Category: Mental Health

Have a Healthy Serving of Gratitude this Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is not usually considered a healthy holiday. Although it may mean trouble for your waistline, the holiday’s emphasis on gratitude makes Thanksgiving a great time to boost your mental health and sense of well-being.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude: noun grat·i·tude \ˈgra-tə-ˌtüd, -ˌtyüd\ a feeling of appreciation or thanks.

How does it impact health and well-being?

Gratitude is the process of recognizing and acknowledging the good things in life. It can create a positive shift people’s attitudes and perspectives by helping them focus on what they have instead of what they lack. Gratitude can help people appreciate and build stronger relationships with the people in their life, relish good experiences, improve their health, and better deal with adversity. In these ways, increasing gratitude is associated with an increase in happiness and feelings of well-being.

How can I practice gratitude?

-Write a thank-you note. Even if you don’t send it, the process of putting your feelings into words can be a therapeutic and worthwhile exercise.

-Keep a gratitude journal. If you already have a journal, consider adding a few lines at the end of each entry about the things you’re thankful for.

-Count your blessings. Start small by trying to mentally list 3-5 things that you’re grateful for at the end of each week.

-Meditate or pray. Take some time to create a calm atmosphere where you can quietly reflect on the things in your life that you’re grateful for.


Take a few minutes now to think about some of the things that you’re thankful for, and feel free to share in the comments below!

Mental health Mondays: signs of Alzheimer’s

Nurse_in_geriatryLast week, in honor of National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregivers Month, I mentioned some strategies that could help a family member with a dementia be integrated into holiday festivities. But what if the family member has memory loss but hasn’t been diagnosed with a dementia? What are the signs of Alzheimer’s, and how do they differ from those of an ordinarily aging mind?

The Alzheimer’s Association website (a terrific resource) suggests that your level of worry should partly be determined by the person’s degree of incapacity. For instance, missing a monthly credit card or other bill payment could happen to anyone. A persistent inability to manage a budget, on the other hand, could be a warning of a developing dementia.

Forgetting words for specific things happens all the time. Difficulty having a conversation might be a warning. Losing things periodically? Totally normal. Misplacing things and being unable to retrace steps to find them? Could be trouble. At our house we have a joke: it’s OK to lose the car keys, but you’re in trouble if you don’t know what the car keys are for. There’s some truth in that.

The holidays are a time to see family you haven’t seen in a while, and we notice aging more when we don’t see it every day. If you think you have a relative who’s becoming impaired, don’t panic. But, check out the Alzheimer’s Association website, and then you might want to check with your relative’s doctor. Be aware that one in three American seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, and many people with dementia don’t know that they have it. The earlier you come to grips with it, the better you can plan for it. And the better you plan, the better things will be for you, your relative and his or her caregivers.

Mental health Monday: Alzheimer’s at the holidays

end of family dinnerPeople all across America are looking forward to going home for Thanksgiving. We’re making lists, shopping, cooking, packing, baking and getting in the holiday mood. And we’re mentally girding ourselves for our relatives. Going home often means seeing relatives. And depending on the relatives you’ve got, that might be terrific—or maybe not.

November is both Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregivers Month.  If you have a family member with one of the dementias (which we often lump together under the term “Alzheimer’s disease”), the reunion can be bittersweet. You love this person, but his or her behavior can cause real hardship for the people around him or her, especially at the holidays. However, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are ways to make holidays better for the whole family:

1) Adjust expectations. A family conference call before folks arrive for the big day can let everyone know in advance how Uncle Charlie is doing and what he needs to stay on an even keel. And do you need turkey and ham and venison and Cornish game hens? Keep it simple.

2) Involve the person with dementia. Focus on what s/he can do, not what s/he can’t. If it’s not a good idea to give Aunt Carla a knife to chop onions, maybe she can mix dough, or dry dishes, or tell stories to younger kids.

3) Don’t forget family members. Even if Grandpa doesn’t talk, don’t assume he doesn’t see and hear. The person you love is in there, even if his neurons are keeping him from expressing himself the way he used to. Consider switching the big dinner to a big lunch or brunch, because lots of folks with dementias do better earlier in the day. And remember that caregiving is a huge responsibility—take advantage of family members being around to give Grandpa’s caregiver some respite.

For more detail about the suggestions above, and a lot of other very useful information about dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Association page at

What is Movember?

My boyfriend has always been a fan of No-Shave-November, mainly because of his love for his scruffy beard all year-long. But this year, he told me he was doing something different. He was shaving his beard on November 1st to instead grow out a mustache all month long. While at first I cringed at the thought of him sporting a dying 1970s trend, once I learned more about the organization behind this attempt at a mustache comeback, I became more supportive.

Movember, the month formerly known as November, marks a month where men and women join together to bring men’s health issues, a topic often neglected, into the spotlight. Men, called “Mo-Bros” sign up and grow and groom a mustache for 30 days. The organization has also made efforts to get women (called “Mo-Sistas”) involved, so they can also raise money and awareness to support the men in their life (without growing the mustache). 

You may be wondering, how does a mustache help with men’s health issues? Well, the idea behind the Movember Foundation is that a mustache is nature’s billboard. The founders discovered that the mustache is a powerful way to start conversations and decided to use that idea to get men more comfortable talking about their health. What most people don’t realize is that the state of men’s health is in a crisis, and on average, men die six years earlier than women. Some of the main causes of death in men (suicide, prostate cancer, and testicular cancer) are a result of the stereotypical forms of masculinity that prevent men from seeking help or getting preventative care.

Since the foundation of the project in 2003, the organization has grown from just 30 “Mo-Bros”, to 5 million “Mo-Bros” and “Mo-Sistas” worldwide. They also have raised $649 million and have funded over 832 men’s health projects since 2003.

So no, mustaches are not making a comeback (thank god), but they are making a significant contribution to men living happier, healthier, longer lives. For more information about the foundation, or to sign up for your own Movember (it’s not too late!) visit

Mental health Monday: Learning to live well in low light



Dark comes early these days, since we turned our clocks back.

For some folks, that’s just an opportunity to rock reflective accessories—but for others, the shortage of sunshine is associated with depression.

If your mood goes south when the birds do, you might have a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, appropriately known as SAD. Traditional treatments include, logically enough, exposure to bright light. Light therapy typically means sitting under a bright light for 30 minutes right after waking, every day. For people who normally scramble out of the house (a lot of us) in the mornings, that can be a bit of a pain.

So SAD sufferers hailed an American Journal of Psychiatry article, just published November 5, suggesting that over the long term (two or more winters), cognitive behavioral therapy worked better for SAD than light therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy looks and feels like counseling—the therapist teaches the patient new ways of thinking and acting to solve problems. Of course, you have to schedule the therapy and attend the sessions, usually weekly. But you may get to keep your eyes shut for an extra 30 minutes in the morning.

Kelly Rohan, a University of Vermont psychology professor who is the lead author of the American Journal of Psychiatry article, called light therapy “an effective treatment” in an Atlantic interview, but suggested that cognitive behavioral therapy provided “a sense of agency or control” that was useful in beating depression.

Mental Health Monday: “ADHD Is Different for Women”

Look like your desk? Read on...

Look like your desk? Read on…

Are you feeling disorganized, scattered and forgetful?

If you’re a UNC-Chapel Hill student, that might be just the late-October vibe at a demanding academic institution. But if you’re a female student in her late teens or early 20s, it might be ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity disorder.

Last week I wrote about Ty Pennington, who was bouncing off the walls in elementary school, a textbook case of ADHD. But according to a 2013 Atlantic article, “ADHD Is Different for Women.”

“ADHD does not look the same in boys and girls,” writes article author Maria Yagoda. “Women with the disorder tend to be less hyperactive and impulsive, more disorganized, scattered, forgetful and introverted. “

“They’ve alternately been anxious or depressed for years,” says Dr. Ellen Littman, author of Understanding Girls with ADHD, who is quoted in Yagoda’s article. “It’s this sense of not being able to hold everything together.”

Yagoda writes that she was diagnosed as a junior at Yale, and “initially perplexed by [her] diagnosis.” This may not be surprising, as she cites an estimate of around 4 million undiagnosed girls and women—half to three-quarters of all women with ADHD.

“Often, if girls are smart or in supportive homes, symptoms are masked,” says Sari Solden, therapist and author of Women and Attention Deficit Disorder, quoted in Yagoda’s article. “Because they’re not hyperactive or causing trouble for other people, they’re usually not diagnosed until they hit a wall, often at college, marriage, or pregnancy.”

If you’re feeling like you might have hit that wall, be reminded that neither this post nor anything else on the internet can function as a diagnosis. But if you want more information, check out the ADHD page at the National Institute of Mental Health. If you think your scatteredness might have roots in one of the attention deficit disorders, start with a visit to your doctor. And don’t worry that you’re not one of the boys.


Mental health Monday: Happy Birthday, Ty Pennington!

164px-Ty_Pennington_headshotGood morning and happy birthday, Ty Pennington!

The TV host, artist, author and carpenter turns either 50 or 51 today, depending on your sources. And we care because he’s been able to be a TV host, an artist, an author and a carpenter while living with a classic case of ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Living with ADHD can make the simplest things tough. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, adults with ADHD may not know they have it:

They may feel that it is impossible to get organized, stick to a job, or remember and keep appointments. Daily tasks such as getting up in the morning, preparing to leave the house for work, arriving at work on time, and being productive on the job can be especially challenging for adults with ADHD.

The average age of onset is 7, and Ty Pennington was a textbook case. He described his elementary school behavior in a 2007 interview in Ability magazine:

Within 30 minutes, I was wearing my desk. I swung to the blinds, I climbed out the windows, I ran around naked, I slapped Johnny in the back of the head. So I was what you call, ‘a classic distraction.’

Pennington was diagnosed with ADHD when he was starting college and it changed his life:

Once I tried out different meds that [the doctor] prescribed and then went back for the follow-up, there was a huge change in my behavior, which was phenomenal. I’d never even heard of ADHD. I knew that I had problems…. So to see such a change in my grades and in my class participation, not to mention the fact that I could actually communicate with other people, go on a date and not mumble the entire time… I think a lot of people don’t understand how much of an impact this condition has on a person, and what a struggle it can be in your life, not just your grades and your job, but with your relationships. Especially when you’re a teen, people are trying to understand what’s going on with you and you just don’t have a good way to really communicate it.

ADHD has three sub-types: predominantly hyperactive-impulsive; predominantly inattentive; and combined hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive. Check out the ADHD page at the National Institute of Mental Health for more information on symptoms, causes, treatments and tips for living with the disorder. According to that page, the disorder affects 9 percent of American kids aged 13 to 18 and boys are four times more at risk than girls.

The important thing to remember is that ADHD is treatable, and that people of all ages who have it can live productive lives. Just look at Ty Pennington.

Mental health Monday: Getting on your metals

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Recent research into mechanisms of mental health indicates that zinc and a new way to process lithium may have promise in treating depression and bipolar disorder.

An August 2015 Scientific American article, “Metals and Mental Health,” explained that lithium, long considered the standard treatment for bipolar disorder, may be affected by insulinlike growth factor (IGF1). Lithium doesn’t always work with bipolar patients and doctors don’t know why. However, the fact that higher levels of IGF1 were found in the blood cells of those patients responsive to lithium treatment suggests that the hormone may be a key to how it works. When scientists added IGF1 to the cells of patients who didn’t originally respond to lithium, their cells showed increased lithium sensitivity. Researchers hope to get clinical trials of IGF1 for bipolar disorder underway “quickly.”

The same article described four studies on the role of zinc in brain operations. One study found that depressed people tended to have about 14 percent less zinc in their blood than most people do on average, and people with severe depression had even less. In the brain, zinc is concentrated in neurons that increase brain activity and play a role in neuroplasticity—the brain’s lifelong ability to adjust to changing circumstances. Another study (which was a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial) showed a steeper decline in depression symptoms when zinc was administered.

It’s important to note that “research indicates” and “may have promise” are not directives to start downing zinc by the handful or ask your doctor for an IGF1 prescription. For now, a well-balanced diet is your best bet. But in the future, publicly-available treatments for depression and bipolar disorder may be improved by this research.

Mental Health Mondays: Mental illness isn’t “It”

ROSEBURG, OR - OCTOBER 02:  A sign sits along the road to Umpqua Community College on October 2, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon.  Yesterday 10 people were killed and another seven were wounded on the campus when 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer went on a shooting rampage.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A sign sits along the road to Umpqua Community College on October 2, 2015 in Roseburg, Oregon. Ten people were killed and another seven were wounded on the campus when 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer went on a shooting rampage. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

We’ve been here before: mass shooting, followed by thoughts and prayers sent to families, followed by calls for “something to be done.” Something usually takes one of two tacks, depending on your politics:

  1. Gun control or rights.
  2. Doing something about mental health.

Not touching number one in this post, but some things about number two bear repeating.

Mentally ill people are not automatically violent, any more than mentally healthy people. The mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perps.

Metzl and MacLeish, in their literature review in the February 2015 issue of the American Journal of Public Health:

less than 3 to 5 percent of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness….A growing body of research suggests that mass shootings represent anecdotal distortions of, rather than representations of, the actions of ‘mentally ill’ people as an aggregate group.

Stuart’s 2008 review of violence and mental illness concludes: “mental disorders are neither necessary, nor sufficient causes of violence. The major determinants of violence continue to be socio-demographic and socio-economic factors such as being young, male, and of lower socio-economic status.”

One more time: mental illness does not equate with violence. Even if universal mental health could be achieved at the push of a button, that button wouldn’t solve the American plague of mass shootings. Mental illness is not “It.”

Back to the drawing board.

Start Your Day Off the Right Way

Want to start your day off the right way? Besides eating better — toss those Pop Tarts for a grapefruit and forego the coffee creamer — there’s another step you can take to beginning your day on the right foot. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania recently conducted a study to show that watching or reading stories that stir positive emotions can have lasting effects throughout the day.

The study involved splitting participants into two groups. One group watched three minutes of negative news commentary, while the other group watched positive “solutions-focused” news. The researchers found that not only were stress levels higher among members among the first group, but they also had a 27% likelihood of reporting having a bad day overall, even six to eight hours later.

Since we can’t manually select the news stories that appear on T.V., the authors advise to refrain from watching or reading the news until evening, when we’re likely to be in better state to receive negative information. Also, instead of talk radio, try tuning into classical music on your daily commute. Finally, the authors suggest building your newsfeed to include empowering stories with potential solutions, as they are more likely to build us up and make us more productive and happy throughout the day. Since we can receive the latest updates on our mobile devices, we’re encouraged to turn off push notifications to avoid negative interruptions throughout the day. As for major breaking news, don’t worry—you’ll hear about it soon enough.

By doing these simple steps to control our news consumption, we’re priming ourselves to be more in control of our emotions, and therefore more constructive in our daily lives.

Photo credit: Barn Images via Flickr