Budget 2019 boosts aged care and mental health, and modernises Medicare: health experts respond



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The budget provides some short-term boosts for aged care and mental health but little opportunity for much-needed structural reform.
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Stephen Duckett, Grattan Institute; Hal Swerissen, Grattan Institute; Ian Hickie, University of Sydney; Lesley Russell, University of Sydney; Peter Sivey, RMIT University, and Philip Clarke, University of Melbourne

This year’s budget includes $448.5 to modernise Australia’s Medicare system, by encouraging people with diabetes to sign up to a GP clinic for their care. The clinic will receive a lump sum payment to care for the person over time, rather than a fee each time they see their GP.

The indexation freeze on all GP services on the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) will lift from July 1, 2019, at a cost of $187.2 million. The freeze will be lifted on various X-ray and ultrasound MBS rebates from July 1, 2020.




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The budget announces $461 million for youth mental health, including 30 new headspace centres, some of which will be in regional areas. But it does little to address the underlying structural reforms that make it difficult for Australians to access quality and timely mental health care.

In aged care, the government will fund 10,000 home care packages, which have been previously announced, at a cost of $282 million over five years, and will allocate $84 million for carer respite. But long wait times for home care packages remain.

Other announcements include:

  • $62.2 million over five years to train new rural GPs
  • $309 million for diagnostic imaging services, including 23 new MRI licences
  • $331 million over five years for new pharmaceuticals, including high-cost cancer treatments
  • $107.8 million over seven years for hospitals and facilities including Redland Hospital, Bowen Hospital, Bass Coast Health and Ronald McDonald House
  • $70.8 million over seven years for regional cancer diagnosis, treatment and therapy centres
  • $114.5 million from 2020-21 to trial eight mental health facilities for adults
  • $43.9 million for mental health services for expectant and new parents
  • $35.7 million over five years for increased dementia and veterans’ home care supplements
  • $320 million this year as a one-off increase to the basic subsidy for residential aged-care recipients.

Here’s what our health policy experts thought of tonight’s budget announcements.


A hesitant step forward for Medicare

Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute

Medicare funding is slowly creeping into the 21st century. The 19th-century model of individual fees for individual services – suitable for an era when medicine was essentially dealing with episodic conditions – is being supplemented with a new fee to better manage the care of people with diabetes.

The budget announcement, as part of the Strengthening primary care package, is for a new annual payment for each person with diabetes who signs up with a specific GP. Funding is provided for about 100,000 people to sign up – about 10% of all people with diabetes in Australia.

The new item number is consistent with the recent MBS review Report on General Practice, which recommended a move toward voluntary enrolment.

The precise details of the new fee – including the annual amount and any descriptors – have not yet been released. But it should encourage practices to move towards a more prevention-oriented approach to chronic disease management, including using practice nurses to call patients to check up on their condition, and using remote monitoring technology.

The budget announcement contained no evaluation strategy for the initiative. The government should produce such a strategy soon.


Support for aged and disability care

Hal Swerissen, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and Fellow, Health Program, Grattan Institute

The budget has short-term measures to address major issues in aged care and disability while we wait for the royal commissions to fix the long-term problems.

The National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) is struggling with the huge task of putting the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in place.

There has been a major under-spend on the on the scheme. Price caps for services such as therapy and personal care are too low and nearly one-third of services are operating at a loss. The under-spend would have been more if there hadn’t been a last-minute budget decision to significantly increase service caps, at a cost of $850 million.

$528 million dollars has also been announced for a royal commission to look at violence, neglect and abuse of people with disabilities – the most expensive royal commission to date.




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There is more funding for aged care. Currently, 130,000 older people are waiting for home care packages – often for a year or more. Nearly half of residential care services are losing money and there are major concerns about quality of care.

The short-term fix is to give residential care $320 million to try to prevent services going under. The budget includes 10,000 previously announced home care packages, at a cost of $282 million, but that still leaves more than 100,000 people waiting.

There’s still a massive shortfall in home care places.
eggeegg/Shutterstock

Little for prevention, Indigenous health and to address disparities

Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney

Prevention

Preventable diseases and conditions are a key factor in health inequalities and rising health-care costs. The two issues looming large are obesity and its consequences, and the health impacts of climate change.

There is $5.5 million for 2018-19 and 2019-20 for mental health services in areas affected by natural disasters, and $1.1 million over two years for the Health Star rating system – otherwise nothing for primary prevention.

Indigenous health

The Treasurer did not mention Closing the Gap in his budget speech, and there is little in the budget for Indigenous health.

Just $5 million over four years is provided in the budget for suicide-prevention initiatives. And the Lowitja Institute receives $10 million for health and medical research.




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Some announcements in March contribute a little more:

Inequalities and disparities

Disadvantaged rural and remote communities will (ultimately) benefit from efforts to boost National Rural Generalist Training Pathway, with $62.2 million provided over four years. This was a 2016 election commitment.

The announcement of $200 million over three years to index Medicare payments for ultrasound and diagnostic radiology services (beginning from July 1, 2020) came with claims this will help reduce out-of-pocket costs. But given that these payments have not been indexed in 20 years, will the money go to providers or patients?

Hospitals and private health insurance

Peter Sivey, Associate Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University

There are no major changes to public hospital funding arrangements in this year’s budget.

It’s business as usual for hospital funding, aside from funding injections for a handful of hospital sites.
By VILevi

Funding for public hospitals is predicted to increase at between 3.7% and 5.6% over the forward estimates. However, these figures are contingent on the new COAG agreement on health funding between the Commonwealth and states, which is due to be finalised before the end of 2019.

The states will be hoping to wring some more dollars from the federal government given their soaring public hospital admissions and pressure on waiting times.

There is no change to the government’s private health insurance policy which has just come into force.




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Government spending on the private health insurance rebate is projected to increase more slowly than premiums at between 1.8% and 3.2% because of indexation arrangements which are gradually reducing the rebate over time.


Smaller targets for mental health

Ian Hickie, Co-Director, Brain and Mind Institute, University of Sydney

Numerous reports and accounts from within the community have noted the flaws in Australia’s mental health system: poor access to quality services, the uneven roll-out of the NDIS, and the lack of accountability for reforming the system.

The next federal government faces major structural challenges in mental health and suicide prevention.

Not surprisingly, this pre-election budget does not directly address these issues. Instead, it focuses on less challenging but worthy targets such as:

  • continued support for expansion of headspace services for young people ($263m over the next seven years) and additional support for early psychosis services ($110m over four years)
  • support for workplace-based mental health programs ($15m)
  • support for new residential care centres for eating disorders ($63m).

A more challenging experiment is the $114.5 committed to eight new walk-in community mental health centres, recognising that access to coordinated, high-quality care that delivers better outcomes remains a national challenge.

Despite the commitment of health minister Greg Hunt to enhanced mental health investments, the total increased spend on these initiatives ($736.6m) is dwarfed by the big new expenditures in Medicare ($6b), improved access to medicines ($40b), public hospitals ($5b) and aged care ($7b).

It will be interesting to see whether mental health reform now receives greater attention during the election campaign. At this stage, neither of the major parties has made it clear that it is ready to deal directly with the complex challenges in mental health and suicide prevention that are unresolved.


New funding for research, but who decides the priorities?

Philip Clarke, Professor of Health Economics, University of Melbourne

The budget contains several funding announcements for research.

The government will establish a Health and Medical Research Office, to help allocate money from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF). This will be needed, as the budget papers commit to a further $931 million from the MRFF for:

  • Clinical trials for rare cancers and rare diseases
  • Emerging priorities and consumer-driven research
  • Global health research to tackle antimicrobial resistance and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
The budget includes funding for consumer-driven research and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
i viewfinder/Shutterstock

In addition, the budget includes:

  • $70 million for research into type 1 diabetes
  • a large investment for genomics (although that is a re-announcement of $500 million promised in last year’s budget)
  • a series of infrastructure grants to individual universities and institutions, such as $10 million to establish the Curtin University Dementia Centre of Excellence.



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The government appears to be moving away from allocating medical research funding through existing funding bodies, such as the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), towards allocating research funds to specific disease areas, and even to individual institutions.

This is a much more direct approach to research funding, but it raises a few important questions. On what basis are these funding decisions being made? And why are some diseases considered priorities to receive funding? There is very little detail to answer these questions.

Australia’s allocation of research funding through the MRFF is diverging from long-held traditions in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, which apply the “Haldane principle”. This involves researchers deciding where research funding is spent, rather than politicians.

* This article has been updated since publication to clarify the 10,000 home care packages have been previously announced.The Conversation

Stephen Duckett, Director, Health Program, Grattan Institute; Hal Swerissen, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and Fellow, Health Program, Grattan Institute; Ian Hickie, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Sydney; Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney; Peter Sivey, Associate Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University, and Philip Clarke, Professor of Health Economics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Want to improve your mood? It’s time to ditch the junk food



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Eating a healthy diet fuels our brain cells, fights inflammation and helps produce the chemicals that make us happy.
Antor Paul

Megan Lee, Southern Cross University

Worldwide, more than 300 million people live with depression. Without effective treatment, the condition can make it difficult to work and maintain relationships with family and friends.

Depression can cause sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, and a lack of interest in activities that are usually pleasurable. At its most extreme, it can lead to suicide.




Read more:
What causes depression? What we know, don’t know and suspect


Depression has long been treated with medication and talking therapies – and they’re not going anywhere just yet. But we’re beginning to understand that increasing how much exercise we get and switching to a healthy diet can also play an important role in treating – and even preventing – depression.

So what should you eat more of, and avoid, for the sake of your mood?

Ditch junk food

Research suggests that while healthy diets can reduce the risk or severity of depression, unhealthy diets may increase the risk.

Of course, we all indulge from time to time but unhealthy diets are those that contain lots of foods that are high in energy (kilojoules) and low on nutrition. This means too much of the foods we should limit:

  • processed and takeaway foods
  • processed meats
  • fried food
  • butter
  • salt
  • potatoes
  • refined grains, such as those in white bread, pasta, cakes and pastries
  • sugary drinks and snacks.

The average Australian consumes 19 serves of junk food a week, and far fewer serves of fibre-rich fresh food and wholegrains than recommended. This leaves us overfed, undernourished and mentally worse off.

Here’s what to eat instead

Mix it up.
Anna Pelzer

Having a healthy diet means consuming a wide variety of nutritious foods every day, including:

  • fruit (two serves per day)
  • vegetables (five serves)
  • wholegrains
  • nuts
  • legumes
  • oily fish
  • dairy products
  • small quantities of meat
  • small quantities of olive oil
  • water.



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This way of eating is common in Mediterranean countries, where people have been identified as having lower rates of cognitive decline, depression and dementia.

In Japan, a diet low in processed foods and high in fresh fruit, vegetables, green tea and soy products is recognised for its protective role in mental health.

How does healthy food help?

A healthy diet is naturally high in five food types that boost our mental health in different ways:

Complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains help fuel our brain cells. Complex carbohydrates release glucose slowly into our system, unlike simple carbohydrates (found in sugary snacks and drinks), which create energy highs and lows throughout the day. These peaks and troughs decrease feelings of happiness and negatively affect our psychological well-being.

Antioxidants in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables scavenge free radicals, eliminate oxidative stress and decrease inflammation in the brain. This in turn increases the feelgood chemicals in the brain that elevate our mood.




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Five types of food to increase your psychological well-being


Omega 3 found in oily fish and B vitamins found in some vegetables increase the production of the brain’s happiness chemicals and have been known to protect against both dementia and depression.

Salmon is an excellent source of omega 3.
Caroline Attwood

Pro and prebiotics found in yoghurt, cheese and fermented products boost the millions of bacteria living in our gut. These bacteria produce chemical messengers from the gut to the brain that influence our emotions and reactions to stressful situations.

Research suggests pro- and prebiotics could work on the same neurological pathways that antidepressants do, thereby decreasing depressed and anxious states and elevating happy emotions.

What happens when you switch to a healthy diet?

An Australian research team recently undertook the first randomised control trial studying 56 individuals with depression.

Over a 12-week period, 31 participants were given nutritional consulting sessions and asked to change from their unhealthy diets to a healthy diet. The other 25 attended social support sessions and continued their usual eating patterns.

The participants continued their existing antidepressant and talking therapies during the trial.

At the end of the trial, the depressive symptoms of the group that maintained a healthier diet significantly improved. Some 32% of participants had scores so low they no longer met the criteria for depression, compared with 8% of the control group.




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The trial was replicated by another research team, which found similar results, and supported by a recent review of all studies on dietary patterns and depression. The review found that across 41 studies, people who stuck to a healthy diet had a 24-35% lower risk of depressive symptoms than those who ate more unhealthy foods.

These findings suggest improving your diet could be a cost-effective complementary treatment for depression and could reduce your risk of developing a mental illness.The Conversation

Megan Lee, Academic Tutor and Lecturer, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

One in four Australians are lonely, which affects their physical and mental health



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Younger Australians struggle more with loneliness than older generations.
Toa Heftiba

Michelle H Lim, Swinburne University of Technology

One in four Australians are lonely, our new report has found, and it’s not just a problem among older Australians – it affects both genders and almost all age groups.

The Australian Loneliness Report, released today by my colleagues and I at the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University, found one in two (50.5%) Australians feel lonely for at least one day in a week, while more than one in four (27.6%) feel lonely for three or more days.

Our results come from a survey of 1,678 Australians from across the nation. We used a comprehensive measure of loneliness to assess how it relates to mental health and physical health outcomes.




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We found nearly 55% of the population feel they lack companionship at least sometime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Australians who are married or in a de facto relationship are the least lonely, compared to those who are single, separated or divorced.

While Australians are reasonably connected to their friends and families, they don’t have the same relationships with their neighbours. Almost half of Australians (47%) reported not having neighbours to call on for help, which suggests many of us feel disengaged in our neighbourhoods.

Impact on mental and physical health

Lonely Australians, when compared with their less lonely counterparts, reported higher social anxiety and depression, poorer psychological health and quality of life, and fewer meaningful relationships and social interactions.

Loneliness increases a person’s likelihood of experiencing depression by 15.2% and the likelihood of social anxiety increases by 13.1%. Those who are lonelier also report being more socially anxious during social interactions.

This fits with previous research, including a study of more than 1,000 Americans which found lonelier people reported more severe social anxiety, depression, and paranoia when followed up after three months.

Older Australians are less socially anxious than younger folks.
Fabio Neo Amato

Interestingly, Australians over 65 were less lonely, less socially anxious, and less depressed than younger Australians.

This is consistent with previous studies that show older people fare better on particular mental health and well-being indicators.

(Though it’s unclear whether this is the case for adults over 75, as few participants in our study were aged in the late 70s and over).

Younger adults, on the other hand, reported significantly more social anxiety than older Australians.

The evidence outlining the negative effects of loneliness on physical health is also growing. Past research has found loneliness increases the likelihood of an earlier death by 26% and has negative consequences on the health of your heart, your sleep, and levels of inflammation.




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Loneliness is a health issue, and needs targeted solutions


Our study adds to this body of research, finding people with higher rates of loneliness are more likely to have more headaches, stomach problems, and physical pain. This is not surprising as loneliness is associated with increased inflammatory responses.

What can we do about it?

Researchers are just beginning to understand the detrimental effects of loneliness on our health, social lives and communities but many people – including service providers – are unaware. There are no guidelines or training for service providers.

So, even caring and highly trained staff at emergency departments may trivialise the needs of lonely people presenting repeatedly and direct them to resources that aren’t right.

Increasing awareness, formalised training, and policies are all steps in the right direction to reduce this poor care.

For some people, simple solutions such as joining shared interest groups (such as book clubs) or shared experienced groups (such as bereavement or carers groups) may help alleviate their loneliness.

But for others, there are more barriers to overcome, such as stigma, discrimination, and poverty.

Shared interest groups can help some people feel less alone.
Danielle Cerullo

Many community programs and social services focus on improving well-being and quality of life for lonely people. By tackling loneliness, they may also improve the health of Australians. But without rigorous evaluation of these health outcomes, it’s difficult to determine their impact.

We know predictors of loneliness can include genetics, brain functioning, mental health, physical health, community, work, and social factors. And we know predictors can differ between groups – for example, young versus old.

But we need to better measure and understand these different predictors and how they influence each other over time. Only with Australian data can we predict who is at risk and develop effective solutions.




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The deadly truth about loneliness


There are some things we can do in the meantime.

We need a campaign to end loneliness for all Australians. Campaigns can raise awareness, reduce stigma, and empower not just the lonely person but also those around them.

Loneliness campaigns have been successfully piloted in the United Kingdom and Denmark. These campaigns don’t just raise awareness of loneliness; they also empower lonely and un-lonely people to change their social behaviours.

A great example of action arising from increased awareness comes from the Royal College of General Practitioners, which developed action plans to assist lonely patients presenting in primary care. The college encouraged GPs to tackle loneliness with more than just medicine; it prompted them to ask what matters to the lonely person rather than what is the matter with the lonely person.

Australia lags behind other countries but loneliness is on the agenda. Multiple Australian organisations have come together after identifying a need to generate Australian-specific data, increase advocacy, and develop an awareness campaign. But only significant, sustained government investment and bipartisan support will ensure this promising work results in better outcomes for lonely Australians.The Conversation

Michelle H Lim, Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mood and personality disorders are often misconceived: here’s what you need to know


Kathryn Fletcher, Swinburne University of Technology and Kristi-Ann Villagonzalo, Swinburne University of Technology

With each new version of the widely-used manual of mental disorders, the number of mental health conditions increases. The latest version (DSM-5) lists around 300 disorders. To complicate things, many share common features, such as depression and anxiety.

The manual is a useful guide for doctors and researchers, but making a diagnosis is not a precise science. So if the “experts” are still debating what’s what when it comes to categorising disorders, it’s not surprising misconceptions abound in the community about certain mental health conditions.

We learn about mental health conditions in a number of ways. Either we know someone who has experienced it, we’ve experienced it ourselves, read about it or seen something on TV. Movies and TV series commonly portray people with mental illness as dangerous, scary and unpredictable. The most popular (mis)representations are of characters with multiple personalities, personality disorders, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.




Read more:
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While the media is an important source of information about mental illness, it can misinform the public if reported inaccurately, promoting stigma and perpetuating myths. And research shows negative images of mental illness in the media (fictional and non-fictional) results in negative and inaccurate beliefs about mental illness.

Dissociative identity disorder

“Multiple personality disorder” or “split personality disorder” are colloquial terms for dissociative identity disorder. Despite being colloquially named a personality disorder, it’s actually a dissociative disorder.

A personality disorder is a long-term way of thinking, feeling and behaving that deviates from the expectations of culture. Whereas in dissociative identity disorder, at least two alternate personalities (alters) routinely take control of the individual’s behaviour. The individual is usually unable to remember what happened when an alter takes over: there are noticeble gaps in their memory, which can be extremely distressing.




Read more:
Dissociative identity disorder exists and is the result of childhood trauma


The popular TV series “The United States of Tara” actually does a pretty good job of portraying dissociative identity disorder. The main character has a series of alters and experiences recurrent gaps in her memory.

While it used to be considered rare, dissociative identity disorder is estimated to affect 1% of the general population, and is typically related to early trauma (such as childhood abuse). People commonly confuse dissociative identity disorder with schizophrenia. Unlike schizophrenia, the individual is not imagining external voices or experiencing visual hallucinations: one personality literally “checks out” and another appears in their place.

Borderline personality disorder

Borderline personality disorder is often misconstrued. People with this condition are often portrayed as manipulative, destructive and violent. In reality, these behaviours are driven by emotional pain: the person has never learned to ask effectively for what they need or want.

It is also often assumed “borderline” means the person almost has a personality disorder. The term “borderline” here creates some confusion. First introduced in the United States in 1938, the term was used by psychiatrists to describe patients who were thought to be on the “border” between diagnoses (mostly psychosis and neurosis). The term “borderline” has stuck in the diagnosis, but there is now a much better understanding of the causes, symptoms and treatment.




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Those with borderline personality disorder have difficulties regulating their emotions. This contributes to angry outbursts, anxiety and depression, and relationships fraught with difficulties. It’s also commonly associated with trauma (such as childhood abuse or neglect).

Many actions of a person with borderline personality disorder (such as self-harm and overdose) are done out of desperation in an attempt to manage difficult and intense emotions.




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Explainer: what is borderline personality disorder?


Bipolar disorder

While borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder can look similar (mood problems, impulsive behaviour and suicidal thinking), there are several key differences.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings – from severe lows (depression) to periods of high activity, energy and euphoria. The different mood states can seem like a personality change, but a return to the “usual self” occurs once mood stabilises.

While depression is part of borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder, those with bipolar disorder experience significant “up” mood swings. This is known as mania in bipolar I disorder and hypomania (less intense mania) in bipolar II disorder.




Read more:
Explainer: what is bipolar disorder?


Bipolar mood episodes last longer (four days or longer for “ups” and two weeks or longer for “downs”), with periods of wellness in between, and are less likely to be triggered by external events. And bipolar disorder is more likely to run in families, disrupt sleep patterns, and psychotic symptoms (delusions, hallucinations) can occur during mood episodes.

We all have ups and downs, but bipolar disorder is much more than that with extreme, recurrent mood episodes that are not only distressing, but have a significant long-term impact on key areas of a persons’s life. Positively, with the right treatment, good quality of life is entirely possible despite ongoing symptoms.

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia, meaning “split mind” in Greek, is often confused with dissociative identity disorder. However, the “split” refers not to multiple personalities, but to a “split” from reality. People with schizophrenia may find it difficult to discern whether their perceptions, thoughts, and emotions are based in reality or not.

Hearing voices (auditory hallucinations) is a common symptom, along with seeing, smelling, feeling, or tasting things others can’t. Unusual beliefs (delusions), including some that cannot possibly be true (such as a belief that one has special powers) are also common. So too is disordered thinking, where the person jumps from one topic to another at random, or makes strange associations to things that don’t make sense. They may also exhibit bizarre behaviour including socially inappropriate outbursts or wearing odd clothing that is inappropriate to the circumstances.

Other symptoms of schizophrenia look a lot like depression, such as an inability to experience pleasure, social withdrawal and low motivation. Depressive symptoms are also present in schizophrenia, but are slightly different in that emotion is diminished altogether, rather than a depressed mood per se.




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Either mad and bad or Jekyll and Hyde: media portrayals of schizophrenia


Mental health conditions don’t come in neat packages

Unlike physical conditions, we don’t have a biological test that can magically tell us what mental condition we’re dealing with. Mental health practitioners are carefully trained to observe symptom patterns: the right diagnosis guides the appropriate treatment.

For example, first-line treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often focuses on medication. While dissociative identity disorder and borderline personality disorders are treated primarily with psychological therapy.

The ConversationMental health conditions are serious – whether disorders of personality, mood or somewhere in between. Improved understanding and balanced representation of these conditions is needed to shift stigmas and misconceptions in the community.

Kathryn Fletcher, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology and Kristi-Ann Villagonzalo, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What is mindfulness? Nobody really knows, and that’s a problem



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The concept of mindfulness differs depending on who you speak to.
Lua Valentia/Unsplash

Nicholas T. Van Dam, University of Melbourne and Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. These days, it’s everywhere, like many ideas and practices drawn from Buddhist texts that have become part of mainstream Western culture.

But a review published today in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows the hype is ahead of the evidence. Some reviews of studies on mindfulness suggest it may help with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress. But it’s not clear what type of mindfulness or meditation we need and for what specific problem.

The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another.

At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether.

So, what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, body focus, curiosity, nonjudgmental attitude, focus on the present, and others.

It’s equally ill-defined as a set of practices. A brief exercise in self-reflection prompted by a smart-phone app on your daily commute may be considered the same as a months-long meditation retreat. Mindfulness can both refer to what Buddhist monks do and what your yoga instructor does for five minutes at the start and end of a class.

To be clear, mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing. There are types of meditation that are mindful, but not all mindfulness involves meditation and not all meditation is mindfulness-based.

Mindfulness mainly refers to the idea of focusing on the present moment, but it’s not quite that simple. It also refers to several forms of meditation practices that aim to develop skills of awareness of the world around you and of your behavioral patterns and habits. In truth, many disagree about its actual purpose and what is and isn’t mindfulness.

Mindfulness can both refer to what Buddhist monks do and what your yoga instructor does for five minutes at the start and end of a class.
from shutterstock.com

What’s it for?

Mindfulness has been applied to just about any problem you can think up – from relationship issues, problems with alcohol or drugs, to enhancing leadership skills. It’s being used by sportsmen to find “clarity” on and off the field and mindfulness programs are being offered at school. You can find it in workplaces, medical clinics, and old age homes.

More than a few popular books have been written touting the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. For example, in a supposedly critical review Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes your Mind, Brain and Body, Daniel Goleman argues one of the four benefits of mindfulness is improved working memory. Yet, a recent review of about 18 studies exploring the effect of mindfulness-based therapies on attention and memory calls into question these ideas.

Another common claim is that mindfulness reduces stress, for which there is limited evidence. Other promises, such as improved mood and attention, better eating habits, improved sleep, and better weight control are not fully supported by the science either.

And while benefits have limited evidence, mindfulness and meditation can sometimes be harmful and can lead to psychosis, mania, loss of personal identity, anxiety, panic, and re-experiencing traumatic memories. Experts have suggested mindfulness is not for everyone, especially those suffering from several serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Research on mindfulness

Another problem with mindfulness literature is that it often suffers from poor research methodology. Ways of measuring mindfulness are highly variable, assessing quite different phenomena while using the same label. This lack of equivalence among measures and individuals makes it challenging to generalise from one study to another.

Mindfulness researchers rely too much on questionnaires, which require people to introspect and report on mental states that may be slippery and fleeting. These reports are notoriously vulnerable to biases. For example, people who aspire to mindfulness may report being mindful because they see it as desirable, not because they have actually achieved it.

Evidence calls into question claims that mindfulness can help with memory.
from shutterstock.com

Only a tiny minority of attempts to examine whether these treatments work compare them against another treatment that is known to work – which is the primary means by which clinical science can show added value of new treatments. And a minority of these studies are conducted in regular clinical practices rather than in specialist research contexts.

A recent review of studies, commissioned by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, found many studies were too poorly conducted to include in the review and that mindfulness treatments were moderately effective, at best, for anxiety, depression, and pain. There was no evidence of efficacy for attention problems, positive mood, substance abuse, eating habits, sleep or weight control.

What should be done?

Mindfulness is definitely a useful concept and a promising set of practices. It may help prevent psychological problems and could be useful as an addition to existing treatments. It may also be helpful for general mental functioning and well-being. But the promise will not be realised if problems are not addressed.

The mindfulness community must agree to key features that are essential to mindfulness and researchers should be clear how their measures and practices include these. Media reports should be equally specific about what states of mind and practices mindfulness includes, rather than using it as a broad term.

Mindfulness might be assessed, not through self-reporting, but in part using more objective neurobiological and behavioural measures, such as breath counting. This is where random tones could be used to “ask” participants if they are focused on the breath (press left button) or if their mind had wandered (press right button).

Researchers studying the efficacy of mindfulness treatments should compare them to credible alternative treatments, whenever possible. Development of new mindfulness approaches should be avoided until we know more about the ones we already have. Scientists and clinicians should use rigorous randomised control trials and work with researchers from outside the mindfulness tradition.

The ConversationAnd lastly, mindfulness researchers and practitioners should acknowledge the reality of occasional negative effects. Just as medications must declare potential side effects, so should mindfulness treatments. Researchers should systematically assess potential side effects when studying mindfulness treatments. Practitioners should be alert to them and not recommend mindfulness treatments as a first approach if safer ones with stronger evidence of efficacy are available.

Nicholas T. Van Dam, Research Fellow in Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne and Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

All tip, no iceberg: a new way to think about mental illness



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Symptoms of mental disorders are inter-connected.
Pixabay. , CC BY-SA

Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

Mental disorders are traditionally seen as rather like flowering bulbs. Above the ground we see their symptoms, but we know their source lies hidden beneath the surface. If we treat the symptoms without addressing the cause – cut off the flower without uprooting the bulb – they will just flower again later.

The idea that each mental disorder has an underlying cause is itself deeply rooted. We imagine that underneath the clinical symptoms of schizophrenia or depression there is an underlying disease entity. If treatment is to be effective and lasting rather than merely symptomatic it must target that concealed origin.

People have had many ideas about the form the unseen cause might take. Medieval physicians imagined a “stone of folly” that had to be surgically removed from a mad person’s head before sanity could prevail. Funnily enough, the best known painting of such an operation, Hieronymus Bosch’s The extraction of the stone of madness, shows the “stone” to be a flower bulb.


Wikimedia Commons

More recently, psychiatrists often suppose the hidden cause is neural, such as a brain disease or chemical imbalance. Psychologists sometimes prefer to invoke specific cognitive malfunctions or conflicts. What unifies them is the idea that a cluster of symptoms can be traced back to an underlying pathology.

This way of thinking makes perfect sense in some areas of medicine. A collection of bodily symptoms often points to an underlying disease process. Scarlet fever is revealed by a bright red rash, fever and a sore throat, all caused by an underlying bacterial infection. It would be folly to treat it symptomatically. Pacifying the rash with wet towels, taming the fever with aspirin and drinking tea with honey to soothe the throat would not attack the hidden, microbial cause.

Unfortunately mental disorder is not like infectious disease. Rarely is there a single, identifiable cause underlying a group of symptoms. Most psychiatric symptoms spring from a tangled multiplicity of causes. In addition, many symptoms are not specific to a single condition.

Billions of research dollars have been spent trying to locate the unique hidden cause of each mental disorder. The results have been spectacularly disappointing, not because mental health researchers are inept but because the causes of mental disorder are extremely complex.

To extend the botanical metaphor, mental disorders are less like flowering bulbs than like bamboo. An interconnected network of underground roots (hidden causes) generates many visible stems (symptoms). No stem can be traced back to a single root, and no root feeds a single stem.

The network approach to mental disorder

If there is no one-to-one link between symptoms and hidden causes, maybe we are better off putting aside the search for those causes. A new way of thinking about mental disorder argues just that, proposing that we focus full attention on symptoms instead.

Rather than seeing symptoms as manifestations of hidden disease entities – as the tip of an iceberg – this “network approach” tells us to examine how symptoms relate to one another. It argues the symptoms of a disorder cluster together not because they share a hidden cause but because they interact with and potentially reinforce one another.

The network approach to mental disorder, developed by Dutch psychologists Denny Borsboom, Angelique Cramer and colleagues, represents each symptom as a node in network. It draws links between these nodes to reveal the symptoms that are most strongly related, such as which ones influence other symptoms most powerfully and extensively.

For example, loss of appetite and weight loss are both symptoms of major depression. If researchers found they were closely related, and appetite loss drives weight loss, then an arrow would be drawn from the former to the latter. By this means a group of dynamically related symptoms can be represented by a network diagram.

A network diagram can show how symptoms are inter-related.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Several features of the resulting networks are particularly interesting. Certain symptoms can be shown to be central, related to many others, whereas others are more peripheral. Certain symptoms primarily cause others, whereas some symptoms are primarily caused by others.

Because mental disorders are seen as mutually reinforcing symptoms, clinicians should target central symptoms that cause many others. Successfully treating these symptoms should have broadly beneficial effects. It should reduce other existing symptoms and prevent the spread to new symptoms.

Certain symptoms may also be bridges from one disorder network to another. For example, sleep disturbance among people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may cause fatigue, and fatigue may serve as a bridge to the depression network by activating concentration problems and guilt.

Examples

Researchers have carried out network analyses of several disorders, using similar computational tools as those used in social network analysis, an approach to mapping relations among people. One study of several substance use problems showed that using the substance more than planned was usually the most central symptom. It was strongly related to having worse withdrawal symptoms and needing more of the substance to get the same effect (“tolerance”).

Several studies have explored anxiety disorders. A study of social anxiety showed that avoidance of potentially threatening social situations was a central symptom and thus a prime target for treatment. Research on PTSD following a catastrophic earthquake in China showed that sleep difficulty and hypervigilance for future threats had especially potent influences on other symptoms.

Turning to depression, a study of short term fluctuations in symptoms revealed the centrality of loss of pleasure in the symptom network. It activated an assortment of other symptoms including sadness, loss of energy and interest in activities and irritability. In contrast, sadness, crying and a loss of interest in sex were incidental.

Another study showed that depressed people whose symptoms were more densely connected were more likely to have persistent depression two years later. This finding accords with the network view that symptoms of mental disorders can be self-reinforcing. People whose symptom networks form a tighter web may therefore have greater difficulty overcoming their problems.

Implications

The network approach has several important implications. For researchers, it suggests that the search for single causes of mental disorders is quixotic. Of course, symptoms have an assortment of social and neurobiological sources, but these sources are highly unlikely to be unique to one condition.

For practising psychiatrists and psychologists the network view implies that symptoms should be taken seriously in their own right and not seen merely as pale manifestations of underlying disease. Treatments should directly target particular symptoms, not a fictitious hidden cause.

Boorsboom and Cramer make this point amusingly in regard to major depression.

If [depression] does not exist as an entity that exists independently of its symptoms (like a tumour does), attempting to treat it analogous to the way medical conditions are treated (cutting away the tumour) is like trying to saddle a unicorn.

The ConversationThe network approach also has a strong message for all of us who care about mental health and illness. We should abandon the last vestiges of our belief that mental disorders are best seen as medical diseases. The symptoms of depression, PTSD, or social anxiety don’t point to an underlying disorder. They are the disorder.

Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Therapy for life-threatening eating disorders works, so why can’t people access it?



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Eating disorders are among the leading causes of hospitalisation for mental-health-related issues in Australia.
from shutterstock.com

Richard Newton, University of Melbourne

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that have one of the highest death rates of any psychiatric disorder. Among people with anorexia nervosa – who commonly deprive themselves of food due to an obsessive fear of gaining weight – this rate is more than five times greater than in the general population. The Conversation

All eating disorders are associated with significant, wide-ranging physical health complications such as starvation, cardiac arrest (sudden loss of heart function), kidney problems, food intolerance and fits. These are among the leading causes of hospitalisation for mental-health-related issues in Australia.

Because serious medical complications so frequently accompany eating disorders, they defy classification solely as mental illnesses. They should be viewed as complex health-care issues requiring urgent and multidisciplinary care.

Yet many health-care providers have not been provided with enough basic education and training to be able to recognise and respond appropriately to someone presenting with an eating disorder. So despite their severity, eating disorders often go unrecognised.

This leads to substantial economic costs for the Australian health system and devastating effects for sufferers, loved ones and the communities that surround them.

What are eating disorders?

Eating disorders have been around through recorded history. Even an ancient Egyptian tomb painting depicts a noble self-inducing vomiting.

There are several types of eating disorders. These include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. Collectively, these are characterised by abnormal eating behaviours, poor body image, overemphasis on weight and shape, and extreme weight-control behaviours.

In the case of anorexia, such behaviours lead to severe weight loss and often life-threatening complications. Vomiting, laxative abuse and excessive exercise can be features of both anorexia and bulimia, as can binging and purging.

Unlike the severe weight loss associated with anorexia, bulimia is characterised by the presence of binging and usually purging at a relatively normal weight. Binge eating disorder features frequent binging, in the absence of purging or other compensatory behaviours, which often leads to significant weight gain.

Eating disorders are also commonly accompanied by low self-esteem, guilt and disgust, along with depression, severe anxiety and suicide risk.

Who gets eating disorders?

There are psychological, environmental and biological (including genetic) risk factors for developing eating disorders. A genetic predisposition in combination with poor body image is one of the strongest predictors of disordered eating.

Poor body image has been reported in nearly half of Australian women and over one-third of Australian men. Disturbingly, the rate of body-image concerns is even greater in children and adolescents. A study of Australian children found up to 61% of girls and boys between the ages of eight and 11 are trying to control their weight.

Around 10% of the Australian population will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, and the rate is increasing. For example, one study observed a two-fold increase in disordered eating between 1995 and 2005 in South Australia. And a more recent study in the same state observed a more than two-fold increase in extreme dieting and binge eating between 1998 and 2008.

While the reasons for this increase have not yet been fully explored, they may be related to increasing concerns about weight in the general Australian population.

Contrary to the long-held belief eating disorders are the domain of wealthy young females, the greatest increase has been observed in older people, males and those in lower socio-demographic groups.

This may be due, at least in part, to inadequate access to treatment, differences in people seeking treatment, or detection in under-represented groups, and stigma surrounding the development of a disorder commonly associated with a specific (different) group in the community.

How are they treated?

A number of evidence-based treatments are available for eating disorders. It is important to note that no single approach will be effective for all individuals.

People who are unable to access effective treatment early experience greater duration and severity of illness. They then need more complex, prolonged treatment.

Structured, psychological therapies are considered the cornerstone of treatment for eating disorders. For adolescents with anorexia, this takes the form of family-based therapy. This involves helping the whole family support the person with the disorder.

In adults with eating disorders, evidence shows a minimum of 20 sessions of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) – which challenges learnt ways of thinking – is necessary. In severe cases of anorexia, at least 40 CBT sessions that include a strong emphasis on restoring healthy eating attitudes and behaviours are required.

A multidisciplinary team is best equipped to address the complex nutritional, medical and psychological needs of someone with anorexia.

Increasing funding to improve outcomes

The total social and economic costs of eating disorders in Australia exceed A$69 billion per year. These costs can be reduced with early detection.

Most people with eating disorders go a long time before receiving adequate care. One study of over 10,000 adolescents found that, while nearly 90% of those with an eating disorder contacted a service provider for help, in only a minority (3-28%) of cases were the services specifically for their eating disorder.

Factors such as denial, shame, stigma and a lack of recognition of eating disorder symptoms by health-care professionals are likely contributors to this discrepancy.

Medicare provides Australians with funding for ten sessions with an allied mental-health professional (such as a psychologist or social worker). This is below the minimum treatment recommendation of 20 sessions for all eating disorders.

We should not accept a system that prevents people with a severe life-threatening mental illness from accessing a treatment that is available, effective and will save costs in the long term.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt recently requested the Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce investigate increasing Medicare coverage to treat people with an eating disorder. We urgently need early identification of eating disorders and the delivery of quality, targeted treatments at evidence-supported durations.

This article was co-authored by Tina Peckmezian, Principal Research Officer at The Butterfly Foundation.


If this article has raised concerns for you or anyone you know, call Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.

People with eating disorders or their families can get help at the Butterfly Foundation, 1800 33 4673, or The National Eating Disorders Collaboration.

Richard Newton, Associate Professor, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.