Category: Mental health

After half a century of research, psychology can’t predict suicidal behaviours better than by coin flip

African American Depressive Sad Broken Heart ConceptBy guest blogger Tomasz Witkowski

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide” the French author and philosopher Albert Camus stated. But it is not only philosophers who are moved by this issue. Psychologists are seeking ways of preventing this tragic death, and health care organisations are sounding the alarm. Around a million people die at their own hand every year, which makes suicide the tenth most common cause of death. Additionally, for every completed suicide, there are 10 to 40 survived attempts, which means that in the USA alone 650,000 people each year are taken to emergency rooms following an attempt on their own life. Yet what is most disturbing is that the number of suicides is continually rising. The WHO reports that since the 1960s this number has grown over 60 per cent.

Is psychology capable of identifying the risk factors that can push people to take their own lives? Joseph Franklin at Florida State University and his research team at the Technology and Psychopathy (TAP) Lab have provided an answer, but it is a disappointing one. Our capacity to predict whether someone will make a suicide attempt is no better than chance. What is worse, we have not made any progress in this area in the last half-century. These striking conclusions come as the result of a meta-analysis of 365 studies into suicide risk conducted over the last 50 years and published recently in Psychological Bulletin (pdf).

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A little discussed effect of therapy: it changes your personality

Summer girl and flowersBy Christian Jarrett

Imagine the arrival of some high-tech brain device for treating mental health problems. It’s effective for many, but there’s an important side-effect. It changes your personality. Alarm ensues as campaigners warn that users risk being altered fundamentally for years to come. Now replay this scenario but replace the neuro-gizmo with good old-fashioned psychotherapy, and realise this: we’re talking fact, not fiction. A new meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin has looked at 207 psychotherapy and related studies published between 1959 and 2013, involving over 20,000 participants, with measures of personality taken repeatedly over time. The analysis has found that just a few weeks of therapy is associated with significant and long-lasting changes in clients’ personalities, especially reductions in the trait of Neuroticism and increases in Extraversion.

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Work stress could be making your commute dangerous

11723980056_c0d5d0b70b_kBy Alex Fradera

British workers spend on average one hour commuting each day, and 57 per cent of commuters make their daily journeys by car. But this is a part of our lives we don’t talk much about, beyond the odd epithet about the traffic; maybe because it’s a strange time, betwixt home and work but not fully either. Potentially, the drive to work is a haven: I recall my mother’s glove compartment crammed with audio books, so she could enjoy those stretches of solo time. But it’s more liable to be caught in a crossfire of worries, fretting about Daniel’s pensive moods at the breakfast table, or anticipating criticisms about the last sales pitch. New research from the University of Haifa suggests these psychological stressors can make our time on the road not just unpleasant, but dangerous as well.

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The evidence for the psychological benefits of animals is surprisingly weak

Senior woman lying with a dog on a white chairBy Christian Jarrett

To see a man’s face light up as he strokes a dog, to hear a child’s laughter as her hamster tickles her skin, it just seems obvious that animals are good for our state of mind. Let’s hope so because not only do millions of us own pets, but also animals are being used therapeutically in an increasing number of contexts, from residential care homes to airports, prisons, hospitals, schools and universities. Unfortunately, as detailed by psychologist Molly Crossman in her new review in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, the research literature has simply not kept pace with the widespread embrace of animal contact as a form of therapy in itself, or as a therapy adjunct. In short, we don’t know whether animal contact is psychologically beneficial, and if it is, we have no idea how.

Continue reading “The evidence for the psychological benefits of animals is surprisingly weak”

Why some clinical psychologists are ignoring official best practice guidelines

Man with a worried look on his face talking to a womanBy Christian Jarrett

In England there’s an independent health advisory body that provides guidelines to clinicians working in the NHS, to make sure that wherever patients are in the country, they receive the best possible evidence-backed care. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) was set up in 1999 and many of its guidelines pertain to mental health, and they often promote psychological approaches – for example, the guidelines for depression state that talking therapies should be the first-line of treatment for all but the most severely affected patients. While clinical and counselling psychologists have been involved in producing these guidelines, many of their colleagues – especially those in practice – are highly critical of them. Why? A series of interviews with 11 clinical psychologists, published in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, sheds new light on the scepticism and concern felt towards NICE guidelines, and why some psychologists are even deliberately ignoring them.

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Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain

ThinkstockPhotos-488470018.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

Imagine a person is terrified of dogs because they once suffered a terrible bite. Following long-established techniques, their psychologist might gradually expose them to dogs in a safe setting, until their fear gradually faded away. This “exposure therapy” can be effective but it has some serious drawbacks, including the fact that the person might at first find it traumatic to be close to dogs again.

What if there were a way to remove this person’s fear of dogs at a subconscious level, without the need for any traumatic exposure? Such an approach has now come much closer to clinical reality thanks to a new study reported recently in Nature Human Behaviour. The findings suggest that neurofeedback can be used to unlearn a fear by pairing relevant non-conscious neural activity with a reward, such as money. Significant technical hurdles remain before this becomes a real-life treatment, but it’s an exciting breakthrough.  Continue reading “Neuroscientists use neurofeedback to erase fear in the brain”

Many of the same genes that influence our personality also affect our mental health

Prototype of womenBy Christian Jarrett

We know from twin and family studies that our personality is to a large degree – probably around 40 per cent – inherited. Geneticists are busy trying to find the specific gene variants involved, but because each one on its own only exerts a modest influence, this is challenging research requiring huge samples. A new study in Nature Genetics has made a significant contribution, using the technique of Genome Wide Analysis to look for genetic variants that correlate with personality. The researchers led by Min-Tzu Lo at the University of California, San Diego have identified variations in six genetic loci that correlate with different personality trait scores, five of which were previously unknown. In a separate analysis, the researchers also showed that many of the genetic variants involved in personality overlap with those involved in the risk of developing mental health disorders.

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“A burden and a privilege” – clinical psychologists look back on their life’s work

By Christian Jarrett

Anyone who knows anyone who is a clinical psychologist or other kind of psychotherapist will know about the stories they carry in their minds and hearts. Stories of other people’s struggles, pain, trauma, hurt, love and sometimes, wonderfully, recovery. When the psychologist returns home, the stories stay with them, but now in a parallel world of partners, children, friends and mundanity. What is this life like for the psychologist and her loved ones? How do they cope?

Some clues come from in-depth interviews with nine senior psychologists and three senior psychiatrists in Norway, published recently in Psychotherapy Research by Marit Råbu and her colleagues. The interviewees – 7 women and 5 men, aged 68 to 86 – had worked as psychotherapists for between 35 and 56 years and some were now retired. All had started out their careers with a psychoanalytic orientation, but several had since branched into other approaches, including cognitive therapy.

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Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming

9482286976_62bdfd1872_kBy Christian Jarrett

As newly obtained figures from the NHS show a dramatic increase in the number of young people being hospitalised following self-harm, a timely study in Archives of Suicide Research has reviewed what we know so far about how people who self-harm manage to stop. Tess Mummé and her colleagues identified 9 relevant studies to review – three quantitative, four qualitative, and two using a combination of these approaches – together involving hundreds of people aged 12 to 60, the majority female. Among the key insights, the researchers found family support is crucial for stopping self-harming, perhaps more than support from friends or professionals. But ultimately the review concludes that we need more research. Continue reading “Family support crucial for helping people to stop self-harming”

Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to

By Christian Jarrett

The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.

The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.” Continue reading “Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to”