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Medical Education, Medical Schools, Mental Health, Stanford News, Surgery

New surgeons take time out for mental health

New surgeons take time out for mental health

rope webI spent a recent morning watching about 30 Stanford surgical residents take time off from their operating rooms to participate in a series of team-building games out on the alumni lawn on campus. These are busy, dedicated professionals who are passionate about their work, so getting them to take time off is hard. “I can tell you a surgical resident would rather be in the operating room than anywhere else on earth,” Ralph Greco, MD, a professor of surgery, told me as he sat on a nearby bench watching the residents play games.

In a story I wrote about the games, I describe how the Balance in Life program, which sponsored the day’s event, was founded following the suicide of a former surgical resident, Greg Feldman, MD. Greco, who helped build the program, was committed to doing whatever he could to prevent any future tragedies like Feldman’s, as I explain in the piece:

“The residency program was just rocked to its knees,” he said, remembering back to the death in 2010 of the much-loved mentor and role model for  many of the surgical residents and medical students at the time. Feldman died after completing his surgical residency at Stanford and just four months into his vascular surgery fellowship at another medical center. “It was a very frightening time,” Greco said. “Residents were questioning whether they’d made the right choices.”

Today, the Balance in Life program includes, among other thing, a mentorship program between junior and senior residents, group therapy time with a psychologist and a well-stocked refrigerator with free healthy snacks. Residents themselves, like Arghavan Salles, MD, who participated in the ropes course, plan and coordinate activities:

“Some people think this is kind of hokie,” said Salles, who was one of a group of residents who helped found the program along with Greco following Feldman’s death. “Surgery is a super critical field,” Salles said. She paused to instruct a blind-folded colleague: “Step left! Step left!” “You face constant judgment in everything you do and say,” she added. “Everyone is working at the fringes of their abilities. They’re stressed.”

While writing this story, my co-workers suggested I read a September editorial in the New York Times that brought the issue into sharp focus. Spurred by the suicides two weeks prior of two second-year medical residents who jumped to their deaths in separate incidents in New York City, Pranay Sinha, MD, a medical resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital wrote about the unique stresses of new physicians:

As medical students, while we felt compelled to work hard and excel, our shortfalls were met with reassurances: ‘It will all come in time.’ But as soon as that MD is appended to our names in May, our self-expectations skyrocket, as if the conferral of the degree were an enchantment of infallibility. The internal pressure to excel is tremendous. After all, we are real doctors now.

Pranay’s message was similar to the one promoted by Stanford residents during the games: The key to battling new physician stress is realizing that you are not alone, that your colleagues are there to support you. “It sounds touchy feely to say that we care,” Salles told me. “But at the end of the day, if we want to have better patient care, we need to take care of each other too.”

Previously: Using mindfulness interventions to help reduce physician burnout and A closer look at depression and distress among medical students
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSD

Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSD

man meditating - smallEarlier this year, Emma Seppala, PhD, associate director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and a research psychologist at the the medical school, wrote on Scope about her work using breathing meditation to help veterans with PTSD. One of her studies, involving 21 male veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who were taught a set of breathing techniques from the Sudarshan Kriya Yoga practice, has now been published.

A recent Stanford Report article provides more details on the research, which found that the breathing techniques “resulted in reduced PTSD symptoms, anxiety and respiration rate” among study participants. The piece also highlights Seppala’s surprise that the meditation appeared to have a lasting effect:

“It is unusual to find the benefits of a very short intervention – one-week, 21 hours total – lasting one year later,” she said. One year after the study, the participants’ PTSD scores still remained low, suggesting that there had been long-lasting improvement.

When the scientists asked the veterans whether they had continued practicing at home, a few had but most had not. The data showed that whether or not they had practiced at home, it did not hinder meditation’s long-term benefits.

One reason, Seppala suggested, is that Sudarshan Kriya yoga retrained the veterans’ memories.

Before the breathing meditation training, participants reported re-experiencing traumatic memories frequently and intensely, Seppala said. Afterward, they reported that the traumatic memories no longer affected them as strongly or frequently.

The study appears in the in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Previously: The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma, The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD, Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans’ PTSD, As soldiers return home, demand for psychologists with military experience grows, Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries and Can training soldiers to meditate combat PTSD?
Photo by Sebastien Wiertz

Chronic Disease, Medical Education, Medicine X, Mental Health, Parenting, Stanford News

Medicine X explores the relationship between mental and physical health: “I don’t usually talk about this”

Medicine X explores the relationship between mental and physical health: "I don’t usually talk about this"

standing o at MedX - smallThis year, Medicine X examined the relationship between physical and emotional well-being with three breakout panels. Psychologists and ePatients came together in two of the sessions to discuss depression in chronic illness and coping through online communities, as well as the topic of mental health and the whole person.

The conversations centered on five themes: how the uncertainty, fear and overall stress of living with a chronic illness, or being a caregiver, can lead to depression and anxiety; why patients’ desire to be empowered can prevent them from seeking help; why eliminating the stigma associated with mental health conditions is so important; the need to better integrate the training of future doctors and mental-health professionals; and ways patients can identify that they may need mental health services and how to find them.

Ann Becker-Schutte, PhD, a Kansas City-based psychologist who participated in both panels, told the audience, “Living with any of these illnesses, whether it’s rare or well-known, requires a lot of work. There is a burden of gilt, fear and shame that are all rolled into one. It’s not unusual for anyone facing these conditions to get tired and just say ‘I’m done’.”

Sarah Kucharski, a Medicine X ePatient advisor diagnosed with depression, anxiety and fibromuscular dysplasia, gave the audience insight into how depression can take over – explaining that she was shocked to learn during a therapy session that a recent string of major life events (getting married, having bypass surgery and buying a house) had elevated her score on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale to roughly 500. “I had no ideas that such things had a rating or that they could be cumulative,” she said. “As a result, I try to be more cognizant and slow down.”

Other ePatients spoke candidly and courageously about some for their darkest moments, with many saying it was challenging to discuss their experiences with depression and anxiety outside their inner circles. ”I don’t usually talk about this,” said Hugo Campos, an ePatient with an implantable cardiac defibrillator in his chest. “This will be particularly difficult to admit in public.”

Campos opened up about the severe depression he encountered during the month following a procedure to implant into his chest a cardiac defibrillator, which shocks the heart to control life-threatening arrhythmias and prevent sudden cardiac arrest. Since the device was implanted preventatively, he felt that by having the surgery he had somehow failed himself and continued to be unsure if the device was necessary. There was also anxiety and fear about the device spontaneously shocking him. He turned to his online community to learn how to cope with these feelings. “I felt I would be better of speaking with my peers online, rather than a professional who did not have an implantable device and didn’t know what I was going through,” he explained.

Scott Strange, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1970 and also struggles with chronic depression, also turned to the Internet for support. “My journey to acceptance started when I found my online community. Until I found them, I never really faced it.”

Strange talked about growing up with the knowledge that not properly monitoring his glucose and insulin levels could be fatal. He also addressed the shame and exhaustion that results from “busting your rear end and trying to do everything your doctor says” and not seeing an improvement in your health.

While some turned to their patient communities online, others turned to someone outside of their social networks. When the demands of being a caregiver began to overwhelm Erin Moore, the mother of a four-year-old son with cystic fibrosis (CF) and three other children, she opted not to discuss it with someone well-versed with her situation. “Initially I sought help outside of the CF community because I was aware of how many people rely on me for my strength and I didn’t want to admit a weakness.”

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In the News, Mental Health, Public Safety

Will a steel net under the Golden Gate Bridge deter would-be jumpers?

Will a steel net under the Golden Gate Bridge deter would-be jumpers?

Golden Gate BridgeThe Bridge Rail Foundation estimates that there have been almost 1,600 suicide deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge since it opened in 1937, and the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors recently approved $76 million in funding to install a 20-foot-wide steel net to deter suicide jumpers.

In a piece on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Stanford’s Keith Humphreys, PhD, examined the effectiveness of bridge barriers on suicide prevention, writing that “a half century of experience and evidence supports an optimistic view.” He highlights several small studies before writing:

Because suicide by jumping is a mercifully rare event, most studies of barriers have small samples, making findings unstable and the difference between the Toronto study and other research unsurprising. Statistically, a more reliable result would come from combining the findings across all prior studies.  When Dr. Jane Pirkis of the University of Melbourne led such a “meta-analysis” in 2013, she and her colleagues found that on average barriers reduce suicides by 86% at the barrier site, and that jumping suicides at other nearby sites rise by 44%.  The net benefit is a 28% decrease in suicides by jumping per year.

Dr. Pirkis’ findings bode well for the success of San Francisco’s suicide barrier, which is expected to be installed in about three years.  Even if the net has only the average level of effectiveness, it would have saved a life a month in 2013 alone, as well as sparing the families of the deceased years of mental and emotional anguish.

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

Previously: Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults and Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets

Behavioral Science, Chronic Disease, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Can Alzheimer’s damage to the brain be repaired?

Can Alzheimer's damage to the brain be repaired?

repair jobIn my recent Stanford Medicine article about Alzheimer’s research, called “Rethinking Alzheimer’s,” I chronicled a variety of new approaches by Stanford scientists to nipping Alzheimer’s in the bud by discovering what’s gone wrong at the molecular level long before more obvious symptoms of the disorder emerge.

But Stanford neuroscientist Frank Longo, MD, PhD, a practicing clinician as well as a researcher, has another concern. In my article, I quoted him as saying:

Even if we could stop new Alzheimer’s cases in their tracks, there will always be patients walking in who already have severe symptoms. And I don’t think they should be forgotten.

A study by Longo and his colleagues, which just went into print in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, addresses this concern. Longo has pioneered the development of small-molecule drugs that might be able to restore nerve cells frayed by conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

Nerve cells in distress can often be saved from going down the tubes if they get the right medicine. Fortunately, the brain (like many other organs in the body) makes a number of its own medicines, including ones called growth factors. Unfortunately, these growth factors are so huge that they won’t easily cross the blood-brain barrier. So, the medical/scientific establishment can’t simply synthesize them, stick them into an artery in a patient’s arm and let them migrate to the site of brain injury or degeneration and repair the damage. Plus, growth factors can affect damaged nerve cells in multiple ways, and not always benign ones.

The Longo group’s study showed that – in mice, at least -  a growth-factor-mimicking small-molecule drug (at the moment, alluded to merely by the unromantic alphanumeric LM11A-31) could counteract a number of key Alzheimer degenerative mechanisms, notably the loss of all-important contacts (called synapses) via which nerve cells transmit signals to one another.

Synapses are the soldier joints that wire together the brain’s nerve circuitry. In response to our experience, synapses are constantly springing forth, enlarging and strengthening, diminishing and weakening, and disappearing.They are crucial to memory, thought, learning and daydreaming, not to mention emotion and, for that matter, motion. So their massive loss — which in the case of Alzheimer’s disease is a defining feature – is devastating.

In addition to repairing nerve-cells, the compound also appeared to exert a calming effect on angry astrocytes and  microglia, two additional kinds of cells in the brain that, when angered, can produce inflammation and tissue damage in that organ. Perhaps most promising of all, LM11A-31 appeared to help the mice remember where things are and what nasty things to avoid.

Previously: Stanford’s brightest lights reveal new insights into early underpinnings of Alzheimer’s, Stanford neuroscientist discusses the coming dementia epidemic and Drug found effective in two mouse models of Huntington’s disease
Photo by Bruce Turner

Mental Health, Nutrition, Obesity, Research, Women's Health

Stressed? You could be burning fewer calories

Stressed? You could be burning fewer calories

cupcakesBad news, ladies: Findings (subscription required) recently published in Biological Psychiatry show that women who consumed comfort food while feeling stressed burned fewer calories than their zen-like counterparts.

In the study, Ohio State University researchers quizzed a group of women about what was causing stress in their lives before they ate a caloric meal consisting of eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits and gravy. Scientific American reports:

Turns out that the most stressed women had higher levels of insulin. Which slows down metabolism and causes the body to store fat. And that fat, if not burned off, accumulates in the body.

The women who had reported feeling stressed or depressed in the day before eating the meal burned 104 fewer calories during the seven hours following the meal than women who felt more mellow.

If eating high-calorie comfort food to alleviate stress becomes habitual, the result could be an average weight gain of 11 pounds per year.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, you might want to reconsider reaching for a cupcake.

Previously: Learning tools for mindful eating, Mindful eating tips for the desk-bound and Want to curb junk food cravings? Get more sleep
Photo by Class V

Aging, Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

meditatingDepression and poor sleep often affect both dementia patients and their caregivers. Now new research shows that caregivers and patients who undergo mindfulness training together experience an improvement in mood, sleep and overall quality of life.

While past studies have shown that yoga and simple meditations can relieve caregivers’ stress, researchers at Northwestern University wanted to determine if patients and caregivers could be trained together.

In the small study (subscription required), pairs of patients and caregiver participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. Patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Caregivers included spouses, adult children or other relatives. The training was designed specifically to meet the needs of  individuals with memory loss due to terminal neurodegenerative illness and their caregivers. Researchers evaluated participants within two weeks of starting the program and two weeks of completing it.  Lead author Ken Paller, PhD, explained the results in a release:

We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups… After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives.

Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment… You don’t have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people’s abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties

Since caregivers often have limited personal time, mindfulness programs that accommodate them as well as patients could be an effective approach to helping both groups regularly attend sessions, said researchers.

The findings were published Monday in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

Previously: Regularly practicing hatha yoga may improve brain function for older adults, Study suggests yoga may help caregivers of dementia patients manage stress and How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health
Photo by Alex

Aging, Mental Health, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults

Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults

Chassériau painting - smallAfter nights spent tossing and turning, I’m grumpy. The world becomes darker, slower and smaller.

That’s why I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that sleep-deprived older adults are more likely to kill themselves, the results of a study published Aug. 13 in JAMA Psychiatry. Lead author Rebecca Bernert, PhD, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral science and her team examined data from a pool of 14,456 adults older than 65 between 1981 and 1991. They then probed the sleep patterns of 20 people who died by suicide with those of 400 similar individuals.

They found that participants with impaired sleep had a 1.4 percent greater chance of death by suicide than participants who slept well. “This is important because sleep disturbances are highly treatable and arguably less stigmatizing than other suicide risk factors,” Bernert commented in a press release.

Bernert and her team plan to work to develop potential interventions through two ongoing clinical trials.

What did surprise me about the findings was the prevalence of suicide deaths in older adults, particularly among older men: In fact, white men over 65 have a rate of 31 deaths by suicide per 100,000, much higher than the general population rate of 13 or so per 100,000.

Regardless, any number of suicides is too high, a belief Bernert reiterates emphatically.

“Suicide is preventable,” Bernert said. “But the interventions for suicide prevention are alarmingly scarce.”

That’s why for Bernert, the suicide net recently approved for the Golden Gate Bridge is a no-brainer. She recently joined the board of directors of the Bridge Rail Foundation, the nonprofit formed to advocate for the net. “This is a very effective way to prevent suicides,” she said.

More than 1,600 people have died by suicide at the bridge; a similar number of deaths due to any other reason would have necessitated public intervention decades ago, she said.  She attributed the delay, in part, to the powerful stigma that surrounds suicide.

Bernert urged others to learn about suicide by visiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or, if in crisis, to call 1-800-273-TALK to reach a 24-hour help line.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing, exploring, or practicing yoga. She’s currently a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets, CDC report highlights the dangers of sleep deprivation and Sleep deprivation may increase young adults’ risk of mental distress, obesity
Painting by Théodore Chassériau via Wikipedia Commons

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Research

Pump up the bass, not the volume, to feel more powerful

Pump up the bass, not the volume, to feel more powerful

runner_iPodAs any seasoned athlete or fitness fanatic knows, a meticulously curated playlist is key when staying focused before a big game or getting through a tough workout. But what is it about music that transforms our psychological state and make us feel more powerful?

To answer this question, researchers at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University identified so-called “highest power” songs (such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You“) and “lowest power” tunes (such as Fatboy Slim’s “Because We Can“) and then performed a series of experiments designed to ascertain how the music affected individuals’ sense of power, perceived sense of control, competitiveness and abstract thinking. According to a release, their findings showed “that the high-power music not only evoked a sense of power unconsciously, but also systematically generated the three downstream consequences of power.”

Since participants didn’t report increased feelings of empowerment after reading the lyrics of the songs, researchers turned their attention to how manipulation of bass levels impacted listeners. More from the release:

In the bass experiments, the researchers asked participants to listen to novel instrumental music pieces in which bass levels were digitally varied. In one experiment, they surveyed participants about their self-reported feelings of power, and in another, they asked them to perform a word-completion task designed to test implicit, or unconscious, feelings of power. They found that those who listened to the heavy-bass music reported more feelings of power and generated more power-related words in the implicit task than those listening to the low-bass music.

The effects of the bass levels support one possible explanation for why music makes people feel more powerful: the “contagion hypothesis.” The idea is that when people hear specific music components that express a sense of power, they mimic these feelings internally. “Importantly, because we used novel, never-before-heard music pieces in these experiments, it suggests that the effect may sometimes arise purely out of contagion,” [Dennis Hsu, PhD,] says. “Of course, this does not preclude the possibility that music could induce a sense of power through other processes, such as conditioning.”

The “conditioning hypothesis” suggests that certain pieces of music might trigger powerful experiences because these experiences are often paired with that particular music. For example, music used frequently at sports events may elicit powerful feelings because of the association with power, rewards, and winning (e.g., “We Are the Champions” is often played to celebrate victory).

Previously: Why listening to music boosts fitness performance, Can music benefit cancer patients? and Prescription playlists for treating pain and depression?
Photo by Bert Heird

Aging, Genetics, Imaging, Immunology, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Women's Health

Stanford’s brightest lights reveal new insights into early underpinnings of Alzheimer’s

Stanford's brightest lights reveal new insights into early underpinnings of Alzheimer's

manAlzheimer’s disease, whose course ends inexorably in the destruction of memory and reason, is in many respects America’s most debilitating disease.  As I wrote in my article, “Rethinking Alzheimer’s,” just published in our flagship magazine Stanford Medicine:

Barring substantial progress in curing or preventing it, Alzheimer’s will affect 16 million U.S. residents by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The group also reports that the disease is now the nation’s most expensive, costing over $200 billion a year. Recent analyses suggest it may be as great a killer as cancer or heart disease.

Alarming as this may be, it isn’t the only news about Alzheimer’s. Some of the news is good.

Serendipity and solid science are prying open the door to a new outlook on what is arguably the primary scourge of old age in the developed world. Researchers have been taking a new tack – actually, more like six or seven new tacks – resulting in surprising discoveries and potentially leading to novel diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.

As my article noted, several Stanford investigators have taken significant steps toward unraveling the tangle of molecular and biochemical threads that underpin Alzheimer’s disease. The challenge: weaving those diverse strands into the coherent fabric we call understanding.

In a sidebar, “Sex and the Single Gene,” I described some new work showing differential effects of a well-known Alzheimer’s-predisposing gene on men versus women – and findings about the possibly divergent impacts of different estrogen-replacement  formulations on the likelihood of contracting dementia.

Coming at it from so many angles, and at such high power, is bound to score a direct hit on this menace eventually. Until then, the word is to stay active, sleep enough and see a lot of your friends.

Previously: The reefer connection: Brain’s “internal marijuana” signaling implicated in very earliest stages of Alzheimer’s pathology, The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning, Protein known for initiating immune response may set up our brains for neurodegenerative disease, Estradiol – but not Premain – prevents neurodegeneration in woman at heightened dementia risk and Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer’s risk for women, but not for men
Illustration by Gérard DuBois

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