Some thoughts on the tradgedy at University of Maryland, and on the Baltimore Sun

“All mental illnesses are not the same. They vary in intensity and duration of symptoms. Some sufferers will show periods of lucidity that can be confusing even to experts. Not all chronic sufferers from mental illness will have an acute psychotic breakdown”

This passage from an editorial in the Baltimore Sun prompted me to write this post today.  It seems to me that this is entirely true.  I don’t agree 100% with the article after this statement (it’s in the early stages of the letter).  But I do agree that attempting to define “mental illness” with some set of constant terms is impossible.

Before I get to far, I wanted to express my sadness over the shootings.  I am sad for the victims, of course, but also for the shooter, reportedly a grad student.  School shootings are always terrible, and usually make the population think.  This one in particular seems not to have, much.  Maybe it’s because we’ve had so many shootings at schools in the past 6 months.  Again, I am saddened by this

Back to the letter to the editor.  It’s actually written in response to this article initially written and posted on February 13th.  In it the author paints a picture where students would help identify students having a breakdown, and steer them towards treatment.

“The deaths of Mr. Green and his roommate, along with the wounding of another student, demonstrate the need for colleges to help faculty and students become more aware of potential mental health problems they observe. Such discussions should occur early on, during orientation week for incoming students, for instance. Being able to identify peers who are psychologically distressed and recognize the changes in behavior that signal problems would allow students to react more appropriately and be more in control of situations that may arise.”

Pipe dream.  As well intended as this approach would be it would be a disaster.  College students aren’t qualified or capable of identifying the “psychologically distresses” from among their peer group.  In fact, the author lists a few reasons why it wouldn’t work in their own editorial.

Listen, people:  college’s have a tough time with this subject.  Most now have student aid centers where counselling is available, some can even write prescriptions.  When I was a college student in the mid 1990’s, the student health center was there and willing to do what if could – but again, all mental illnesses are not the same.  Students who are brave enough, or willing enough, to go get help can get some measure of help.  But we have to remember the issues new college students face when they enter the campus community.  Even the “well adjusted” can have some issues with pressure, new social scenery, new peer groups, and then throw in pressures from the actual schoolwork.  It can be daunting.

Picture how daunting it can be if you know something isn’t quite right in your head.  Imagine, if you can, the fear involved in having a mental illness, needing medication or therapy, and having to tell friends.  It can be hard.  Again, this is in the case of a student who knows their situation already.  Never mind the slow decent into madness and paranoia that can happen to a student over a period of years as their workload increases, and their focus decreases.  I’ve never been a grad student, but I can imagine, and have been told, that the pressure is immense.  Everything you are doing, 25×7 is all about that grad work.  There often is nothing else.

To me, the key to slowing our rate of school violence (not just shootings, but suicides, beatings, etc) would be to do one simple thing:  reduce the amount of pressure we put on students, and on people as a whole.  I was chatting back and forth with a friend as I was writing this, and he pointed that out:  we place so much pressure on our students, all in the name of an often inferior education.  There’s financial pressures from college, social pressures, as well as obvious academic ones.  I’m no genius here, but I would think that something could be done to lower the pressure related to being a college student, right?

I know what you are thinking:  how does lowering pressure on students lower the likelihood of mental illness?  It might not lower the likelihood of someone getting sick, but it would alleviate some of the outside factors that make being mentally ill tough universally.  I know mental illnesses are not all the same (as stated above), but there are some things that everyone would benefit from.

Imagine if you could somehow create a college atmosphere where students had less worries, not more?  What if college students were relaxed people, as opposed to the tightly would bunches of hormones they generally are now?

One last thought on University of Maryland (and others, surely), and what they are dealing with in this time and place:  Please be very careful how you proceed from here.  I completely agree that some things need to be done, and many things could be changed, in the light of a school shooting.  In fact, University President Wallace Loe said as much:

“there are lessons to be learned, policy questions to be discussed, changes to be made” – University of Md. President Wallace Loe, February 12th, 2013

I would encourage the U of M community to address their concerns, but to work hard to address them in a manner that does not further ostracize the mentally ill community on your campus and in your town.  It does no one any good if you further push away a group of people who merely need help.  Not every mentally ill person is a violent sociopath in waiting.  As I’ve mentioned (probably harped on) before, we’re not all bad people, and most of us just want to go about our days, just like you.  If you begin to place even more pressure on a mentally ill student to conform, or try to force someone to get help who doesn’t want it yet, you can easily push them to hurt themselves.  That is a true tragedy as well.  Trust me, I know.

Another quick reminder that seems timely: According to the NIMH, the 18-25 age bracket is the most affected by mental illness.  Which is also the age we all get sent off to college.  I’m not saying it’s definitely linked – I’m not qualified to do that.  I’m just saying that the age bracket that colleges have to work with is one that is susceptible to a lot of things, and serious mental illness seems to be one of them. (Thanks again to the BBR&F for the link!)

As my ramble comes to a close, I wanted to stress/repeat this:

  • I am truly saddened by the loss at College Park
  • Mental illness does not fit into a nice little box.  They are all a bit different, just like the patients.
  • Asking college students to identify the mentally ill amongst them is a really, really bad idea.  Just look at any historical examples of a witch hunt for reference.
  • Please be sure not to demonize all of the mentally ill over the actions of a few sad individuals.  That doesn’t help solve any problems – it just makes them worse.

Thanks to Skylar for chatting with me through this.  Great insight, man.

 

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You really shouldn’t let me digress like that…….

Hello again, Internet!  I hope the last few days have gone well for you all.  I’ve spent the time catching up on my school work (yes, I’m a college student – more on that later) and doing some additional reading.  I think we established that reading is something I love to do!

I was thinking a bit about tools we have as the mentally ill, and also about how I personally think those tools can be best used.  Not to sound arrogant about that, but I wanted to explore what I could do to be a better human, bi-polar or not.  I’ve touched on my personal medications in general terms, and how some of those work together to make me feel more comfortable.  I wanted to report that about 2 weeks ago, I had a moment where I could actually TELL my medication was working.  I was happy, and content, just kind of randomly.  I’d actually forgotten what that felt like.  It’s a pretty sweet feeling, and a funny realization, all at once.

So my medications are working, but what else could I be doing to get back to my personal normal?  I began taking college courses on-line 2+ years ago, and I found that fun, and interesting.  Since I am not working at the moment, I thought it was a great time to get back on that. First I checked with my team of doctors and insurance people to be sure I was allowed to do this. If anyone reading this in my situation is thinking about enrolling, please be sure to check with your team as well!  In my case. everyone (including my employer) was good with 1-2 classes online, as long as I wasn’t going to be on campus (too much pressure, too many people, etc).  Since I take classes through an online program affiliated with a state university, I was good.  I scheduled 2 freshman level science courses, and got to work.  I find debate and learning to be stimulating mentally, and I find that they help me to have something to do during the day.  So far, I’m back at school, and the experience is going OK. Not too overwhelming, and it provides some structure to my week.

The other tool I was thinking about is food.  In my house, we are struggling to eat well.  It’s actually been easier since I’ve been getting better.  Towards the beginning of this “in house” period, it was rough. I didn’t want to go anywhere, see anyone, or anything.  My wife would come home and I’d have gotten carry out or delivery.  That’s OK every once in a while, but 2-3 times per week?  Not so much.  Now think about it for a week straight…..yikes!

So as I’ve progressed in my treatment, I’ve begun to take a good amount of pride in pulling together a home made, reasonably nutritious dinner for my wife and I.  Some days it’s all I really “accomplish”, but at the least we are eating! Progress, right?  I was watching a segment on HSN the other day (I know, I know….) and they were hawking supplements.  I was thinking about the link between nutrients and mental health, so (as I mentioned) I did some reading

(You really shouldn’t let me digress like that……..)

I wanted to share a passage I found during my “research” that shook me. It’s here:

http://www.minddisorders.com/Kau-Nu/Nutrition-and-mental-health.html#ixzz2KuBx0iHU

“Chronic hunger and energy deprivation profoundly affects mood and responsiveness. The body responds to energy deprivation by shutting or slowing down nonessential functions, altering activity levels, hormonal levels, oxygen and nutrient transport, the body’s ability to fight infection, and many other bodily functions that directly or indirectly affect brain function. People with a consistently low energy intake often feel apathetic, sad, or hopeless.”

Sounds oddly familiar, at least to me. I often forget to eat, and then have low energy levels.  The same article points out that simply skipping a meal can lead to lower mental functioning, and that nutrient deficiencies can lead to a host of issues. I think we all know that nutrient loss can make you  unwell.  Osteoporosis comes to mind,  as does anemia (both common in ladies, but also in a growing number of men).  What I’d never really considered was what nutrient loss could be doing to my mental health.  According to Dr. Annemarie Colbin, of Food&Healing.com, this can be a big problem.  I read through 2 of her articles, and came up with some interesting points that I wanted to share:

  • Lack of B Vitamins (Niacin, B12, Thiamine, B6) can all cause depression, apathy, and memory loss. B6 is tricky though – too much is also bad for you!
  • Lack of Vitamin C and Vitamin D have been linked for years to Seasonal Affective Disorder (known as SAD). Particularly Vitamin D.
  • Neurotransmitters are generated when we consume amino acids, which are found in protein heavy foods.  Everyone should be sure to consume proteins.  This is tough for vegetarians, but beans and nuts contain high levels of proteins as well.
  • Omega 3’s are very successful in combating depression, and have been recommended for years.  As we know, oily fish contain these essential ingredients.  So do supplements, if you don’t like fish.

Another point she made was this: too many sweets can cause despondency and sadness, due in part to the carbohydrates they contain.  People frequently substitute a meal for a sweet drink, or water for something like a sports drink or a coffee, which can make this even worse.  These habits become habit forming, and can lead to all sorts of nutrient issues.

 

OK! So, as you can tell, I’m passionate about this topic, too.  I don’t do as well following the guidelines that these pages all suggest, but I condensed it down to my Four Mental Health Food Guidelines.  I figured anyone should be able to do these four things. What are they?

  1. Avoid excess sweets, especially soda and sports drinks.  They don’t bring anything nutritionally to the table, and lead to issues of their own.
  2. Avoid cane sugar and artificial sweeteners where you can.  Granola bars and “breakfast bars” are frequent culprits, so are kids cereals. (It’s really a crime what we feed out kids……different blog though).
  3. Eat a well balanced plate with every meal.  Don’t skip meals. Every meal should have proteins (especially important for us – remember the neurotransmitters!), fruits and veggies (tough at breakfast, I admit), and lastly some whole grains.
  4. Take a multi-vitamin.  Every day. In our case, be sure that Vitamin C, Vitamin D, and the B Vitamins are included.  This is life changing.

The most important thing I could add on nutrition and mental health is this:  take the multivitamins.  Every day. I’ve been doing it for months, and I’ve been getting better. Of course, I have medications, too.  But the vitamins are simply doing what the med’s do.  They are replenishing my bodies supply of things they NEED to function properly.  My wife and I use a gummy vitamin, since I have so many other pills to swallow in the morning.

Thanks for reading. I know this one diverged a bit towards the middle, but I appreciate you meandering along with me. To summarize:  Exercise your brain – and FEED IT correctly.

 

If you wanted to read the articles I referenced,
1. Nutrition and Mental Health by Dr. Annemarie Colbin
2. Food and Your Mood by the NCHPAD
3. Nutrition and Mental Health in Children by the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders