I had the pleasure of attending the Royal College of General Practitioners on Saturday to listen to talks by researchers and practitioners in the mental health field. The lectures were part of the New Scientist Live event about mental health. A range of topics and expertise were covered, which presented key findings in mental health, the learnings of which form today’s post.
What is normal?
First off the mark was Dr Matthew Smith from University of Strathclyde, presenting ‘What is normal?’. A wonderfully energetic talk, he discussed how the formation of what is categorised as mental ill health has changed throughout history due to changes in sociological perceptions. One example was of Dennis the Menace, the US version of which was first published in 1961. Originally considered a perfectly normal boy with no definable mental ill health issue, around ten years later he was deemed to have attention deficit disorder. Advertising also differed from what would be deemed normal (or acceptable for that matter!) today, with magazine inserts featuring pills for making ‘pregnancy happier’ for individuals displaying absolutely no mental ill health. Changes in perception over time has played a very large role in deciding what is the norm versus mental ill health. The professor remarked how normality is a concept that has always been in flux, differing throughout time and place.
Sociological risk factors in mental-ill health
Next up was social scientist, Praveetha Patalay. Patalay researches mental health risk and protective factors and shared her findings about children. The data sets she works with extends from childhood right through to adulthood, providing a fully encompassing view of what social factors from an early age can later impact mental health. The statistics from her talk were astounding, reporting that 80% of disorder onset happens by people’s early 20s. Reported by Patalay and extracted from the Millenium Cohort Study, risk factors for wellbeing and mental ill health combined for children aged 11, included: how engaged they were at school, arguing with parents, being bullied by siblings, having problems getting along with peers, being in a single parent family, and (which surprised the audience) high family income (apparently this is an anomaly that disappears at age 14). Patalay’s concluding viewpoint was that more needs to be done in the way of mental ill health prevention.
Inflammation: Linking Body, Brain and Mental Health
Next was psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Carmine Pariante, whose spirited talk caused great interest with the audience. Pariante has been leading studies assessing the link between stress, depression and inflammation within the body. He stated that somatic symptoms of depression should make us reconsider depression as a physical experience, not just a mentally-led one. Looking at inflammation biomarkers within test and control groups, Pariante’s studies present multiple results of heightened inflammation within depressed patients compared to non-depressed. Moreover, Pariante stated that there is evidence that individuals who experienced difficult environments early in life already have a heightened immune system. Essentially, the body has hard wired itself into ‘fight or flight’ mode, getting ready to protect the individual from harm. However, even if that harm is no longer present later in life, the body still maintains a heightened immune system. This in turn makes these individuals more prone to inflammation. He reported that early life adversity could result in 2-3x greater likelihood for individuals to experience mental ill health issues later in life.
Clinical psychologist, Anne Cooke and film-maker John Richardson, debunked stereotypes surrounding psychosis and schizophrenia. Richardson himself experienced psychosis in his early 20s. A key point he made which stuck with me was his statement that ‘reality can’t be defined’. It is true that reality is a very individual experience. Relating back to Matthew Smith’s earlier talk, one could even argue that it is society’s popular perception that deems what reality is. Richardson discussed the stigmas surrounding his own experience with psychosis and how at the end of the day, all he wanted was some compassion. I felt very moved by the sharing of his experience. We all need to remember that every person in this world at the end of the day just want to be happy and understood.
Social media and mental health
Assistant Professor in psychology at Maastrict University, Phillippe Verduyn, was next on stage. Verduyn explored the impact of using social networks on mental health. The study he shared was based on Facebook and a ‘younger demographic’ (the age range was not stated). His findings from a top level showed that social networks had impacted mental health in a negative manner. However, exploring further, the results differed by how individuals were using the platforms. Passive users (those purely consuming information and monitoring others’ interactions and posts) experienced poorer mental wellbeing as a result of social network usage. Meanwhile, active users who produces information and engaged with others experienced improved mental wellbeing as a result of feeling more connected and supported. One of Verduyn’s key points was to remember that social posts aren’t a true reflection of individuals’ lives rather than carefully curated. Often what is shared is good news and good (and filtered) photos. This can cause envy and poorer mental health in passive users. He also emphasised using social networks in moderation, i.e. not to use it more than having face to face interactions.
Is meditation really a magic pill for good mental health?
Closing the day was clinical psychologist and author, Catherine Wikholm. Wikholm emphasised how the widespread media uptake of mindfulness and meditation as a magic pill to solving all our mental ill health problems was a dangerous notion. For some, meditation can have negative effects, particularly (but not limited to) those who have experienced considerable trauma within their lives. As I myself have mentioned in some previous posts (one of which I discovered is the same title as a chapter in Wikholm’s book!), meditation practice can sometimes be extremely difficult and upsetting. As Wikholm emphasised throughout her talk, it’s really important to make an informed decision and to be aware of the adverse effects of meditation, much like one should be aware of the side effects of medication. Happiness and mental wellbeing isn’t one size fits all, rather than a very individual experience. Arguably, Wikholm did inadvertently come across as anti-mindfulness and meditation at times. However, I do feel it is very important to raise that in some cases meditation may not be suitable for everyone.
The conclusion of the event from all specialists is that more needs to be done in the way of researching and preventing mental ill-health. Through early intervention, mental ill-health can be greatly reduced for future generations.