had over the past few weeks, which have afforded me both the time and the subject matter to write this blog post. Yes, it’s the holiday season, and we’re all busy and stressed. You’ve got final exams and Christmas concerts and your cousins from Iowa visiting; presents to wrap and dinners to cook and trees to trim. But mental illness does not take a vacation. If anything, people with mental illnesses struggle even more than usual around the holidays. Putting mental health treatment on the back burner for the holidays – or for any reason – is a huge mistake.

There is a pattern I have observed in a few of my patients – they disappear from treatment for several weeks or months at a time, and then call me in crisis needing an appointment ASAP. They get stabilized, start feeling better, disappear from treatment again, neglect their mental health, and show up in crisis weeks later. This is not good mental hygiene.

What is mental hygiene? I view mental hygiene as preventative medicine for your brain, just as biannual dental checkups are preventative care for your teeth and annual physical exams are preventative care for your body. Many medical crises can be averted by getting regular check-ups and aggressive treatment for medical problems as soon as they are identified, along with good nutrition and regular physical activity.

While most people take their sanity for granted, those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness cannot afford to do so. Achieving and maintaining good mental health requires a daily practice of mental hygiene which includes the following 10 components:

1.) Regular therapy sessions. Seeing a therapist regularly helps keep you accountable and on-track with your wellbeing. It is helpful to discuss your problems with someone who has a thorough knowledge of your history and can help you identify areas for continued growth. Sessions should be held at least weekly during the acute phase of illness, but may be spaced out to once or twice a month after stabilization.

2.) Adequate sleep. While individual sleep needs may vary, most adults require 8 hours of sleep per night for optimal functioning. Adolescents require at least 9 hours. It is best to sleep a full 8-10 hours at night rather than napping during the day, which can actually increase fatigue. Before you say “well, I get 7 hours and that’s close enough,” consider this: a cumulative sleep deficit of even 30 minutes a night increases the risk of depression, impairs concentration, and contributes to daytime fatigue.

3.) Regular exercise. Getting at least 30 minutes of physical activity 4-6 days per week helps to boost mood, relieve anxiety, and increase energy. New exercise trends come out every week, but it really doesn’t matter what type of exercise you do. Just move.

4.) Good nutrition. Proper nutrition involves eating, at a minimum, three balanced meals per day, with snacks in between as needed. A balanced diet incorporates a wide variety of foods including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fruits, and vegetables. I also recommend supplementing with a daily multivitamin and Omega-3 essential fatty acids. The brain requires sufficient calories in order to function properly – 20% of the calories we take in are used for brain activities – so a reduced calorie diet is harmful to your mental health. The brain is made of fat and runs on glucose, so it is not surprising that both low-fat and low-carb diets have been linked to depression.

5.) Avoidance of harmful substances. Don’t use illegal drugs. Don’t use prescription drugs unless they were prescribed for you. Don’t use over-the-counter drugs unless you really need them. I recommend avoiding alcohol if you fall into any of the following categories: you have a personal or family history of alcoholism or addiction; you take psychotropic medication; you have a chronic health condition; or you are under 21. If you do not fall into any of the aforementioned categories and you decide to drink alcohol, drink responsibly and moderately. Many people who suffer from depression find that alcohol exacerbates their depression (it is, after all, a depressant). If you drink caffeine, do so in moderation – excessive caffeine use can exacerbate anxiety and insomnia. If you need 7 cups of coffee just to get through the day, you are either sleeping too little or doing too much.

6.) A reasonable schedule. Being over-scheduled contributes to excess stress and anxiety, while being under-scheduled can lead to boredom, isolation, and depression. Many of your waking hours will be spent in structured, mandatory activities such as school or a job. Each person’s ideal balance of school/work hours will be different based upon their individual needs. That being said, no one does well working 100 hours a week or sitting at home all day for an extended period of time. Taking too many classes or working too many hours is exhausting and draining, and leaves little time for important self-care activities.

7.) Adequate “down time.” A reasonable schedule (see above) will allow for adequate sleep as well as unstructured “down time” to be by yourself, decompress, and regroup. Individual needs for down time may vary, but as a general rule I recommend 15-30 minutes per day. Down time may be spent taking a bath, reading for pleasure, watching TV, or something similar.

8.) Stress reduction activities. I recommend adopting a regular pattern of relaxation / stress-reduction activities which may include one or more of the following: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or massage.

9.) Social support. Robust mental health requires steady, reliable social support. It is important to have at least one person who is close to you whom you talk to on a regular basis. This may be
a spouse or significant other, a best friend, a parent, a sibling, or relative. It is also important to be a part of a larger community, such as a club, a church, a team, an extended family, or a close-knit workplace.

10.) Pleasurable activities. A good life involves a balance of things you “have to do” and things you “want to do.” It is the “want to do” activities that make life worth living. Spend some time each week pursuing a hobby or doing something that you really enjoy. I recommend scheduling pleasurable activities at least once per week.

Does this sound daunting? Perhaps it does if you have been neglecting your mental hygiene. But these basic principles can have a dramatic impact on your mental well being. If you want to feel good, you must treat yourself well. If you want to prevent a mental health crisis, you must practice good mental hygiene. Trust me – it is much easier and far less disruptive to prevent a mental health crisis than it is to pick up the pieces afterwards.

Time after Time

“I don’t have time.”

This is an excuse I hear all too often. When I recommend a health-promoting behavior to a patient, such as sleeping at least 8 hours per night, meditating, spending quality time with family and friends, or exercising regularly, some people respond reflexively by stating that they don’t have time. Others will give a more wistful response, such as: “Oh, I would love to, I know it’s good for me, but I just don’t have the time.” There are patients who cancel their therapy appointments because they “don’t have time” to attend, and those who fail to complete their therapy homework citing lack of time. While I sympathize with the feeling, I don’t buy this excuse.

Here’s the thing: time is the great equalizer. We each have different amounts of money, different abilities, different families, and different life circumstances, but we all have the same amount of time. Every single person on this earth is given 24 hours in each day, 7 days in each week, and 52 weeks in each year. What we do with that time is up to us. Believe it or not, you have quite a bit of control over how you spend your time.

When someone claims that they don’t have time to do X, what they really mean is that X is not important enough to make time for it. When you reframe the statement this way, it sounds much more pointed and critical, yet it is startlingly accurate:

“My mental health is not important enough to me to attend weekly therapy sessions.”

“I don’t care enough about my wellbeing to make the time to exercise regularly.”

“I’m choosing not to bring my daughter to therapy every week because attending volleyball practice is more important than her recovery.”

“My family just isn’t significant enough for me to take time out of my day to be with them.”

“I’m not coming to therapy tomorrow because it’s finals week, and my grades are much more important than my recovery.”

It is all a matter of priorities. We define ourselves and create our destiny, in part, by how we choose to spend our time. People spend substantial chunks of time each day twittering, texting, facebooking, watching television, and surfing the internet. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. When used appropriately, they can be entertaining and life-enhancing. But when a college student tells me she has no time to sleep or exercise, and yet she spends two hours a day on facebook and goes out drinking with friends three nights a week, this says something about her values and priorities. When a parent claims that she “doesn’t have time” to transport her child to weekly therapy appointments, but clearly has the time to transport said child to soccer practice, voice lessons, youth group, and SAT prep classes, this too says something about how much the parent values her child’s mental health.

Most people would take time off from work or school to see their family doctor if they were sick. Most parents wouldn’t think twice about making time for their child to have chemotherapy, dialysis, surgery, or even orthodontist visits. Yet somehow, treatment for mental illness is not viewed with the same urgency. This is a huge mistake.

Individuals living with mental illness have more physical health problems than those who are mentally healthy. Depression costs society billions of dollars each year in lost productivity, not to mention suicide. Eating disorders often become chronic, disabling conditions and have mortality rates close to 20%. Schizophrenia and addiction often lead to homelessness. So why do we continue to view mental health treatment as optional or extracurricular? Why does our behavior suggest that mental health treatment is less important than work, school, sports, or facebook?

The impact of mental illness on individuals, families, and society is enormous, but the benefits of good mental health are immense and immeasurable. Improved mental health means increased productivity, reduced stress, more rewarding relationships, improved physical wellbeing, and overall satisfaction with life.

Achieving and sustaining good mental health is not merely a matter of attending therapy appointments, just as achieving physical health requires far more than visits to your doctor. Successful treatment for mental illness involves significant time, energy, and effort outside the therapist’s office. Many types of mental illness come with a life-long predisposition, so sufferers must be ever mindful of controlling symptoms and preventing relapse, even after complete recovery. Developing good self-care habits, completing therapy homework assignments, and creating a lifestyle conducive to overall wellbeing are all part of a holistic approach to mental wellness.

Think carefully about how you spend your time. Ask yourself if the way you spend your time reflects your true values and priorities. If mental health is a priority for you, don’t just say it – LIVE it – and the benefits of good mental health will be yours to enjoy.

Surviving the Holidays When You Have a Mental Illness

For most people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. However, for many people with mental illnesses, the yuletide cheer is accompanied by added challenges. This is true for those with various diagnoses. Consider the following:

1. For people with depression, the joy and festivities of the holiday season seem to amplify their own inability to experience pleasure. As families and friends come together, they may withdraw. To make matters worse, Christmas falls right around the shortest day of the year, so the lack of sunlight can be a huge trigger for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a type of depression which occurs in the fall and winter months.

2. For people with anxiety, being around large groups of unfamiliar people can be terrifying. Christmas parties, crowded shopping malls, even visits with unfamiliar (or unkind) relatives can be extra-stressful.

3. For people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the large amounts of foods, particularly “treats,” that are part and parcel of holiday events can induce major anxiety. So can the enormously triggering “diet talk” that often accompanies holiday feasts and intensifies near New Years.

4. For people with alcoholism, the endless parade of holiday parties and events where alcohol is present makes it difficult to socialize normally or enjoy the typical gatherings with family and friends.

5. For people with ADHD, there is the added stress of final exams, Christmas shopping, decorating, parties, and visiting relatives, which can make them feel more scattered and disorganized than usual.

So how do you cope with mental illness during the holiday season?

Here are some tips which may be helpful, regardless of your particular diagnosis:

1.) Plan ahead. Create a written list of potential problems that could arise around the holidays. Think about various ways that you could handle these situations, and write down your solutions. Visualize yourself handling these difficult situations with grace and strength.

2.) Enlist social support. Talk to people you trust – your therapist, family members, or friends – about your concerns. Let them know how they can help you through this difficult time. People are more than willing to be more generous and charitable than usual at this time of year!

3.) Maintain good health habits. Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, eat plenty of healthful foods, exercise regularly, and drink in moderation (if at all). Many people stop engaging in health-promoting behaviors around the holidays. If you struggle with a mental illness, this is the time to be extra-conscientious about caring for your physical and mental health.

4.) Focus on the protective factors associated with Christmas. Despite the myth that rates of suicides increase around the holidays, scientific research actually shows that suicide rates are lower than average in the days before Christmas. This may be due to several issues:
• Increased support from family and friends, who tend to gather together around the holidays
• Increased sense of charity and goodwill from others
• More community support – shelters, food banks, charities for the poor
• For many people, Christmas is associated with positive memories of hope and love and family, which can help improve outlook when things seem bleak
• Increase in religious observance and spirituality associated with Christmas

5.) Lower your expectations. Yes, the holidays are seen by many as “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song goes. But stress and personal problems do not magically disappear during the holidays. It is not realistic to assume that you will be symptom-free simply because it is a holiday.

6.) Keep it simple. The holidays have become so commercialized, and so many demands are placed on people to throw and attend parties, buy and wrap lavish gifts, and cook like Julia Child on steroids, that many people are simply burnt out by the time Christmas arrives. Retailers love to extend the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Years, but this is mostly for their own profit, and it doesn’t have to be this way. If you feel overwhelmed by stress, simply have a quiet, one-evening celebration with a few people of your choosing who are closest to you. There is no need to spend precious time and money getting people the perfect gifts. A simple card with a thoughtful note is sufficient to let people know you are thinking of them.

7.) Focus on what really matters. Remember the people of Whoville in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? They showed us that Christmas can be joyful without presents and trees and decorations. These material things have no bearing on our ability to enjoy the holidays.

8.) In keeping with the Dr. Seuss example, think of your mental illness as the Grinch. It is a cold-hearted thief, with a heart three sizes too small, who will attempt to ruin your holiday. Don’t let it.

9.) Remember that parties are supposed to be fun and ARE ALWAYS OPTIONAL. You always dread your annual office party? Just don’t go. Let whomever is in charge know that you aren’t feeling well, or simply that you appreciate the invitation but you won’t be able to make it this year. It’s supposed to be a party, not a punishment.

10.) Do what’s fun; skip what’s not. If you love preparing Christmas dinner for your family, great! Enjoy! If not, hit up your local Chinese restaurant. Jews have had this tradition for decades.

Redefining Strength

All too often, we confuse strength with stoicism. We see an apparent absence of negative emotions and presume courage. We see an unadulterated expression of sadness and assume fragility.

I see this sometimes with new therapy clients. Like most of us, they’ve bought into the American dream (or American nightmare), where hard work, free will, and rugged individualism are viewed as keys to success and anything less is perceived as weakness or failure. When I ask how they feel about entering therapy, they report feeling weak for needing professional help, and even weaker if they are referred for psychiatric medication or a higher level of care. They feel ashamed when they cry in a therapy session, and they apologize to me. They berate themselves for not being strong enough to handle their mental illness, or the bad hand of cards they were dealt in life, on their own. They chide themselves for letting a breakup erode their confidence, for bursting into tears after being admonished by their boss, for letting life’s twists and turns and ups and downs affect them at all.

Taken to its logical extreme, this line of thought implies that it is a sign of weakness to experience and / or express negative emotions; strong people never experience negative emotions, or if they do, they suppress them; and strong people solve all of their problems on their own, without leaning on friends or family, and certainly without seeking professional help.

In reality, none of these statements are true. Vulnerability should not be confused with fragility. Experiencing and expressing a full range of emotions is not a sign of weakness. It is a manifestation of humanity.

My view of strength is quite different. In my mind, a strong person is someone who has a well-defined set of personal values and uses these values as a compass to guide her on her life path. She makes decisions and chooses actions that are consistent with her values. She maintains her principles with conviction, especially in the face of adversity. She is confident, tenacious, determined, responsible, and conscientious. She is not easily swayed by external pressure or public opinion, but she remains open to new ideas and various perspectives. She cares for herself so that she can maintain her fortitude. She mindfully accepts all of her emotions and experiences them fully, but she does not allow unpleasant emotions to prevent her from living a valued life. She seamlessly integrates logic, emotion, and intuition. She takes risks and makes mistakes. She has some successes and some failures. She emerges from her failures with grace, humility, and newfound wisdom which she applies to future endeavors. Her self-identity is well-defined. She lives unapologetically.

Having a mental illness has nothing to do with weakness, and seeking help for a mental illness is the antithesis of frailty. Consider what people with mental illnesses must endure. On the whole, they are more vulnerable to intense negative emotions, poor self-esteem, and self-destructive behavior. They face misunderstanding, stigmatization, and discrimination on a daily basis. They deal with family and friends who “just don’t get it,” an ignorant society, and a lack of awareness about their conditions. They struggle to navigate through a healthcare system that considers their disorders trivial and their treatment optional or, in many cases, fails to consider them at all.

Those who complete treatment successfully and manage their mental illnesses adaptively are amongst the strongest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. They own their recovery and take responsibility for staying well. They make a point of living lifestyles that are conducive to health and happiness, even in cultures that teach otherwise. Armed with effective coping skills and hard-earned insight, they pursue life in a deeper, more meaningful way. They know when they need help and they know how to get it without delay. They make use of whatever tools they have, such as therapy, psychotropic medication, exercise, spiritual practice, or meditation. They surround themselves with a positive social network and they utilize family and friends for practical and emotional support. They are able to derive meaning from their suffering, and quite often they draw upon their own experiences to help others. They are wise beyond their years, and they don’t take their hard-earned sanity for granted.

Lifestyles of the Depressed and Anxious

Despite miraculous advances in science, medicine, and technology, the rates of mental illness in the western world are higher than ever before. For instance, the rate of depression in the United States is ten times higher today than it was just two generations ago. Most mental illnesses are biologically-based and genetically-transmitted, but genes don’t change that fast, and we are biologically quite similar to our ancestors. Prior to the 20th century, human beings faced more risk and hardship on a regular basis than most of us will ever know, all without the advantage of modern science and medicine. But somehow, they were more resilient. How can this be?

Research suggests that many features of the modern lifestyle are toxic to our mental health. Most Americans have at least one, if not many, of the following issues:

• Too little sleep (less than 8 hours per night)
• Not enough exercise
• Insufficient exposure to sunlight
• Insufficient time outdoors
• Hectic, overscheduled lifestyles
• Too little “down time” to relax and unwind
• Poor eating habits (dieting, skipping breakfast, overeating, having too few fruits and vegetables, skimping on protein and dairy and carbohydrates and fats, eating too many processed foods, insufficient intake to meet one’s energy demands)
• High levels of stress
• High levels of caffeine consumption (more than 2 caffeinated beverages per day)
• Excess alcohol consumption
• Use of illegal drugs
• Over-reliance on prescription and over-the-counter medications
• Social isolation
• Underutilization of family and community supports
• Intense pressure (self-imposed and socially prescribed) to achieve and perform

Sound familiar?

Any one of these issues has the potential to trigger a mental illness in someone who is biologically vulnerable. The unfortunate reality, however, is that most Americans are dealing with several of these concerns simultaneously. No wonder we are so depressed and anxious!

Hundreds of years ago, our lifestyles were much simpler and much healthier. Our better habits were reflected in our mental health. Consider the Amish, who pride themselves on resisting societal change and maintaining their 18th century lifestyle. The Amish have very low rates of mental illness. I believe this is largely attributable to their lifestyles: they are physically active every day, they get plenty of sleep, they simplify their lives, they have low levels of stress, they eat naturally and nutritiously without dieting, they are deeply spiritual, they have a strong sense of community, and they rely upon their families, neighbors, and churches for social support.

Consider the Kaluli, an aboriginal hunter-gatherer tribe native to the highlands of New Guinea. Relatively untouched by modern society, their lifestyles closely resemble those of our ancestors. They live and work outdoors, they are physically active for most of the day, they eat naturally and bountifully from the land, they get plenty of sleep, and they rely heavily on their families and communities for support. A western anthropologist who studied the Kaluli people for nearly a decade found that clinical depression was virtually nonexistent in their tribe.

I would bet that many Amish and Kaluli people have biological predispositions for mental illnesses, but these genes are less likely to be expressed in an environment that protects and nurtures the body, mind, and spirit. We are less likely to develop body image problems if we grow up in a society without dieting and without a narrowly-defined, media-promoted, unhealthy standard of beauty. We are less likely to develop eating disorders if we live in a society in which everyone eats, effortlessly and without guilt, the types and quantities of foods that their bodies need. We are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression if we are well-rested, well-nourished, and well-supported by our families and communities. Our children are less likely to show signs of inattention and hyperactivity if they get plenty of fresh air and outdoor exercise and have minimal exposure to television, computers, video games, and cell phones. We may discover that, if we are truly caring for ourselves, we don’t need a cup of coffee to wake up in the morning, we don’t want to go out drinking on the weekends, and most of our aches and pains will diminish without the use of Advil. We may find that we actually enjoy going to bed at 9:00 and rising with the sun, spending more time outdoors, being more physically active, and letting go of excess stress that weighs us down.

Perhaps our minds are not suited for the modern world. The evolution of our brains has not kept up with advances in science, technology, and other aspects of modern life. I am not suggesting that, in a Survivor-like twist of events, we turn back time and return to our ancestral hunter-gatherer environment. Science and technology and modern society are remarkable in many ways, and I feel fortunate to live in the twenty-first century. I am suggesting, however, that we take a critical look at the way we live our lives and examine the effects that our behaviors and lifestyles have on our mental health. We can learn a few lessons from the Kaluli and the Amish. We can place more emphasis on our own self-care and encourage our friends and family to do the same.

When I was working at a university counseling center, a colleague of mine had a client – a college freshman – who met full criteria for major depression and an anxiety disorder. This young man’s case was puzzling initially because his symptoms appeared rather suddenly after starting college and he had no family history of depression or anxiety. After a thorough evaluation, my colleague recommended a few simple behavioral changes such as improving his sleep hygiene, increasing the number of hours he slept each night, decreasing his consumption of alcohol and caffeine, and increasing his physical activity. Within two weeks of changing his habits, his symptoms had disappeared entirely and he was back to his full-functioning, high-energy self.

The moral of this story is that poor self-care not only triggers or exacerbates mental illness in those who are biologically vulnerable, but it can actually create a syndrome that appears identical to a mental illness in those without a predisposition.

Very few people fully appreciate the value of self-care. Children are taught to excel in school and sports and music and arts and various other extracurricular activities. They are taught to follow the Ten Commandments and keep their rooms clean and mind their manners and look pretty. As they grow older, they are taught to stay away from drugs and have safe sex and watch their waistlines. But who will teach them good mental hygiene? Self-care is either glossed over or ignored completely in school. Many well-intentioned parents don’t model good self-care – they are overworked, overscheduled, overtired, overmedicated, over-caffeinated, and undernourished. These parents may encourage good grades and good behavior, but they are unlikely to instill good self-care habits in their children. Most physicians overlook the role of lifestyle factors in triggering or exacerbating mental illnesses, and they use medication as the first line of treatment, even if the patient’s problem could be addressed more effectively with behavioral interventions. Many therapists do not teach their clients the importance of self-care in preventing and reducing the impact of mental illness, instead choosing to target cognitive distortions or family relations or interpersonal skills. Don’t get me wrong – these issues are important as well – but without the baseline of good nutrition, plenty of sleep and exercise, stress management, and other healthy habits, the client is likely to continue to struggle with some level of depression or anxiety.