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Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health

Faith can help, and harm, a family’s mental health
5 votes

When faith helps

Most of the time, people can heal and find peace and self-acceptance through faith. All the world’s great faiths, those that have lasted centuries, are kept alive for this reason. All have common themes of healing and service to others. When things go poorly, meditation and prayer, with others or in private, lead to connection and wholeness. Faith reveals that things are better, and will be better, than they seem.

When families are in crisis because of their troubled child, parents tell me they depend on faith, even parents who don’t profess a faith practice. They say it’s their only source of strength. Most families with a child who is sick, disabled, or mentally ill will go through dark times, when a parent’s world is simply too overwhelming. Most often, no answers are forthcoming, nor any rescue. The only choice is to hand over their burden to a “higher power,” God, the Buddha, Allah, the Great Spirit… This act of “handing over” is a foundation of healing in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

Few things help a family more than a supportive community of believers.  There will be one person who listens to a frightened parent on the phone, and another person who takes a traumatized sibling on an outing, and another person who provides hugs and cookies. If a mentally ill child continues to decline, a good faith-based support network will stay on. The child may not thrive, but the family does, and has the strength and forbearance to handle the years’ long task of supporting their mentally ill loved one.

Science shows that faith results in better lifetime outcomes for a child

This writer typically trusts science, but in the depths of my family’s despair, only faith and the prayers of others kept me from falling apart.

There are scientists among the faithful who have asked the question: does faith really help the mentally ill? In another blog post, Spirituality and mental health, some research are summaries of research going back 36 years.  (Follow this link for the research citations.)  The answer?  Yes, faith makes a real and measurable difference in improving mental health.

More recent scientific research shows clear evidence from brain scans that meditation and prayer change brain electrical activity, from anxious or agitated to serene and grounded.  The person actually feels and behaves better.  This article has more information on this, Yoga – Safe and effective for depression and anxiety.

Like prayer, “talk therapy” or psychotherapy also shows improvement on brain scans. Imagine, just talking with someone improves the physical brain. According to the article appended below, “When God Is Part of Therapy,” many prefer therapists who respect and encourage their faith. It just makes sense.

When faith harms

This section is a personal appeal to faith communities who have unconscionably failed families and their children with mental disorders.

Faith communities depend on people, and people have biases and foibles.  Many of ‘the faithful’ hold negative beliefs about others, right or wrong.  Children who suffer, and their families, are identified as possessed, of evil character, disbelievers, victims of abuse, or cruelest:  those who are paying for their sins. Families are repeatedly told these very things today.

“Sometimes, people hide from the Bible. That is, they use the Christian holy book as an authority and excuse for biases that have nothing to do with God.”
–Leonard Pitts Jr., Miami Herald

Stigmatization from a faith community is a cruel betrayal.

A child’s inappropriate behavior is not a choice, it is a verifiable medical illness, one with a higher mortality rate than cancer:  Mental illness more deadly than cancer for teens, young adults.  (A graph comparing mortality rates of cancers and mental disorders is at this link.). Families with sick children need support. From my personal experience, and from parents in my support groups over the past 13 years, our sense of loss is devastating.

Testimonials

Mother with five children, one with bipolar disorder:

“We were members of our church since we were first married, all our daughters grew up here, but when my youngest spiraled down, I was told the sins of the father are visited on the sons. Or we weren’t praying enough. I knew they thought (Dad) had done something bad to her. We left and went church shopping until we found a pastor who understood and supported us.”

Mother of two children, one with acute pervasive development disorder:

“I wish we had a “special needs” church. We’re so afraid our kid is going to say something and we’re not going to be accepted. We haven’t gone to church for years because of this. They just turned their backs on us, it happened to another family with a deaf child. They avoid parents in pain. Deep down in my heart I believe in the Lord, but there are days when I wonder “where is God?” People call out to pray for a job, or a kid’s grades, but we wouldn’t dare ask for us, no one would get it, we’d be told we were bad parents or didn’t punish him enough.”

Mother of two children, one with schizoaffective disorder:

“When I went up to the front to light a candle and ask for a prayer for my daughter, I expected people would come up afterward and give a hug or something, just like with other families with cancer and such. But it didn’t happen. No one even looked at me. I left alone and decided never to go back.”

Some good news

FaithNet

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has recognized the need for the mentally ill to be part of faith communities, and the negative experiences most face when they attempt to participate in a religious community. NAMI started FaithNet to encourage and equip NAMI members to engage with and share their story and NAMI resources with local faith groups, and appeal for their acceptance.

Key Ministry

Key Ministry: Welcoming Youth and Their Families at Church
Stephen Grcevich, M.D., president, Key Ministry and child & adolescent psychiatry in private practice, Chagrin Falls, Ohio

“Key Ministry believes it is not okay for youth living with mental illness and their families to face barriers to participation in worship services, educational programming and service opportunities available through local churches.”

Churches in American culture lack understanding of the causes and the needs of families impacted by mental illness, which poses a significant barrier to full inclusion.

“A study published recently by investigators at Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches representing four Protestant denominations. The presence of mental illness in a family member has a significant negative impact on both church attendance and the frequency of engagement in spiritual practices.” When asked what help the church could offer these families, they ranked “support for mental illness” 2nd out of 47 possibilities. Among unaffected families, support for mental illness ranked 42nd.

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When God Is Part of Therapy
Tara Parker Pope, March 2011, New York Times

Faith-based therapy is growing in popularity, reports Psychology Today, as more patients look for counselors who can discuss their problems and goals from a religious frame of reference.

Studies show that people prefer counselors who share their religious beliefs and support, rather than challenge, their faith. Religious people often complain that secular therapists see their faith as a problem or a symptom, rather than as a conviction to be respected and incorporated into the therapeutic dialogue, a concern that is especially pronounced among the elderly and twenty-somethings. According to a nationwide survey by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC), 83 percent of Americans believe their spiritual faith and religious beliefs are closely tied to their state of mental and emotional health. Three-fourths say it’s important for them to see a professional counselor who integrates their values and beliefs into the counseling process.

The problem for many patients in therapy is that many patients are far more religious than their therapists.

Nearly three-fourths of Americans say their whole approach to life is based on religion. But only 32 percent of psychiatrists, 33 percent of clinical psychologists and 46 percent of clinical social workers feel the same. The majority of traditional counselor training programs have no courses dealing with spiritual matters.

When children are hospitalized with other ailments, the family draws sympathy and support from others.  But because of mental health stigma, most families like ours don’t when our child is hospitalized.  If not blame, we are second-guessed, or as bad, met with silence or a change of subject.

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Practical ways to calm yourself, your child, your family

Practical ways to calm yourself, your child, your family
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You need peace and serenity in your household, and you need to be proactive to attain it, but how?  Therapy works.  So does disciplined meditation and yoga.  Anti-anxiety medications work, use them, but they’re not the best long-term solution.  You need reliable skills for calming yourself, your stormy child, and all other family members.  In psychological jargon, you need to learn “de-escalation” skills.  (see research at the end of this article on the brain benefits of mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)

Calming yourself in the tension-filled moment

Become consciously aware of your tension and ask:  What are my options for coping with my tension right now?  Brainstorm  options ahead of time and create a list because you won’t be able to process in the moment.  For example:  take a very deep breath, then silently count to 10 backwards.  Another idea:  eliminate distractions.  Turn off the cell phone, send others out of the room, pull the car over, turn off music…  You must strategically choose your response to a common situation, which is a key element of CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), and it works.

Be your own cheerleader.  Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control;” “You Go Girl!;” “I am the calm upon the face of troubled waters…”  Have fun with it.  In psychological jargon, this is called “positive self-talk,” and is a key element of DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy).

Ways to calm your child in the moment

Note:  the techniques are different for each child depending on their disorder and its characteristics.  Experiment to find out what works with your child’s typical patterns at home, in school, with others, or other situations that are typically stressful.

In a steady voice, give them directions or requests to calm down.  You will need to repeat yourself periodically as they struggle with their inner storm.  If you ask them to move to another space or use their own calming, skills, use your body language to initiate the act.  If you ask them take a deep breath, do it yourself.  If it helps them to punch a pillow, punch it yourself and hand it over.

Wait them out.  Give them plenty of time to unwind as long if they are not hurting anything.  There is no rush.  Allow long moments to pass as they struggle with whatever is triggering them.

Have a calm place to go to pull themselves together, a kid cave, or a time-out space, even the car.

Give them extra time to “change channels” and go from one environment to another.  Children and teens often have problems “transitioning.”  Examples: coming home from school; getting out of the car after a long ride; waking up in the morning.  Changes are difficult for troubled kids.

Redirect their focus.  Draw attention to something to distract them in the moment (this is a useful kind of channel-changing).  A young child could be directed to a physical activity (draw, push clay around, throw a Nerf ball against the wall), a teen can be asked to play their favorite music (even if you hate it), shoot baskets, or take the dog for a walk.

Animals heal, but strategically pick the best animals.  If you can have a calm smiling dog, a calm affectionate cat, or a little low-key animal like a hamster, bird, or turtle, you’ve got pet therapists.  Excessively active or barking dogs and aloof kitties probably won’t work.  If you can afford calm livestock like a goat or horse, the ‘largeness’ of their serenity works wonders!

What makes a good “security blanket” for your child?  I’ve completely wrapped anxious children and teens in a blanket or coat, and they became immediately present.  Have a child bury themselves in a favorite piece of furniture, or let them get their video game or iPod.

Once a situation has passed, ask yourself what happened just prior to your child’s episode.  Was there a trigger?  Did they just transition from one kind of place to another?  Do you have options for removing the trigger?

It is very common for a trigger to be so small or elusive that you miss it.  The child or teen’s sibling could have sniffed or rolled their eyes without you noticing.  An object your child or teen reached for (like a remote control) could have just been unintentionally grabbed by someone else.  If you can identify the little frustrations that send them to the stratosphere, and address them immediately, it will proactively ease their mind.  “Your sister is not supposed to tease you and I’ll see that it stops.”  “Your brother was not trying to bother you by taking the remote just now.  It was an accident of timing.”

Calming your home for the long term

Calm your emotional self first and think Zen.  If you can take 5 minutes during a day, even a stressful day, sit quietly and breathe, and consciously work at eliminating all thoughts, ALL THOUGHTS, you would calm down.  Not thinking anything is the hard part of meditation, yet it is the skill that makes it work, and there’s proof.

Maintain bodily calm with the big three: exercise, sleep, and healthy diet.  You’ve heard this a million times already, but there’s good reason and proof.  If you can’t simultaneously maintain all three habits in your family, take one at time and you will still see benefits.

Calm the sensations that exist in your home environment.  Reduce noise, disorder, family emotional upheavals, and the intrusive stimulation of an always-on TV, etc.  Create a place or time period in your home where anyone can go that’s contemplative, where people agree to behave as if they’re in a library, a special place of worship, or a safe zone.

Have you ever wondered how a hospital psychiatric ward is designed to keep patients calm?  I’ve visited a number of wards, and the best ones I saw were in China, where I toured with a delegation of mental health practitioners.

Visual: they had windows and lots of light, plants, and beautiful aquariums with gorgeous fish and lots of bubbles.  Those hypnotic fish are great de-stressors.

Sound: besides the bubbling aquarium, there was often low-energy music.

Physical: soft furniture, a table where people could gather in the comfort and buzz of a group, and nooks where people could remove themselves from the buzz and avoid over stimulation.

Two things to avoid

Do not communicate strong emotions in your voice.  Word choice and sound volume don’t matter as much as strong emotional content, negative or positive. Strong emotions trigger an unstable child or teen, yet are hardest to control when you are excited or under stress!  Practice vocal neutrality.  Which is better: “Will you please let the cat out?” versus “Will you PULLEEEEZ let the cat OUT!!!

Don’t pressure the child to calm down when they’re not ready—it takes time for anyone to unwind.  Wait patiently while a child or teen works through ugly emotions and finishes releasing their stuff.  You may have to take it on the chin, but this will pass.  Let them have their catharsis.  We all need to release our stuff, and we all need others to patiently let us.

In my support group, I’ve observed that very stressed parents, who visit for the first time, need at least one solid hour to vent and cry before they’re calm enough to benefit from another’s supportive words and sympathy.

 

 

 

Be the calm, spread  the calm, live the calm.

 

 

 

Margaret

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ABSTRACT – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density

Britta K. Hölzelab, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Gardab, Sara W. Lazara 

Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36-43 (30 January 2011)

Summary in plain English:  Meditation causes structural changes in the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress, according to new research. Researchers examined MRI scans of participants over a period of 8 weeks. Daily meditation sessions of 30 minutes produced measurable changes in subjects with no previous meditation history. The anxiety and stress region of the brain, the amygdala, produced less gray matter. In a non-meditating control group, these positive changes did not take place.

“Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

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Yoga – Safe and effective for depression and anxiety

Yoga – Safe and effective for depression and anxiety
3 votes
"Meditating, it makes you calm, and calm. Om."  Andre, 7

"Meditating, it makes you calm, and calm. Om." Andre, 7

Yoga is being taught to and practiced by adults with mental and emotional disorders, including those who are developmentally disabled.  And relatively recently, it is being taught to children and teens with similar challenges.  According to people who suffer brain disorders, a session of yoga has more than physical benefits:

  • Improving mood, and increasing self-esteem and energy
  • Reducing anger and hostility, reducing tension and anxiety, and reducing confusion or bewilderment in developmentally disabled people

Yoga is simple:  a series of gentle poses, postures, stretches, and breathing and physical exercises that can be practiced by most people.  Yoga is safe and anyone can benefit for free.  And from 65% to 73%  report they have been genuinely helped by yoga practice.  Types of yoga used in treatment settings are Iyengar and Hatha yoga (poses and exercise), and Pranayamas (breathing exercises).  The specifics of these types of yoga are best explained in the articloes at the end of this article.

There are a number of research studies showing that yoga qualitatively improves mood as self-reported by adult psychiatric patients (on evidence-based survey instruments, see below).  But yoga has also been shown to help children and teens with serious mental and behavioral disorders.  It is currently being taught in schools for special needs children (ex: Pioneer School in Portland, Oregon) and in psychiatric residential treatment programs for children.

At the end of this post are excerpts from articles on the benefits of yoga for calming, easing anxiety, and reducing depression in children and adults.

For more information on the practice of yoga specifically for troubled and traumatized children and teenagers, there are two organizations that provide yoga classes to help young people feel better, function better, and support their recovery.

The Flawless Foundation – “Creates and supports programs that enrich the lives of children who courageously face challenges of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders on a daily basis.”  http://www.flawlessfoundation.org/

Street Yoga – Street Yoga teaches yoga, mindfulness and compassionate communication to youth and families struggling with homelessness, poverty, abuse, addiction, trauma,  and neurological and psychiatric issues, so that they can grow stronger, heal from past traumas, and create for themselves a life that is inspired, safe, and joyful.   http://www.streetyoga.org/

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Study: Yoga Enhances Mood

Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, August 20, 2010

Research confirms what many have suspected—that yoga has positive effects on mood over other physical activities. In a recent study of 2 randomized groups of healthy participants, it was found that the group that practiced yoga 3 times a week for an hour increased brain gamma aminobutyric (GABA) levels over the other group that walked 3 times a week for an hour.

Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) researchers compared participants’ GABA levels on the first and final day of the 12-week study through magnetic resonance spectroscopic (MRS) imaging. With his colleagues, lead author Chris Streeter, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at BUSM

Details available at: Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, et al. Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2007;13:419-426.

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The effects of yoga on mood in psychiatric inpatients

Roberta Lavey, Tom Sherman, Kim T. Mueser, Donna D. Osborne, Melinda Currier, Rosemarie Wolfe

Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, Volume 28, Number 4 / Spring 2005

Abstract

The effects of yoga on mood were examined in 113 psychiatric inpatients at New Hampshire Hospital.  Participants completed the Profile of Mood States (POMS) prior to and following participation in a yoga class.  Analyses indicated that participants reported significant improvements on all five of the negative emotion factors on the POMS, including tension-anxiety, depression-dejection, anger-hostility, fatigue-inertia, and confusion-bewilderment.  There was no significant change on the sixth POMS factor: vigor-activity.  Improvements in mood were not related to gender or diagnosis.  The results suggest that yoga was associated with improved mood, and may be a useful way of reducing stress during inpatient psychiatric treatment.

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Practitioners using yoga therapy to mend bodies and spirits (excerpt)

By Michelle Goodman, The Seattle Times, January 11, 2006

As Tisha Satow stretches into the standing yoga pose known as Warrior II, she encourages her student Shaun, clad in sneakers, jeans and a Seahawks T-shirt, to adjust his feet.  Across from Shaun, fellow yogi Susan, who travels with a baby stroller occupied by three teddy bears, grips a metal folding chair for balance.

Welcome to yoga therapy, one of the newer recreational activities available to clients of Seattle Mental Health on Capitol Hill. Shaun and Susan, adults who live in group homes and are diagnosed as both developmentally disabled and mentally ill, are regulars in this class, taught weekly by Satow or one of her co-workers at the Samarya Center, a Seattle nonprofit organization devoted to providing yoga to everyone it can, regardless of health issues or finances.

What is yoga therapy? Simply put, it’s the adaptation of yoga breathing, stretching, even chanting techniques to help people with health issues alleviate pain, gain energy and basically feel a heck of a lot better. Who can benefit from it? Anyone from typical backache sufferers to the terminally ill.

“Science is beginning to catch up to this, is beginning to validate this,” says John Kepner, director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, which has about 1,400 members worldwide.

For the Seattle Mental Health clients, who often attend less glamorous classes such as anger management and checkbook balancing, yoga seems a breath of fresh air. Shaun, who’s shy yet quick to share a laugh with his classmates, says he likes the stretching best. And Susan, who calls yoga “fun” and likes that it gives her a chance to “see people,” shows off her biceps after class so instructor Satow can feel how strong she’s getting.

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Yoga as a Complementary Treatment of Depression:  Effects of Traits and Moods on Treatment Outcome  (excerpt)

David Shapiro; Ian A. Cook; Dmitry M. Davydov; Cristina Ottaviani; Andrew F. Leuchter; Michelle Abrams

Abstract

Our preliminary research findings support the potential of yoga as a complementary treatment of depressed patients who are taking anti-depressant medications but who are only in partial remission.  In this study, participants were diagnosed with unipolar major depression in partial remission.  They took classes led by senior Iyengar yoga teachers.  Significant reductions were shown for depression, anger, anxiety, neurotic symptoms and low frequency heart rate variability.  Of those in the study, 65% achieved remission levels post-intervention.  Yoga is cost-effective and easy to implement.  It produces many beneficial emotional, psychological and biological effects, as supported by observations in this study.

Iyengar yoga classes typically involve sitting and standing poses, inversions (head stand, shoulder stand), breathing exercises (pranayama) and short periods of relaxation at the end of each class (savasana–corpse pose).  An important feature of participation in Iyengar yoga is sustained attention and concentration.  Iyengar theory and practice specifies asanas (poses, postures, positions), and certain asanas have been found to enhance positive mood in healthy (non-depressed) participants.

Previous research on the effects of yoga on mood in non-depressed healthy subjects, suggests the potential of yoga for use in the management of clinical major depression.  In a form of yoga (Hatha Yoga) that has a strong exercise dimension much like Iyengar yoga, subjects reported being less anxious, tense, angry, fatigued and confused after classes than just before class.

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How Hatha Yoga saved the life of one manic depressive.  (excerpt)

By: Amy Weintraub ; Psychology Today Magazine, Nov/Dec 2000

When Jenny Smith was 41 years old, her mental illness became so severe that she could barely walk or speak.  After days of feeling wonderful one moment and hallucinating that spiders and bugs were crawling on her skin the next, she landed in the hospital.

Smith is a victim of bipolar disorder, an illness characterized by oscillating feelings of elation and utter depression.  And though she had tried 11 different medications for relief, some in combination, nothing seemed to work.  Upon leaving the hospital, Smith was told that she could expect to be in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the rest of her life.  Soon after her release, Smith decided to learn Hatha yoga, which incorporates specific postures, meditation and Pranayamas, deep abdominal breathing techniques that relax the body.  As she practiced daily, Smith noticed that her panic attacks—were subsiding.  She has since become a certified hatha yoga instructor, and with the help of only Paxil, Smith’s pattern of severe mood swings seems to have ended.

Key to reaping Hatha yoga’s mental benefits is reducing stress and anxiety.  To that end, Jon Cabot-Zinn, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts, developed the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program (SRRP), a system that emphasizes mindfulness, a meditation technique where practitioners observe their own mental process.  In the last 20 years, SRRP has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and depression, and thus alleviate mental illness.

Research conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in India has shown a high success rate—up to 73 percent—for treating depression with sudharshan kriya, a pranayama technique taught in the U.S. as “The Healing Breath Technique.”  It involves breathing naturally through the nose, mouth closed, in three distinct rhythms.

According to Stephen Cope, a psychotherapist and author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, “Hatha yoga is an accessible form of learning self-soothing,” he says.”  Yoga students may also benefit from their relationship with the yoga instructor, Cope said, which can provide a “container” or a safe place for investigating, expressing and resolving emotional issues.

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