Posts Tagged ‘suicide’

Can Emotional Style Change?

March 21, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. The immediately preceding post ended “The brain signatures of each dimension of Emotional Style seem so fundamental to our being, it’s easy to assume they are innate, as characteristic of a person as his fingerprints or eye color, and equally unlikely to change.”

This assumption will be examined in the subsequent post.
Here is that examination. The nature nurture debate has a long history. The debate concerned how much of a person’s life is determined by genes versus experience. The new field of epigenetics should have ended that debate. Critical to the role of genetics is which genes are read out from the genome. If the gene is not read out, the gene cannot be expressed. So what determines whether a gene will be read out? That is determined by nurture, or the experience of the individual. So the nature nurture debate should have ended. As nothing can be ethically be done about nature, all the focus should be on nurture.

There is a wide variety of evidence showing the effects of epigenetic using both human and infra-human subjects. There is a suicide brain bank in Quebec, the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank to be specific. Samples from 36 brains were studied, one-third of which who had suffered abuse in childhood, one-third from suicides who had not been abused, and one-third from non-suicides. Analyzing the human brains the researchers found that , compared with non-suicide brains, the brains of people who had taken their own lives and had suffered child abuse contained significantly more methylation “off” switches on the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor. This was the gene that the research team had discovered was methylated in rats raised by neglectful mothers. When this gene is silenced the stress-response system is on a hair trigger, making it extremely difficult to cope with adversity. Abnormal activity in the stress-response system had long been linked to suicide.

Prof. Richardson writes, “The presence of a methyl group sitting on a piece of DNA is called an epigenetic change. It does not alter the sequence of the gene, denoted by he well-known strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s, but it does alter whether the gene will be expressed. And it may explain puzzles like the low concordance for schizophrenia between identical twins. At birth, identical twins are very similar epigenetically; if a particular gene is silence in one twin, it is usually silenced in the other. But as we go through life, it turns out, we accumulate epigenetic changes. Either through random chance or because of experiences we have—something akin to being nurtured by a parent, perhaps, but almost certainly many others that reach down into our very DNA—our genes take on more and more epigenetic marks, silencing some genes that had previously spoken and lifting the gag order that others may had been under.”

Prof. Richardson cites research on the emotional development of children that reinforces this point.

Ultimate Pessimism

November 17, 2019

This title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Martin Seligman, Ph.D., titled Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. This is the third post on this book. Ultimate pessimism is depression, which comes in three kinds. The first is called normal depression. It is the type each of us knows well. Seligman writes, “It springs from the pained losses that are inevitable parts of being members of a sapient species, creatures who think about the future. We don’t get the jobs we want, we get rejected by people we love, or our loved ones die. It is predictable when such things happen that we feel sad and helpless. We become passive and lethargic. We can believe that our prospects are bleak and that we lack the talent to make them brighter. We don’t do our work well, and might avoid work. Zest goes out of activities we used to enjoy, and we lose our interest in food, company, and sex. We can’t sleep.

But most of the time, by one of nature’s benevolent mysteries, we start to get better. Normal depression is the common cold of mental illness. Seligman writes that he has repeatedly found that at any given moment approximately 23% of us are going through an episode of normal depression, at least in mild form.

The two other kinds of depression are called depressive disorders: unipolar and bipolar depression. What determines the difference between unipolar and bipolar depression is whether or not mania is involved. Mania is a psychological conjoint with a set of symptoms that look like the opposite of depression: unwarranted euphoria, grandiosity, frenetic talk and action, and inflated self-esteem.

Bipolar depression always includes manic episodes, and is also called manic-depression (with mania at one pole and depression at the other). Unipolar depressives never have manic episodes. Another difference between the two is that bipolar depression is much more heritable. If one of two identical twins has bipolar depression, there is a 72% chance the other also has it. This is only 14% true of fraternal twins who are no more closely related than any other full siblings. Bipolar depression is treated with a “wonder drug, “lithium carbonate.” Seligman writes that in more than 80% of cases of bipolar depression, lithium will relieve the mania to a marked degree and, to a lesser extent, the depression. Unlike normal and unipolar depression, manic-depression is an illness, appropriately viewed as a disorder of the body and treated medically.

Seligman’s view differs radically from the prevailing medical opinion, which holds that unipolar depression is an illness and normal depression is just a passing demoralization of no clinical interest. He writes, “This view is the dominant one in spite of a complete absence of evidence that unipolar depression is anything more than just severe normal depression. No one has established the kind of distinction between them that has been established between dwarfs, for instance, and short normal people—a qualitative distinction.” Both normal and unipolar depression involve the same four types of negative change: in thought, mood, behavior, and physical responses.

The way you think when you are depressed differs from the way you think when you are not depressed. When you are depressed you have a dour picture of yourself, the world, and the future. When you’re depressed, small obstacles seem like insurmountable barriers. You believe everything you touch turns to ashes. You have an endless supply of reasons why each of your successes is really a failure.

The second way both unipolar and normal depression is recognized is a negative change in mood. When you’re depressed, you feel awful: sad, discouraged, sunk in a pit of despair. Jokes are no longer funny, but unbearably ironic.

The third symptom of depression concerns behavior. There are three behavioral symptoms: passivity, indecisiveness, and suicidal action.

Many depressed people think about and attempt suicide. They generally have one or both of two motives. The first is surcease: The prospect of going on as they are is intolerable, and they want to end it all. The other is manipulation: They want to get love back, or get revenge, or have the last word in an argument.

The final symptom of depression concerns the physical self. Depression is frequently accompanied by undesirable physical symptoms; the more severe the depression, the more symptoms. The appetites diminish. You can’t eat. You can’t make love. Sleeping becomes difficult.

Unfortunately, depression is increasing. Research has shown that there has been greater than a tenfold increase in depression over the course of the century.

Seligman concludes this chapter as follows: “When we now look at the upsurge of depression, we could view it as an epidemic of learned helplessness. We know the cause of learned helplessness, and now we can see it as the cause of depression: the belief that your actions will be futile. This belief was engineered by defeat and failure as well as uncontrollable situations. Depression could be caused by defeat, failure, and loss of the consequent belief that any actions taken will be futile.

I think this belief is at the heart of our national epidemic of depression. The modern self must be more susceptible to learned helplessness, to an ever-growing conviction that nothing one does matters. I think I know why, and I’ll discuss it in the final chapter.

This all sounds pretty bleak. Yet there is also a hopeful side, and this is where explanatory style becomes important.”

Suicide and Coupling

September 27, 2019

Part Five of “Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know” by Malcom Gladwell is titled Coupling. Coupling theory argues that there are certain places or conditions that increase the likelihood of committing suicide. Many think that people who commit suicide are so depressed that they will eventually commit suicide, even if it takes multiple attempts. John Bateson has written a book titled, The Final Leap, which makes the argument, and provides data, to indicate that the effect of the Golden Gate Bridge on some people is to tempt them to commit suicide.

Psychologist Richard Seiden followed up on 515 people who had tried to jump from the bridge between 1937 and 1971, but had been unexpectedly restrained. Just 25 of those 515 persisted in killing themselves some other way. Overwhelmingly, the people who want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at a given moment, want to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge at that given moment.

But when did the municipal authority that runs the bridge finally decide to install a suicide barrier? In 2018, more than eighty years after the bridge opened. John Bateson points out that in the intervening period the bridge authority spent millions of dollars building a traffic barrier to protect cyclists crossing the bridge, even though no cyclist has ever been killed by a motorist on the Golden Gate Bridge. It spent millions building a media to separate north- and south-bound traffic, on the grounds of “public safety.” On the southern end of the bridge, the authority put up an eight-foot cyclone fence to prevent garbage from being thrown onto Fort Baker. A protective net was even reinstalled during the initial construction of the bridge—at enormous cost—to prevent workers from falling their deaths. This net saved nineteen lives, then it was taken down. But it took eighty years to provide the means of preventing suicides from the bridge.

Having a gun in the household is another example of suicide and coupling. If someone is depressed and considering suicide, a gun provides the best means. It’s fast and efficient. Other means of suicide, such as taking pills or slashing one’s wrists often fail. But only rarely do guns fail. It is ironic. Presumably, people keep a gun in their homes for protection, to protect themselves. But it is more likely to result in a mistaken killing or in a suicide. There are many more suicides that murders.

One of HM’s best friends was affected by this coupling. One New Year’s Eve, when HM’s friend was away from home, his son and a friend of his son were playing with a gun in the house. His friend’s son accidentally shot and killed his son. HM’s friend, who was a politician, said justice would be done. What justice could be done? His son was dead and his son’s friend had to live with this killing for the rest of his life. Justice, no. Stupidity, yes.

Insecure: The New Mental Health Crisis

April 16, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the fourth chapter in iGEN: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. The problems discussed in previous posts are important. The critical question is whether this use increases feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety also been accompanied by changes in diagnosable depression and its most extreme outcome, suicide?

Since 2004 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which is conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services has screened US teens for clinical-level depression. The project uses trained interviewers to assess a nationally representative sample of more than 17,000 teens (ages 10 to 17) across the country every year. Participants hear questions through headphones and enter their answers directly into a laptop computer, ensuring privacy and confidentiality. The questions rely on the criteria for major depressive disorders documented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) or the American Psychiatric Association. It is the gold standard for diagnosing mental health issues. The criteria include experiencing depressed mood, insomnia, fatigue, or markedly diminished pleasure in life every day for at least two weeks. This study is specifically designed to provide a benchmark for rates of mental illness among Americans, regardless of whether they’ve ever sought treatment.

The screening test showed a shocking rise in depression between 2010 and 2015 in which 56% of teens experienced a major depressive episode and 60% more experienced severe impairment.

So more people are expressing more than just symptoms and depression, and feelings of anxiety, but clinically diagnosable major depression. This is not a small issue with more than one in nine teens and one in eleven young adults suffering from major depression. This strongly suggests that something is seriously wrong in the lives of American teens.

This increase in major depressive episodes is far steeper among girls, which is the gender more likely to overuse social media. By 2015, one in five teen girls had experienced a major depressive episode in the last year.

Major depression, especially if its severe, is the primary risk factor for suicide. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of high school girls who seriously considered suicide increased 43%. The number of college students who seriously considered suicide jumped 60% between 2011 and 2016.

Dr Twenge mentions that a contributing factor is a shortfall in needed sleep. Many iGen’ers are so addicted to social media that they find it difficult to put down their phones and go to sleep when they should. More teens now sleep less than seven hours most nights. Sleep experts say that teens should get about nine hours of sleep a night, so a teen who is getting less than seven hours a night is significantly sleep deprived. 57% more teens were sleep deprived in 2015 than in 1991. In just the three years between 2012 and 2016, 22% more teens failed to get seven hours sleep.

So one way of improving mental health is to get more sleep. Dr. Twenge concludes the chapter as follows: “In other words, there is a simple, free way, to improve mental health: put down the phone and do something else.

In Person No More

April 15, 2019

The title of this post is the same as the third chapter in iGEN: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, by Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D. There is a second part to this title which is “I’m with You, but Only Virtually.

When Dr. Twenge asked one of her iGen teens what makes his generation different, he doesn’t hesitate to answer: I feel like we don’t party as much. People stay in more often. My generation lost interest in socializing in person—they don’t have physical get-togethers, they just text together, and they can just stay at home.”

College students were asked how many hours a week they spend at parties during their senior year in high school. In 2016, they said two hours a week, which is only a third of the time GenX students spent at parties in 1987. Perhaps iGen-ers just don’t like partying; perhaps they just like to hang out. This is not the case. The number of teens who get together with their friends every day has been cut in half in just fifteen years, with especially steep declines recently.

College students in 2016 when compared against college students in the late 1980s spent four fewer hours a week socializing with their friends and three fewer hours a week partying. So seven hours a week less on in-person social interaction. This severe drop in getting out and getting together with friends occurred right when smartphones became popular and social media use really took off. Time spent with friends in person has been replaced by time spent with friends (and virtual friends) online.

Many malls across the country have closed. In activity after activity, iGen-ers are less social than Millenials, GenX’ers, and Boomers at the same age. This change in activities outside the home doesn’t mean teens are always staying at home having wholesome family time. So iGen’ers spend more leisure time alone. Dr. Twenge writes “Although we can’t say for sure, it’s a good guess that this alone time is being spend online, on social media, streaming video, and texting. In short, iGen teens are less likely to take part in every singe face-to-face social activity measured across four data sets of three different age groups. These fading interactions include everything from small-group or one-on-one activities, such as getting together with friends to larger group activities such as partying. “

Instead, they are communicating electronically. The internet has taken over. Teens are Instagramming, Snapchatting, and texting with friends more, and seeing them in person less. She concludes, “For IGen’ers, online friendship has replaced offline friendship.”

Unfortunately, these trends are leading to decreases in mental health and happiness. Among 8th graders here are the activities that decrease happiness among 8th graders (according to Monitoring the Future, 2013 to 2015). Video chat, computer games, texting, Social networking websites, and Internet. But there has been a decrease in the following activities that increase happiness: Sports or exercise, religious services, print media, and in-person social interaction.

One study with college students asked students with Facebook pages to complete short surveys on their phone over the course of two weeks—they’d get a text message with a link five times a day and report on their mood and how much they’d used Facebook. The more they used Facebook, the unhappier they later felt. Dr. Twenge concludes, “feeling unhappy did not not lead to more Facebook use. Facebook use caused unhappiness, but unhappiness did not cause Facebook use.

She reports that another study of adults fond the same thing: the more people used Facebook, the lower their mental health and life satisfaction on the next assessment. But after they interacted with their friends in person, their mental health and life satisfaction improved.

In a third study that randomly assigned 1,095 Danish adults to stop using Facebook for a week or to continue to use Facebook. At the end of the week, those who had taken a break from Facebook were happier, less lonely, and less depressed than those who had used Facebook as usual. These differences were sizable. 36% fewer were lonely, 33% fewer were depressed, and 9% more were happy. Those who stayed off Facebook were also less likely to feel sad, angry, or worried.

The risk of unhappiness due to social media is the highest for the youngest teens. Eighth graders who spent ten or more hours a week on social networking sites were 56% more likely to be unhappy, compared to 39% for 10th graders and 14% for 12th graders.

A commercial for Facebook suggests that social media will help you feel less alone and surround you with friends every moment. Unfortunately, this is not true for the always online iGEN. Teens who visit social networking sites every day are actually more likely to agree “I often feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.”

Research has also revealed that teens who spend a lot of time looking at their phones aren’t just at a higher risk of depression, they re also at an alarmingly higher risk for suicide. This is not to suggest that there is an alarming suicide epidemic, but there will likely be increasing in suicide rates.