How many people have eating disorders? We don’t really know, and that’s a worry



Eating disorders disproportionately affect females and young people.
From shutterstock.com

Laura Hart, University of Melbourne

Last week, federal health minister Greg Hunt announced that more than 60,000 Australians will be asked about their mental health and well-being as part of the Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study.

The mental health survey will be run in 2020, with new data on how common mental illness is due the year after. This is a welcome announcement for the mental health sector, because information gathered in a survey like this can be used to shape policy reform.




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But eating disorders, a major category of mental illnesses, have been neglected by all previous important data collection initiatives in Australia so far. Notably, they were missing from the last national mental health surveys in 1997 and 2007.

Eating disorders are not yet an official part of this new survey, but we understand they are being considered.

If people with eating disorders are not counted, they don’t count. In other words, we need to know who has these severe and debilitating conditions, and then work towards improving the treatment and supports available for them.




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Surveys are important

National surveys ask the public if they have experienced symptoms of various mental illnesses, either in their lifetime or during the past 12 months.

People who answer “yes” to particular clusters of symptoms are “diagnosed”, or assumed to have had the illness.

Asking the public about their symptoms is the best way to understand how common mental illnesses are. This is because most people with a mental illness don’t seek treatment and may never have had a diagnosis. So collecting data from health services or based on reported diagnoses doesn’t provide a full picture.

Also, for some mental illnesses, such as anorexia nervosa or psychosis, people might not realise they have a diagnosable illness. But they are likely to respond “yes” to direct questions about their experiences with body dissatisfaction or thinking difficulties.

Eating disorders are more than just anorexia

A person with anorexia nervosa engages in dangerous behaviours to maintain a very low body weight, or to lose more weight. Although most people have heard of it, anorexia is not common. We know this from other countries who have previously studied the prevalence of anorexia in community surveys.

That being said, it’s very serious and can be fatal. It has the highest mortality of all non-substance use mental disorders, and one in five of those deaths is by suicide.




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Other eating disorders include bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and “other specified feeding and eating disorders” (OSFED), a catch-all group for those who don’t fit anywhere else.

People with bulimia nervosa or binge-eating disorder experience cycles of binge-eating, often after periods of restricting foods, which cause shame, guilt and discomfort.

Those with bulimia compensate for binge-eating through vomiting, fasting, exercise or other methods, while those with binge-eating disorder do not.

Binge-eating disorder is the most common of all eating disorders and occurs more equally across men and women than other eating disorders.

As well as continued weight gain, people with binge-eating disorder are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, and other significant health problems (such as asthma, diabetes, and arthritis) than people with a high BMI (body-mass index) but no binge-eating disorder.

Binge-eating disorder is the most common eating disorder.
From shutterstock.com

One example of OSFED is atypical anorexia nervosa – when someone shows all the symptoms of anorexia and has lost a significant amount of weight but their BMI is in the “normal” or “high” range.

Eating disorders disproportionately affect females, young people, LGBTIQ individuals, and those with a high BMI.

People with eating disorders often have a negative body image, and a strong perception their self-worth is tied to their appearance or body weight.

Burden of disease

Every year in Australia, millions of years of healthy life are lost because of injury, illness or premature deaths in the population. This is known as “burden of disease”.

Like national surveys, burden of disease studies are extremely important for planning and funding health services. They use prevalence statistics, or how many people per 100,000 Australians are assumed to have a particular illness. Given we don’t have good data on how prevalent eating disorders are, we likely underestimate their burden of disease.




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The recently released Australian Burden of Disease Study 2015 lists eating disorders among the most burdensome illnesses for Australian females, being the tenth leading cause of total burden of disease for females aged 5-14 and women aged 25-44.

Importantly, the most common eating disorder – binge-eating disorder – is not included in burden of disease studies, meaning all these figures miscalculate the impact of eating disorders by a long way.

Eating disorders are on the rise

Despite our lack of prevalence data, there is evidence showing eating disorders are an increasing problem and should be regarded as a national priority.

Consecutive population surveys in South Australia showed the numbers of people with eating disorders climbed over a ten-year period.

Annual youth surveys demonstrate body image, the most potent risk factor for eating disorders, is year after year among the top concerns for young people.

A recent study on adolescents in the Hunter Valley region of NSW found one in five had experienced an eating disorder.

Treatment and prevention

People with eating disorders use more health services than people with all other forms of mental illness, but often don’t receive appropriate and effective treatment. They typically receive treatment for weight loss, depression or anxiety, but are rarely treated for their disordered eating.

Eating disorders were estimated to cost the health system A$99.9 million in the year 2012 alone.

Better treatment and prevention of eating disorders would reduce the cost and the burden of disease. But we need the data to show where the treatment gaps are and how to fund better services.

There are many promising elements of the proposed Intergenerational Health and Mental Health Study. These include surveying multiple people in a family, gathering physical and mental health data, and a target of more than 60,000 Australians. But it’s time eating disorders were included.




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The Conversation


Laura Hart, Senior Research Fellow, University of Melbourne

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

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No, eating chocolate won’t cure depression



If you’re depressed, the headlines might tempt you to reach out for a chocolate bar. But don’t believe the hype.
from www.shutterstock.com

Ben Desbrow, Griffith University

A recent study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety has attracted widespread media attention. Media reports said eating chocolate, in particular, dark chocolate, was linked to reduced symptoms of depression.

Unfortunately, we cannot use this type of evidence to promote eating chocolate as a safeguard against depression, a serious, common and sometimes debilitating mental health condition.

This is because this study looked at an association between diet and depression in the general population. It did not gauge causation. In other words, it was not designed to say whether eating dark chocolate caused a reduction in depressive symptoms.




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What did the researchers do?

The authors explored data from the United States National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. This shows how common health, nutrition and other factors are among a representative sample of the population.

People in the study reported what they had eaten in the previous 24 hours in two ways. First, they recalled in person, to a trained dietary interviewer using a standard questionnaire. The second time they recalled what they had eaten over the phone, several days after the first recall.

The researchers then calculated how much chocolate participants had eaten using the average of these two recalls.

Dark chocolate needed to contain at least 45% cocoa solids for it to count as “dark”.




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The researchers excluded from their analysis people who ate an implausibly large amount of chocolate, people who were underweight and/or had diabetes.

The remaining data (from 13,626 people) was then divided in two ways. One was by categories of chocolate consumption (no chocolate, chocolate but no dark chocolate, and any dark chocolate). The other way was by the amount of chocolate (no chocolate, and then in groups, from the lowest to highest chocolate consumption).




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The researchers assessed people’s depressive symptoms by having participants complete a short questionnaire asking about the frequency of these symptoms over the past two weeks.

The researchers controlled for other factors that might influence any relationship between chocolate and depression, such as weight, gender, socioeconomic factors, smoking, sugar intake and exercise.

What did the researchers find?

Of the entire sample, 1,332 (11%) of people said they had eaten chocolate in their two 24 hour dietary recalls, with only 148 (1.1%) reporting eating dark chocolate.

A total of 1,009 (7.4%) people reported depressive symptoms. But after adjusting for other factors, the researchers found no association between any chocolate consumption and depressive symptoms.

Few people said they’d eaten any chocolate in the past 24 hours. Were they telling the truth?
from www.shutterstock.com

However, people who ate dark chocolate had a 70% lower chance of reporting clinically relevant depressive symptoms than those who did not report eating chocolate.

When investigating the amount of chocolate consumed, people who ate the most chocolate were more likely to have fewer depressive symptoms.

What are the study’s limitations?

While the size of the dataset is impressive, there are major limitations to the investigation and its conclusions.

First, assessing chocolate intake is challenging. People may eat different amounts (and types) depending on the day. And asking what people ate over the past 24 hours (twice) is not the most accurate way of telling what people usually eat.

Then there’s whether people report what they actually eat. For instance, if you ate a whole block of chocolate yesterday, would you tell an interviewer? What about if you were also depressed?

This could be why so few people reported eating chocolate in this study, compared with what retail figures tell us people eat.




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Finally, the authors’ results are mathematically accurate, but misleading.

Only 1.1% of people in the analysis ate dark chocolate. And when they did, the amount was very small (about 12g a day). And only two people reported clinical symptoms of depression and ate any dark chocolate.

The authors conclude the small numbers and low consumption “attests to the strength of this finding”. I would suggest the opposite.

Finally, people who ate the most chocolate (104-454g a day) had an almost 60% lower chance of having depressive symptoms. But those who ate 100g a day had about a 30% chance. Who’d have thought four or so more grams of chocolate could be so important?

This study and the media coverage that followed are perfect examples of the pitfalls of translating population-based nutrition research to public recommendations for health.

My general advice is, if you enjoy chocolate, go for darker varieties, with fruit or nuts added, and eat it mindfully. — Ben Desbrow


Blind peer review

Chocolate manufacturers have been a good source of funding for much of the research into chocolate products.

While the authors of this new study declare no conflict of interest, any whisper of good news about chocolate attracts publicity. I agree with the author’s scepticism of the study.

Just 1.1% of people in the study ate dark chocolate (at least 45% cocoa solids) at an average 11.7g a day. There was a wide variation in reported clinically relevant depressive symptoms in this group. So, it is not valid to draw any real conclusion from the data collected.

For total chocolate consumption, the authors accurately report no statistically significant association with clinically relevant depressive symptoms.

However, they then claim eating more chocolate is of benefit, based on fewer symptoms among those who ate the most.

In fact, depressive symptoms were most common in the third-highest quartile (who ate 100g chocolate a day), followed by the first (4-35g a day), then the second (37-95g a day) and finally the lowest level (104-454g a day). Risks in sub-sets of data such as quartiles are only valid if they lie on the same slope.

The basic problems come from measurements and the many confounding factors. This study can’t validly be used to justify eating more chocolate of any kind. — Rosemary Stanton


Research Checks interrogate newly published studies and how they’re reported in the media. The analysis is undertaken by one or more academics not involved with the study, and reviewed by another, to make sure it’s accurate.The Conversation

Ben Desbrow, Associate Professor, Nutrition and Dietetics, Griffith University

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

More Australians are diagnosed with depression and anxiety but it doesn’t mean mental illness is rising



Women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety as men.
Eric Ward

Anthony Jorm, University of Melbourne

Diagnoses of depression and anxiety disorders have risen dramatically over the past eight years. That’s according to new data out today from the Housing Income and Labour Dynamics (HILDA) Survey, which tracks the lives of 17,500 Australians.

The increase spans across all age groups, but is most notably in young people.

The percentage of young women (aged 15-34) who had been diagnosed with these conditions increased from 12.8% in 2009, to 20.1% in 2017.

In young men, there was a similar increase, from 6.1% to 11.2%.

But this doesn’t mean Australians’ mental health is worsening.




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What’s behind the numbers?

HILDA surveys collate data on the “reported diagnosis” of depression and anxiety disorders. Many people with these conditions have remained undiagnosed by a health practitioner, so it could simply be a matter of more people seeking professional help and getting diagnosed.

To find out whether there is a real increase, we need to survey a sample of the public about their symptoms rather than ask about whether they have been diagnosed. This has been done for almost two decades in the National Health Survey.

This graph shows the percentage of the population reporting very high levels of depression and anxiety symptoms over the previous month, from 2001 to 2017-18.

Rather than worsening, the nation’s mental health has been steady over this period.

Shouldn’t our mental health be improving?

So it seems while our mental health is not getting worse, we are more likely to get diagnosed. With increased diagnosis, it’s no surprise Australians have been rapidly embracing treatments for mental-health problems.

Antidepressant use has been rising for decades, with Australians now among the world’s highest users. One in ten Australian adults take an antidepressant each day.




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Psychological treatment has also skyrocketed, particularly after the Australian government introduced Medicare coverage for psychology services in 2006. There are now around 20 psychology services per year for every 100 Australians.

The real concern is why we’re not seeing any benefit from these large increases in diagnosis and treatment. In theory, our mental health should be improving.

There are two likely reasons for the lack of progress: the treatments are often not up to standard and we have neglected prevention.

Treatment is often poor quality

A number of treatments work for depression and anxiety disorders. However, what Australians receive in practice falls far short of the ideal.

Antidepressants, for example, are most appropriate for severe depression, but are often used to treat people with mild symptoms that reflect difficult life circumstances.

It takes more than a couple of sessions with a psychologist to treat a mental health disorder.
Kylli Kittus

Psychological treatments can be effective, but require many sessions. Around 16 to 20 sessions are recommended to treat depression. Getting a couple of sessions with a psychologist is too often the norm and unlikely to produce much improvement.

Treatments are also not distributed to the people most in need. The biggest users of antidepressants are older people, whereas younger people are more likely to experience severe depression.

Similarly, people in wealthier areas are more likely to get psychological therapy, but depression and anxiety disorders are more common in poorer areas.




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Prevention is neglected

The big area of neglect in mental health is prevention. Australia achieved enormous gains in physical health during the 20th century, with big drops in premature death. Prevention of disease and injury played a major role in these gains.

We might expect a similar approach to work for mental-health problems, which are the next frontier for improving the nation’s health. However, while we have been putting increasing resources into treatment, prevention has been neglected.

There is now good evidence that prevention of mental-health problems is possible and that it makes good economic sense. For every dollar invested on school-based interventions to reduce bullying, for instance, there is an estimated economic return of $14.

Much could to be done to reduce the major risk factors for mental-health problems which occur during childhood and increase risk right across the lifespan.

Parents who are in conflict with each other and fight a lot, for example, may increase their children’s risk for depression and anxiety disorders, while parents who show warmth and affection towards their children decrease their risk. Parents can be trained to reduce these risk factors and increase protective factors.

Yet successive Australian governments have lacked the political will to invest in prevention.

Where to next?

There is an important opportunity to consider whether Australia should be heading in a very different direction in its approach to mental health. The Australian government has asked the Productivity Commission to investigate mental health.

While we’ve had many previous inquiries, this one is different because it’s looking at the social and economic benefits of mental health to the nation. This broader perspective is important because action on prevention is a whole-of-government concern with resource implications and benefits that extend well beyond the health sector.




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The Conversation


Anthony Jorm, Professor emeritus, University of Melbourne

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.




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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.




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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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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.




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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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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



File 20170926 13681 67g4et.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
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



File 20170710 29695 1res4ik
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.

Mental health funding in the 2017 budget is too little, unfair and lacks a coherent strategy



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Mental health remains chronically underfunded.
from shutterstock.com

Sebastian Rosenberg, University of Sydney

This week’s federal budget allocated A$115 million in new funding over four years. This is one of the smallest investments in the sector in recent years. The Conversation

For instance, the Council of Australian Governments (CoAG) added more than $5.5 billion to mental health spending in 2006. The 2011-12 federal budget provided $2.2 billion in new funding.

This compounds a situation in which, in 2014-15, mental health received around 5.25% of the overall health budget while representing 12% of the total burden of disease. There is no reason those figures should exactly match, but the gap is large and revealing.

They speak to the fact mental health remains chronically underfunded. Mental health’s share of overall health spending was 4.9% in 2004-05. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, funding has changed very little over the past decade.

We lack a coherent national strategy to tackle mental health. New services have been established this year, but access to them may well depend on where you live or who is looking after you. This is chance, not good planning.

Hospital-based services

The general focus of care when it comes to mental health remains hospital-based services. Inpatient – when admitted to hospital – and outpatient clinic care or in the emergency room represent the bulk of spending. (The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare includes hospital outpatient services under the heading “Community”, which makes definitive estimates of the proportion of funding impossible.)

Outside of primary care such as general practice, or Medicare-funded services (such as psychology services provided under a mental health care plan), mental health services in the community are hard to find.

An encouraging aspect of this year’s budget is the government’s recognition of this deficiency. The largest element of new mental health spending was a commitment to establish a pool of $80 million to fund so-called psychosocial services in the community.

As Treasurer Scott Morrison said in his budget speech, this money is for:

Australians with a mental illness such as severe depression, eating disorders, schizophrenia and post-natal depression resulting in a psychosocial disability, including those who had been at risk of losing their services during the transition to the NDIS.

Yet, the money is contingent on states and territories matching federal funds, meaning up to $160 million could be made available over the next four years if the states all chip in with their share of $80 million. But this commitment was made “noting that states and territories retain primary responsibility for CMH [community mental health] services”. Whether the states agree is another matter.

This new funding seems partly a response to the federal transfer of programs such as Partners in Recovery and Personal Helpers and Mentors to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Both these programs offered critical new capacity to community organisations to provide mental health services and better coordinate care.

Partners in Recovery was established in the 2011-12 budget with $550 million to be spent over five years. Personal Helpers and Mentors (along with other similar programs) was established in the same year with $270 million in funding over five years.

With these programs now (or soon to be) cordoned off to recipients of NDIS packages, the 2017 budget measure appears to be designed to offset their loss. However, not all states may choose to match the federal funds. And some may choose to do so but try to use new federal funds to reduce their own overall mental health spending.

States already vary in the types of services they offer. All this raises the prospect that people’s access to, and experience of, mental health care is likely to vary considerably depending on where they live. In a budget espousing fairness, this is a recipe for inequity.

Lack of coherent strategy

The budget does attempt to improve the uneven distribution of mental health professionals by providing $9 million over four years to enable psychology services to rural areas though telehealth. It’s well known mental health services in the bush are inadequate.

This investment seems sensible, but $9 million pales in comparison to spending on the Better Access Program, which I have calculated to be $15 million each week. This program provides Medicare subsidies for face-to-face mental health services under mental health care plans. While this program is available for those in rural areas, accessing it is more difficult than in cities.

This budget’s commitment to mental health shows a lack of an overarching strategy. Rather than offering a coherent approach to mental health planning, this budget continues Australia’s piecemeal, patchwork structure, where the system is driven mostly by who pays rather than what works or is needed.

The development of a national community mental health strategy would be most welcome now. This would demonstrate how the primary and tertiary mental health sectors will join up to provide the blend of clinical, psychological and social support necessary to finally enable people with a mental illness to live well in the community.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, albeit slowly, the well-known problems in mental health across Australia are being addressed. But the small pool of funding in this year’s budget says otherwise. And the lack of coherent strategy is a shame. You can’t complete a jigsaw puzzle if you keep adding new pieces.

Sebastian Rosenberg, Senior Lecturer, Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney

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.