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Your Mental Health

Childhood neglect and mental health

 
Research has made a clear causal link between early childhood neglect and lifelong mental health issues.
 
We have long seen correlations between childhood emotional damage and lifelong issues such as lower IQ, attachment disorders and mental illness. Intervention to date has primarily focused on dealing with these problems as they arise, but little was known about exactly what was happening physiologically.
 
About 10 years ago a US study examined this link by comparing children raised in the infamous state-run Romanian orphanages with a group who were removed from these institutions and placed in foster care and a third group who remained with their original parents.
 
The study was called the Bucharest project and it made a significant finding – orphans who went to foster homes before the age of two often recovered some of their abilities whereas those who left the orphanage after age two rarely did.
 
It seemed the first two years of life were absolutely crucial to protecting the brain from lasting damage from neglect. Still, more research was needed in order to further understand this phenomenon.
 
A similar study conducted in 2011 found the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes (called telomeres) are shorter in children who spent longer in the Romanian orphanages.
 
It seems damage to the telomeres could change the timing of how some cells develop, including those in the brain. Individuals with shorter telomeres were more likely to develop future mental difficulties.
 
We finally have some biological evidence that neglect in infancy changes the way the brain develops.
 
With this information, we now know that a good way to prevent some of these mental health problems is to take action during the first two years of a child’s life to prevent the damage from occurring.
 
Early interventions in a child’s life such as supports and education for parents and improvements to the quality of childcare facilities could have a big positive impact on the lives of the children affected.
 
It is estimated that childhood adversity is associated with roughly one in five cases of severely impairing mental disorders and one in four anxiety disorders in adulthood – problems that are very costly to our society in both human and economic terms.
 
As is often the case, a little bit of well-planned preventive spending would likely go a long way toward ensuring a healthier, happier future generation. The dollars spent to ensure all children are nurtured during their formative years would save much of the money spent later in life on the costly interventions necessary to deal with the problems stemming from sub-standard care in infancy.
 
What we need is some foresight by our government to see the value of investing in the lives of children today for a better tomorrow.


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Marriage after a brain injury

There has been much research in recent years about the devastating and lifelong impact of brain injuries. New research continues to bring to light the dangers of concussions and we hear about personality changes and symptoms similar to mental illness that can result when a person’s brain is damaged by trauma.

Brain injuries change lives – and not just for the injured. In particular, life also changes dramatically for the spouses of those living with the permanent effects of brain injury.

Until recently, there wasn’t much research into the best way to preserve the marriage relationship after a brain injury. Often, couples go into survival mode for the first while and once the true effects of the injury become clear they are left to struggle through on their own.

Even for those who can still function with daily activities and live relatively independently, brain trauma often brings personality changes. A once lively, cheerful person could become cold and morose. An even-tempered spouse could begin to have frequent angry outbursts or near-manic behaviour.

Suddenly, your spouse is no longer the person you know better than anyone else and the spark that drew you together may indeed be gone. In these cases, doctors often warn spouses that the meaningful part of their marriage may be over as personality changes can do irreparable harm to relationships.

Although the relationship has undoubtedly changed and may not be happy, the statistics show that many marriages do survive after a spouse experiences a brain trauma. A 2007 study found the divorce rate in this group to be lower than the national average at just 17 percent.

Today, therapists are beginning to understand the obstacles faced by couples dealing with brain injury and are working on new counselling tools to help re-build relationships.

While traditional counselling techniques encourage couples to restore past happiness in their relationship or to look back to find what brought them together in the first place, this may not be possible for those dealing with a new reality after a brain injury.

Newer techniques center on teaching couples to go forward and create new connections with one another while accepting that the injured spouses have changed.

Some conventional tips such as communication, focusing on positives and being intentional about injecting fun and romance into the relationship can still be useful.

Looking forward together may be the best way to re-build a relationship changed forever by a brain injury.



Misophonia

Do you find it annoying to hear the sounds of someone else chewing or slurping? This is a pet peeve for many people – but for some, small sounds like these pose a big problem.

Individuals experiencing a condition called misophonia or selective sound sensitivity syndrome can become anxious or enraged by small sounds such as other people eating, breathing, coughing, typing, a dripping faucet or other every day noises. Until fairly recently, these people have often been told they are simply over-reacting, but this view is changing now.

Misophonia (which means hatred of sound) is a newly recognized condition with little research surrounding it as yet. It is considered a cousin to tinnitus and is characterized by an involuntary decreased tolerance to specific sounds.

Not much is understood about misophonia yet, but it is thought to result from a physiological abnormality in the structures of the brain involved with processing sounds.

There is no good data on its prevalence, but the condition does seem to have genetic roots and begins typically in late childhood or early adolescence and gets worse over time. Often, it starts with sensitivity to just one kind of sound and gradually expands to include more noises.

Until now, many people experiencing this sensitivity have been mistakenly diagnosed with other problems when presenting their specific symptoms – they have been told they have a phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder, mania or an anxiety disorder.

Sometimes, misophonia is confused with another condition called hyperacusis – where sound is perceived as abnormally loud or physically painful. However, the two conditions are not the same. Indeed, the sounds that trigger rage or anxiety in misophonia are quiet, hardly audible noises rather than loud noises.

No effective treatment exists for misophonia. Most people go out of their way to avoid the sounds they can’t tolerate. Obviously, this can cause issues in relationships and social settings. When it is impossible to avoid the sounds, some people try to mask them by timing their own chewing to match the other, wearing earplugs or using white noise machines.

Some people feel better if they vocalize their discomfort by telling the person who is eating near them that the noise bothers them. Others find mimicking the offending noise can provide some relief to the feelings of anxiety and anger that arise.

More research into misophonia will help us to better understand the exact physiological cause of the condition and may also lead to more effective ways to deal with the symptoms.





Pet effect needs more research

 
A study published a couple of years ago makes an important point about the importance of thorough scientific research to prove any kind of therapeutic product or treatment.
 
I have written in the past about the psychological and physical benefits of pet ownership. Almost anyone who has a pet will tell you their furry, feathered or scaly friend provides companionship, entertainment and unconditional love. All good things that must translate into some sort of health benefit – right?
 
Indeed, animals have been used therapeutically for centuries and some research has suggested those who have pets are happier, healthier and live longer than those without pets.
 
A study out of Western Carolina University and published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, examined past data on the subject and found that more research is needed before we can be sure the ‘pet effect’ is a real thing.
 
Studies conducted in the past have produced conflicting results and the authors of this study have noted that the more optimistic results have received much publicity while the less positive studies have largely been ignored.
 
A 1980 study that found heart attack victims with a pet were four times more likely to survive for more than a year than their peers with no pets. However a study done just last year found pet owners were more likely to die or suffer a second heart attack with a year than those without a pet.
 
Other studies from all over the world also yielded conflicting results. Some suggest the existence of a ‘pet effect’ while others show little or no evidence of one.
 
Although pets are a wonderful addition to many people’s lives, provide enjoyment and companionship and are undoubtedly beneficial for some people, there is simply not enough evidence to make the claim that there is an overall health benefit to be derived simply from having a pet.
 
Conflicting data in any area of science can only be cleared up with further, properly controlled studies. It is important that we not simply believe something to be established in fact before there is sufficient evidence.
In the meantime, whether or not there is a general health benefit to be gained, there is no reason for therapy animal programs to stop their work wherever it is welcomed and those of us who are pet owners can continue to enjoy our animal friends.


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About the author...

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research and administration. After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar. Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC where he has held many administrative positions and has done numerous clinical trials. He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders. He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

 

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet presents its columns "as is" and does not warrant the contents.


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