Not long ago I was given a book on grief, one of those self-published books that anyone can write and sell on Amazon. The basic premise being promoted by the author is that grief can “be defeated” if one just has enough faith whatever spiritual religious tradition they embrace. If one is struggling with grief, the author says, they need to have “increased faith,” and “quit stewing.” “Too much latitude is encouraged especially in terms of time for grief”, according to the writer. “One cannot rest in peace if his or her loved ones are stewing in excessive grief.” In other words, the author is saying that if someone is grieving the death of a loved one, he or she simply needs to “get over it.” That really made me feel angry.
I am a Presbyterian minister, a board certified professional chaplain, and a person with specific expertise in counseling and particularly grief and bereavement. This particular book’s author, on the other hand, was written by a person who is not educated or credentialed as either a religious leader or a counselor/psychologist. Yet, the author tells grieving people to choose a faith (or consult a medium – seriously, that’s what is written) in order to “participate” in their grief in a way that “will be shallow and brief.”
I’m also a bereaved parent and even though it has been ten years since the death of our daughter, I still grieve for her. Grief is a journey and an event that affects our lives forever. It does not mean we cannot continue to participate in life and find joy, but the reality is that after a loved one’s death we look at life through a different lens.
Recently I read an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry about a study done by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health that revealed that there is a link between sudden grief and the onset of mental health disorders like mania, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
The article did not surprise me at all. Our daughter’s death was sudden and traumatic. At the time where I was working in a large teaching hospital where every day I was called to the emergency department to provide care to families whose own loved ones died after car accidents and other traumas. I found myself feeling overwhelmed.
While my faith in God didn’t waver – I knew God didn’t cause the accident; it was caused by the careless decision of an adult who chose to speed and accelerate through a red light – I sure was angry with God. I knew that was normal too. However, it still created a significant amount of spiritual distress along with the emotional distress of grief.
Fortunately, I mentioned this one day in passing when I was with a good friend. She stopped the conversation and asked me to tell her more. She gently suggested that while my feelings were normal, I was also showing signs of depression beyond the grief as well as symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “You’re doing so much to take care of everyone else; you need to take care of yourself.”
Because of her willingness to listen and look for the signs, she was able to see what I couldn’t see for myself. My grief, which I thought I was managing (“and you are doing so very well,” she said) was something I didn’t need to work so hard to cope with it on my own. We agreed on a plan: I would go and talk with my family physician, who was just as supportive, and we too agreed on a plan – counseling, a short course of medication, and becoming a participant in a grief support group for a time rather than being a leader of one.
There are times when grief’s accompanying depression, anxiety, emotional and spiritual distress becomes too difficult for the bereaved person to bear. That’s when the right resources need to be activated. Families, friends, and co-workers need a basic knowledge of grief in order to normalize the bereaved person’s experience and provide them support. We also need to understand when a bereaved person needs additional mental health support when the trauma becomes difficult to manage.
That plan didn’t “cure” my grief or take away the sadness that I still carry with me (as the author of the book I read says must happen). There are times when it comes back with a vengeance. During most of those grief-bursts I find I can manage with the resources I have in place that work for me: meditation, exercise, activating my support system – however there have been a couple of times when I’ve gone back to my doctor for help in identifying appropriate short-term interventions.
Of course, there are other examples of mental health issues that we can face in our daily lives. Stress has been shown through studies to be on the rise due to a number of factors. Living with a chronic or life-threatening disease, caring for a sick or elderly family member, post-traumatic stress, or dealing with the magnitude of responsibilities one has to make ends meet can all cause emotional and spiritual distress. Sometimes these lead to mental health issues that need further attention.
I was fortunate that I had a friend, who while not a professional health provider, knew enough about basic mental health ten years ago to recognize that I was struggling. She didn’t try to talk me out of my grief, placate me with platitudes, or take the easy way out my ignoring my comments altogether. Instead, she listened and took the step of faith and friendship to tell me I needed to check in with a professional about what I was feeling.
Knowing the indicators of a potential mental health challenge is something that all of us, professionals and non-professionals alike, need to be aware of. In fact, it is something that I would urge we set aside time to learn more about.
Educational opportunities are becoming more and more available within our communities and online. Many are being designed for those who don’t work in professional care fields, but who want to become more informed about mental health issues, what signs need to be looked for, and how to respond. Check your community organizations, not just mental health centers, but also community colleges who are offering short-term, free, or low-cost programs.
Professionals who encounter mental health situations on a regular basis and those who work with the general public, including educators, health care providers, and religious leaders, need to make learning more a priority of their continuing education. There are an increased number of programs now available.
Because of what I have learned from my own experience, I have been able to help others by now teaching health professionals what they need to look for in order to care for not only their clients’ bodies and minds, but also their spirits. Those who are experiencing grief, serious illness, post-traumatic stress, or facing the end of their lives need the understanding, support, and resources necessary not only to cope, but to find meaning and comfort.
Let us not be afraid to talk about, learn more, and recognize mental health issues – not just in those we love, but also in ourselves. Read. Take a course. Be part of the discussion. Make a difference.
When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself
As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.
While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.
Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.
“Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”
Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.
The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.
“Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.
Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.
“She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”
As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.
If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”
A Lifeline for Primary Care Amid a Crisis in Youth Mental Health
Most mental health care in America doesn’t happen in psychiatrists’ offices – especially when it comes to children, teens and young adults.
Instead, young people with depression, anxiety and more turn to the same people they already go to for all kinds of other health issues: their pediatricians, family doctors, school-based clinics and other primary care providers.
But where do those providers turn when they need more help in handling the mental health concerns of their patients – especially more serious issues that they’re not trained to handle?
If they’re anywhere in Michigan, they can turn to the team at MC3.
For nearly a decade, the MC3 program has helped thousands of primary care providers throughout the state care for the mental health needs of young people up to age 26. It also aids providers caring for pregnant women and new mothers of any age who have mental health needs.
More than 16,000 times since 2012, MC3’s psychiatrists and pediatric behavior specialists from the University of Michigan have connected directly with more than 1,800 primary care providers by phone, for consultations about their patients.
Together, they’ve mapped out plans for handling ADHD in young children, suicide-prevention safety planning for teens and symptoms that might signal schizophrenia in young adults.
There’s no charge to providers or their patients, thanks to the program’s funding from state and federal grants.
For providers whose patients recently had a mental health emergency or are waiting for an appointment with a child psychiatrist or a psychiatric inpatient bed, the service can literally be a lifeline: one in five of the consults involve a patient who has expressed suicidal thoughts or harmed themselves.
How it Works
MC3 also offers video-based telehealth appointments to connect patients of participating providers with psychiatrists. U-M and Michigan State University experts have also created a wide range of training options for professionals available on the MC3 website.
Though the demand has grown in recent years thanks to the pandemic, the program has room for more Michigan providers to join the network and get access to its services.
Each connection starts by contacting one of the trained professionals in MC3’s network of Behavioral Health Consultants, located throughout the state. MC3 also works closely with the state-funded Community Mental Health agencies across the state.
“Only about 3% of the children, teens, young adults and moms that our participating providers have consulted with us about are in treatment with a psychiatrist. We’re providing access to specialist-informed care to young people who wouldn’t otherwise have it,” said Sheila Marcus, M.D., who heads the pediatric component of MC3 and is a professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center.
“The reality is that no matter where they live and no matter what their family’s income level, most of these patients would not have easy access to a specialist because of the critical shortage of such providers,” she added. “In some counties, there are no local providers trained to provide this level of care.”
Primary care providers inside and outside Michigan can also access MC3’s free online resources, even if they’re not enrolled in the program.
These include prescribing guides for mental health medications and online provider education, to equip them to provide diagnosis and care that might not have been part of their formal professional training. Much of that training offers continuing education credits that can help physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives keep up their license.
“For me, MC3 has been a game changer,” said Lia Gaggino, M.D., who first interacted with the MC3 team through her pediatrics practice in Portage, Michigan and now is the team’s consulting pediatrician. “Since its inception I have used their services for children and teens who presented with very complicated mental health concerns. I wished I had had a psychiatrist to help me and then MC3 appeared and offered me a lifeline. Their services changed my prescribing practices and improved my skills and I am so grateful for their advice and support. I encourage my colleagues to sign up and call –MC3 is there to help us!”
Local Care Amid a National Emergency
As the nation grapples with a national emergency of rising mental health concerns among young people, MC3 and similar programs in other states are expanding access to critical psychiatric services at a time when demand is soaring.
The national organizations that declared that emergency in October called for more support of mental health care in primary care settings, as well as efforts to overcome the national shortage of mental health specialists for young people, especially in rural and low-income areas.
That shortage is what drove the creation of MC3 in the first place.
Michigan is third from the bottom among all states in supply of mental health professionals for young people. Only Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan is located, meets national population-based criteria for having enough mental health providers specializing in children and teens.
The pandemic has made matters worse across Michigan and the United States. A national report from November 2020 showed that anxiety and depression in pregnant women have more than doubled, and emergency department visits for mental health concerns in children had risen by double digits since the pandemic began.
Joanna Quigley, M.D., another MC3 consulting psychiatrist from Michigan Medicine, recently presented data at a national meeting showing that 30% of MC3 consults during 2020 focused on pandemic-related concerns.
The pandemic has prompted MC3’s team to plan to offer extra training to help providers identify the needs and handle the concerns of children traumatized by experiences they or their families have had during COVID-19.
Trauma-informed care is also important for children who even before the pandemic experienced very disruptive life events.
Terri Rosel, NP-C, a nurse practitioner at Cherry Health in northern Michigan, wrote to the MC3 team: “I work in a small student health center in Cedar Springs and am the sole provider in the office. Since starting this job four years ago I have had the pleasure of seeing so many students with mental health concerns. I felt ill-equipped at times to help them with my degree as a family practice nurse practitioner. I would utilize MC3 often to help with treatment plans for these wonderful kids who needed help but could not get into psychiatric services soon enough.”
As the program continues to grow, it will partner more with schools through a direct connection with the TRAILS program that offers mental health awareness and support services.
Positive Feedback from Providers
The MC3 team has surveyed participating providers and found that 99% agreed with the statement that “following phone consultation(s) I felt more confident that I could effectively treat patients’ behavioral health problems.”
The team published other findings from its survey of providers, and responded to feedback by making changes.
The quotes they received from providers are equally compelling.
“This service has been absolutely ‘practice- changing’,” said one. “As we have more and more patients with mental health issues and limited local resources- we are essentially the only option for these kids. Having MC3 support helps us make good treatment decisions and is also ‘on the job training’ which we can apply to future patients.”
In fact, MC3 data show that 25% of the interactions help the patient avoid a higher-level of care that may be difficult to access, such as a psychiatric hospital bed or emergency psychiatric visit.
One of the maternal health providers who joined MC3 recently said, “I can’t even express how this service has enhanced the care I can provide. In the past, we’d screen and diagnose and then send moms out. We’d place referrals and hope that folks could navigate the complex system. Now, with MC3, I can collaborate with psychiatry, start meds or treatment, and access community resources that I am confident they will be able to access. It’s really been invaluable.”
America Has an Anger Problem – Can Better “Mental Nutrition” Fix It?
America is a pretty angry place these days. Formerly respectful spaces like school board meetings have become bitter battlegrounds. Some people are harassing healthcare workers and threatening restaurant staff for enforcing COVID protocols. Others are openly furious with the vaccine-hesitant. Everyone, wherever they stand on the (deeply divided) political playing field, is outraged about something.
Sure, anger is part of the human condition, but have things always been this bad? Elaine Parke thinks not—and she has a plan to get America the anger management tools it needs.
“We’ve stopped listening to one another because we’ve become addicted to our own narrow and sometimes selfish points of view,” says Parke, author of “The Habits of Unity: 12 Months to a Stronger America…one citizen at a time” (Outskirts Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9772-4276-1, $21.95, www.12habits4allofus.
“It’s way past time for us to take a collective deep breath and treat others with dignity, respect, and civility—and listen to them—whether we agree or not,” she adds. “It’s urgent that we make this shift now.”
Dialing down our ire is easier said than done. We are living in extraordinarily stressful times. But there’s more at play. Parke says we are shaped by the messages we consistently consume—and in today’s connected world, a lot of those messages come from our digital diet.
“Social media isn’t solely to blame for stoking our emotional flames—in fact, it was designed to be a source of information and to bring people together,” Parke clarifies. “But if your newsfeed is making you an angrier person, it’s on you to either log off for a few days or reassess the kind of content you’re engaging with. When we choose to focus on stories that are positive and nourishing, we go a long way toward resetting our emotional equilibrium.”
Parke’s “The Habits of Unity” is her attempt to help people take charge of what she calls their “Mental Nutrition.” Much in the same way that we (hopefully) approach the food we eat, we need to develop the discipline to make more nutritious mental choices every day. Her book’s 365 “one-magic-minute-a-day” motivationals make it easy to hardwire these choices into habit.
With her simple, doable framework for uplifting ourselves, boosting our mental health, and practicing unity, Parke hopes to get everyone focused on the same branded behavior each month. The idea is that the sheer force of all that concentrated positive energy sparks a unity revolution that rises from the ground up and sweeps the nation.
Yet, until that happens, we can leverage the power of “The Habits of Unity” on a personal level by forming one good habit per month:
January: Help Others
February: You Count
March: Resolve Conflicts
April: Take Care of Our Environment
May: Be Grateful
June: Reach Higher
July: Become Involved
August: Know Who You Are
September: Do Your Best
October: Be Patient and Listen
November: Show a Positive Attitude
December: Celebrate Community, Family, and Friends
Those who’ve tried it say the plan is easy to put into practice. It feels good, so you’ll want to keep doing it. And there’s a ripple effect. As you become more positive, centered, and respectful, others will be drawn to you and your relationships will improve.
“As these ripples expand, they will improve the emotional climate in our country and make it easier to seek common ground, instead of lashing out,” says Parke. “But we can’t sit around waiting for others to take action. Each American must recommit to making our country a welcoming, affirming melting pot—instead of a stewing pot.”
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