Postpartum Depression: o
Signs, Symptoms, New Treatment?
Last week, we talked about sex and orgasms, so it seems only fitting that this week, I talk about the potential ‘homework’ that may come after the sex and orgasms: pregnancy… and the postpartum depression that may accompany it.
It is one of life’s greatest joys, and for me personally, the proudest moment of my entire life: the birth of a child. But no matter how much you love that baby or how you’ve looked forward to its arrival, having a baby is stressful on both parents for many reasons. However, there are specific reasons that make it more physically and emotionally taxing on mom. Captain Obvious says that there are many physical, emotional, and chemical changes in a woman’s body that allow them to (help) create, carry, and birth these little miracles. And add to that the onset of new responsibilities, sleep deprivation, and lack of time for any personal care, it’s not a big shock that lots of new moms get overwhelmed and feel like they’re on an emotional rollercoaster from hell. In fact, the mild depression and mood swings that are so common in new mothers have earned them a name, “the baby blues.” But how do you know if what mom is feeling goes beyond the blues? What should you look for, and when should you seek help?
The majority of women experience at least some symptoms of the baby blues immediately after childbirth. Why? It’s all down to female hormones: specifically, progesterone and estrogen, the big kahunas in the female hormone universe.
Progesterone’s role in pregnancy is so vital that it’s referred to as the “pregnancy hormone.” Actually, progesterone comes into play long before pregnancy, as it is one of the hormones secreted by the ovaries that governs ovulation and menstruation in post-pubescent women. Then upon conception, it gets the uterus ready to accept, implant, and maintain a fertilized egg, and it also prevents the uterine muscle contractions that would otherwise cause a woman’s body to reject it. During fetal gestation, it helps create an environment that nurtures the developing baby. It makes it sound like progesterone is in there painting, hanging curtains, and fluffing pillows, but its role goes way beyond that. The placenta, which is the structure inside the uterus that provides oxygen and nutrients to a developing baby, will itself begin to produce progesterone after about 8 to 10 weeks of pregnancy. At this point, the placenta increases progesterone production to a much higher rate than the ovaries ever thought about making. Those high levels of progesterone throughout the pregnancy cause the mom’s body to stop producing more eggs, as well as prepare her breasts to produce milk.
Also produced by the ovaries when not pregnant, and then later by the placenta during pregnancy, estrogen helps the uterus grow, maintains the uterine lining where the budding baby is nestled, steps up blood circulation, and activates and regulates the production of other key hormones. In early pregnancy, it also helps mom develop her milk-making machinery. And baby benefits too, as estrogen triggers the development of those teeny tiny organs and regulates bone density in those cute little developing arms that wave and legs that kick.
The increased levels of progesterone and estrogen during pregnancy actually make mom feel good and feel bonded to baby, even though she may be crying her eyes out for virtually no reason (sorry ladies) in the beginning. Levels of both hormones continue to increase as the pregnancy advances, and mom’s body actually gets used to these high levels. Then when the baby is born, there’s no more placenta, so mom’s progesterone and estrogen levels drop suddenly and precipitously, in a matter of hours. So mom goes essentially cold turkey from high hormone levels to comparatively no hormone levels. Sudden hormonal change + stress + isolation + sleep deprivation + fatigue = tearful + overwhelmed + emotionally fragile mom. Generally, these feelings can start within just the first day or so after delivery, peak at around one week, and taper off by the end of the second, third, or maybe up to the fourth week postpartum; that’s if it’s the baby blues.
These baby blues are perfectly normal, but if symptoms are extreme, don’t go away after a month, or get worse, mom may be suffering from postpartum depression and likely needs help.
Postpartum Signs & Symptoms
Though they share some symptoms, postpartum depression is a much more serious problem than the baby blues, and should never be ignored. Shared symptoms of the two include mood swings, crying jags, sadness, insomnia, and irritability.
Postpartum depression is the most common complication of childbearing, and it occurs in 10% to 20% of all moms after delivery. It is different from the baby blues in that the symptoms are more severe and longer lasting. It is an issue that can’t be blown off or underestimated, because it begins at a critical time, when mom is caring for a helpless infant and needs to be bonding with them.
Symptoms of postpartum depression can include suicidal thoughts, an inability to care for the newborn child, and in extreme cases, even thoughts of harming the baby. Postpartum can be extremely debilitating, and certain signs can put the lives of mom and/ or baby in jeopardy.
Beyond the Blues
Common Red Flags for Postpartum:
-Mom withdraws from partner
-Mom’s unable to bond well with baby
-Mom’s anxiety gets out of control, preventing ability to sleep and/ or eat
-Mom feels guilty, worthless, useless, overwhelmed
-Mom seems preoccupied with death or wishing she were no longer alive
There’s no single reason why some new moms develop postpartum depression and others don’t, but a number of interrelated causes and risk factors are generally at play.
Postpartum Causes/ Triggers
Hormonal changes after childbirth cause fatigue and depression:
-Progesterone/ estrogen levels drop
-Thyroid levels can drop
-Changes in blood pressure, immune system functioning, metabolism
Numerous physical/ emotional changes after delivery:
-Physical delivery pain
-Difficulty losing baby weight
-Insecurity, especially in physical/ sexual attractiveness
Significant stress of caring for a newborn:
-Mom is sleep deprived
-Mom is overwhelmed/ anxious about her abilities to properly care for baby
-Mom has difficulty adjusting
All of the above factors are especially true in first time moms, as they must also get used to an entirely new identity at the same time.
Postpartum Risk Factors
Several factors can predispose a mom to suffer from postpartum depression:
-History of postpartum depression
A prior episode can increase the chances of a repeat episode by 30% to 50%.
-History of non-pregnancy related depression and/ or family history of mood disturbances
-Social stressors, including lack of emotional support, abusive relationship, and/ or financial uncertainty
-Significantly increased risk in women who discontinue medications abruptly for purposes of pregnancy.
Postpartum psychosis is an even more rare, and more extremely serious disorder that can also develop after childbirth. Characterized by a loss of contact with reality, postpartum psychosis poses an extremely high risk for suicide or infanticide, and hospitalization is nearly always required to keep both mom and baby safe. Postpartum psychosis develops suddenly, usually within the first two weeks after delivery, and sometimes within a matter of 48 hours.
Postpartum Psychosis Symptoms
Postpartum psychosis is considered a medical emergency requiring immediate medical attention.
-Hallucinations: seeing things and/ or hearing voices that aren’t real
-Delusions: paranoid, irrational beliefs
-Extreme agitation and anxiety
-Suicidal thoughts or actions
-Confusion and disorientation
-Rapid mood swings
-Inability or refusal to eat or sleep
-Thoughts of harming or killing baby
There is a screening tool that can be used to detect postpartum depression, called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. I will put the questions and explain the scoring of this scale at the conclusion of this blog. It can be helpful if mom or partner isn’t quite sure if symptoms are the baby blues or true postpartum depression.
Coping with Postpartum Depression
Four Tips for Moms:
1) Create a secure attachment with baby.
The emotional bonding process between mom and child, known as attachment, is the most important task of infancy. The success of this wordless relationship enables a child to feel secure enough to develop fully, and affects how he or she will interact, communicate, and form relationships throughout their entire lives.
A secure attachment is formed when moms respond warmly and consistently to baby’s physical and emotional needs. When baby cries, quickly soothe them. If baby laughs or smiles, respond in kind. In essence, the goal is for mom and baby to be in synch, and to be able to recognize and respond to each other’s emotional signals.
Postpartum depression can interrupt this bonding. Depressed moms can be loving and attentive at times, but at other times may react negatively or not respond at all. Moms with postpartum depression are generally inconsistent in their care, and tend to interact less with their babies; they are also less likely to breastfeed, play with, and read to them. Postpartum is sinister in this way, as learning to bond with baby not only benefits the child, it also benefits mom by releasing endorphins that make mom feel happier and more confident. By its very presence, postpartum makes the bonding process difficult, and therefore mom is less likely to produce those endorphins that would make her feel better. It’s a vicious cycle.
If mom didn’t experience a secure attachment as an infant, she may not know how to create a secure attachment as a mom. However, this can be learned, as human brains are definitively primed for this kind of nonverbal emotional connection that creates so much pleasure for both mom and baby.
2) Lean on others for help and support.
Human beings are social creatures. Positive social contact relieves stress faster and more efficiently than any other means of stress reduction. Historically, and from an evolutionary perspective, new moms have typically received help from those around them after childbirth. In today’s world, new moms often find themselves alone, exhausted, and lonely for supportive adult contact.
Ideas to better connect with others:
-Make relationships a priority. When feeling depressed and vulnerable, it’s more important than ever to stay connected to family and friends, even if you’d rather be alone. Isolating will only make the situation feel even bleaker, so make adult relationships a priority. Let loved ones know your needs and how you wish to be supported.
-Don’t hide feelings. In addition to the practical help that friends and family can provide, they can also serve as a much-needed emotional outlet. Share experiences- good, bad, and ugly- with at least one other person, and preferably face to face. It doesn’t matter who mom talks to, so long as that person is willing to listen without judgment and offer reassurance and support.
-Be a joiner. Even if mom has supportive friends, she may want to consider seeking out other women who are dealing with the same transition into motherhood. It’s very reassuring to hear other mothers share the same worries, insecurities, and feelings. Good places to meet other new moms include support groups for new parents or organizations such as ‘Mommy and Me.’ Pediatricians can also be excellent neighborhood resources.
3) Take care of yourself. One of the best things moms can do to relieve or avoid postpartum depression is to take care of themselves. The more moms care for their mental and physical well-being, the better they’ll feel.
Simple lifestyle changes can go a long way toward helping moms feel more like themselves again.
-Skip the housework. Make yourself and baby the priority, and give yourself the permission to concentrate on just that. Remember that being a 24/7 mom is far more work than holding down a traditional full-time job.
-Ease back into exercise. Studies show that exercise may be just as effective as medication when it comes to treating depression, so the sooner moms get back up and moving, the better. No need to overdo it: a 30-minute walk each day will work wonders. Stretching exercises, like those found in yoga, have shown to be especially effective.
-Practice mindfulness meditation. Research supports the effectiveness of mindfulness for making moms feel calmer and more energized. It can also help moms become more aware of what they feel and need.
-Don’t skimp on sleep. A full eight hours may seem like an unattainable luxury when dealing with a newborn, but poor sleep makes depression worse. Moms must do whatever they can to get plenty of rest- from enlisting the help of the partner or family members, to catching naps at every opportunity.
-Set aside quality time for yourself to relax and take a break from mom duties. Find small ways to pamper yourself, like taking a bubble bath, savoring a hot cup of tea, lighting scented candles, or getting a massage at a day spa, or even calling a masseuse to come to you.
-Make meals a priority. Nutrition often suffers during depression. What mom eats has an impact on her mood, and also the quality of breast milk the baby requires, so always make the best effort to establish and maintain healthy eating habits, for yourself and baby.
-Get out in the sunshine. Sunlight lifts the mood, so try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun each day.
4) Make time for your relationship with your partner. More than half of all divorces take place after the birth of a child. For many men and women, the relationship with their partner is their primary source of emotional expression and social connection. The demands and needs of a new baby can get in the way and fracture this relationship, unless couples put time, energy, and thought into preserving their bond.
-Don’t scapegoat. The stress from nights of no sleep and new or expanded responsibilities can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. It’s all too easy to play the blame game and turn frustrations onto your partner. Instead of finger pointing, remember that you’re in this together. If you tackle parenting challenges as a team, you’ll find that you’ll become an even stronger unit.
-Keep the lines of communication open. Many things change following the birth of a baby, including roles and expectations. For many couples, a key source of strain is the post-baby division of household and childcare responsibilities. It’s important to talk about these issues, rather than letting them fester. Don’t assume your partner has a crystal ball or knows how you feel or what you need, because you’re bound to feel perpetually disappointed and frustrated if you do.
-Carve out couple time. It’s essential to make time for just the two of you when you can reconnect. But don’t put pressure on yourself to be romantic or adventurous, unless you’ve discussed it and found you’re both game. And you don’t need to go out on a date to enjoy each other’s company. Just spending even 15 or 20 minutes together, undistracted and focused on each other, can make a big difference in how close you feel to each other.
Treatment for Postpartum Depression
If, despite self-help and the support of family, mom is still struggling with postpartum depression, it’s best to seek professional treatment.
-Individual therapy/ marriage counseling A good therapist can help moms deal better with the adjustments of motherhood. If moms or partners are experiencing marital difficulties or are feeling unsupported at home, marriage counseling can also be very beneficial.
-Antidepressants. In postpartum cases where mom’s ability to function adequately for herself or baby is compromised, antidepressants may be an option, though they are more effective when accompanied with psychotherapy. Obviously, medication must be closely monitored by a physician.
-Hormone therapy: Estrogen replacement therapy can sometimes be helpful in combating postpartum depression, and is often used in combination with an antidepressant. There are risks that go along with hormone therapy, so moms must be sure to talk to their doctor about what may be best, and safest, for them.
Helping New Moms with Postpartum
If your loved one is a mom experiencing postpartum depression, the best thing you can do is to offer support, give her a break from her childcare duties, provide a listening ear, and always be patient and understanding. But, be sure to take care of yourself too. Dealing with the needs of a new baby is hard for the partner as well as mom. And if your significant other is depressed, that means you are dealing with two major stressors.
Tips for Partners:
-Encourage mom to talk about her feelings. Listen without judgement and without making demands. Instead of trying to ‘just fix’ things, simply be there for mom to lean on.
-Offer help around the house. Chip in with the housework and childcare responsibilities, and don’t wait for mom to ask… trust me on this one!
-Make sure mom takes time for herself. Rest and relaxation are even more important after a new edition. Encourage her to take breaks, hire a babysitter, or schedule some date nights.
-Be patient if she’s not ready for sex. Depression affects sex drive, so it may be a while before mom’s in the mood. Offer her physical affection, but don’t push it if she’s not up for anything beyond that.
-Getting exercise can make a big dent in depression, but it’s hard for moms to get motivated when they’re feeling low. So do something simple, like going going for a walk with mom. Better yet, make walks a daily ritual for just the two of you, or for the whole family.
There is a fairly new breakthrough drug called Zulresso (brexanolone). Approved in 2019, Zulresso is a neuropathic drug, and first in its class. So what is it? Basically, it’s an aqueous (water-based) solution of progesterone products. They have taken the component product of progesterone and put it into solution; it is then administered to a new mom with postpartum depression. And then a miracle happens… seriously! This lifts postpartum depression like a kid does candy. It is a scientific breakthrough; never before have we had a drug that treats postpartum depression faster than any drug for any type of depression, ever. That’s the good news, but guess what comes next… the bad. While we know it works, very well and very quickly, there are some major disadvantages of this drug. The first one is that it can only be administered by IV infusion. So that means that you have to place an IV map into mom’s vein and drip the drug in with IV fluid. That brings me to the next big disadvantage: it can only be administered in a hospital setting. Why is that? Well, studies show that during administration, which takes place over about 60 hours, two and a half days, some moms can become very dizzy and faint, can lose consciousness, and can even stop breathing. For all of these reasons, moms must be medically monitored with an oximeter and telemetry for two and a half days, during which time they must be checked on every two hours. And they cannot be in charge of baby during this hospital stay, because they may be in and out of consciousness and/ or have severe respiratory issues. While that’s no bueno, the last disadvantage is muy loco, people. Are you ready? The drug costs $34,000. Yep. But wait, it gets better, which in this case, actually means worse. That little $34K is just for the drug! The hospitalization and monitoring costs more… a lot more. And to add insult to injury, you have to shell out the cash to pay for a sitter to watch baby, as mom could potentially be very busy losing consciousness and going into respiratory distress.
Needless to say, Zulresso is not used very much, even though it is an amazing breakthrough product, essentially curing the notoriously difficult-to-treat postpartum depression in a mere 60 hours. There are some other anti-depressants that work pretty well. Effexor (venlafaxine, desvenlafaxine) and Wellbutrin (bupropion) with antipsychotics like Abilify help to speed up the treatment process generally show some progress in about a week.
So while I’m very impressed with Zulresso as a novel, first-in-class drug, you can see my practical issues with it. Although, I suppose that everything is relative: if my wife were suffering from serious postpartum depression, to the point that she was suicidal, or the baby’s life was in danger, and it was refractory, meaning all other treatment options had been tried and failed, I would find a way to get the Zulresso treatment; I’d make it happen, by contacting the manufacturer for patient support options. Or maybe by selling a kidney. Whatever it took.
Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale
This 10-question self-rating scale has proven to be an efficient way of identifying patients at risk for “perinatal” or postpartum depression. While this test was specifically designed to be administered by a medical professional, to a woman who is pregnant or has just had a baby, it can be used as an effective at-home guide to determine if you or someone you care about has postpartum depression. Just make sure to follow all of your score’s corresponding action(s).
For each of the 10 questions, please check mark the answer that comes closest to how you have felt in the past 7 days. Scoring is explained after the questions.1) I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things.
____ As much as I always could
____ Not quite so much now
____ Definitely not so much now
____ Not at all2) I have looked forward with enjoyment to things.
____ As much as I ever did
____ Rather less than I used to
____ Definitely less than I used to
____ Hardly at all3) I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, some of the time
____ Not very often
____ No, never4) I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.
____ No not at all
____ Hardly ever
____ Yes, sometimes
____ Yes, very often5) I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason.
____ Yes, quite a lot
____ Yes, sometimes
____ No, not much
____ No, not at all6) Things have been getting on top of me.
____ Yes, most of the time I haven’t been able to cope at all
____ Yes, sometimes I haven’t been coping as well as usual
____ No, most of the time I have coped quite well
____ No, I have been coping as well as ever7) I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, sometimes
____ Not very often
____ No, not at all8) I have felt sad or miserable.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, sometimes
____ Not very often
____ No, not at all9) I have been so unhappy that I have been crying.
____ Yes, most of the time
____ Yes, quite often
____ Only occasionally
____ No, never10) The thought of harming myself has occurred to me.
____ Yes, quite often
____ Hardly ever
SCORING VALUES AND GUIDE
Grade each of your checked answers with the specifically stated score, then add the scores together. Take that sum and apply to the interpretation/ action scale and follow the stated suggestion.1) I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things
0 As much as I always could
1 Not quite so much now
2 Definitely not so much now
3 Not at all 2) I have looked forward with enjoyment to things
0 As much as I ever did
1 Rather less than I used to
2 Definitely less than I used to
3 Hardly at all 3) I have blamed myself unnecessarily when things went wrong
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, some of the time
1 Not very often
0 No, never 4) I have been anxious or worried for no good reason
0 No, not at all
1 Hardly ever
2 Yes, sometimes
3 Yes, very often 5) I have felt scared or panicky for no very good reason
3 Yes, quite a lot
2 Yes, sometimes
1 No, not much
0 No, not at all 6) Things have been getting on top of me
3 Yes, most of the time I haven’t been able to cope
2 Yes, sometimes I haven’t been coping as well as usual
1 No, most of the time I have coped quite well
0 No, I have been coping as well as ever 7) I have been so unhappy that I have had difficulty sleeping
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, sometimes
1 Not very often
0 No, not at all8) I have felt sad or miserable
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, quite often
1 Not very often
0 No, not at all 9) I have been so unhappy that I have been crying
3 Yes, most of the time
2 Yes, quite often
1 Only occasionally
0 No, never 10) The thought of harming myself has occurred to me
3 Yes, quite often
1 Hardly ever
EPDS Score Interpretation/ Action
Score of 8 or less: depression not likely, but continue to seek support.
Score of 9 to 11: depression is possible, continue seeking support and re-screen in 2 to 4 weeks. Seriously consider appointment with primary care provider or established mental health professional.
Score of 12 to 13: fairly high possibility
of depression. Continue to monitor and seek support. Make appointment to see primary care provider or established mental health professional.
Score of 14 and higher: this is a positive screen for probable postpartum depression. Diagnostic assessment is required to determine appropriate treatment. See mental health specialist or primary care provider for referral to same.
Note: if there is any positive score (a rating of 1, 2, or 3) on question 10 (suicidality risk) definite immediate discussion and possible emergency management is required. Refer to primary care provider, mental health specialist, or emergency resource for further assessment and intervention as appropriate. The urgency of the referral will depend on several factors, including: whether suicidal ideation is accompanied by a plan, whether there has been a history of suicide attempt(s), whether symptoms of a psychotic disorder are present, and/ or if there is concern about harm to the baby.
So that’s all the news on postpartum depression. If you liked this, please share with friends and family. Look for new blogs here every Monday, and check out my book, Tales from the Couch, for more education and patient stories, available on Amazon.com. See my YouTube channel for new lectures- I post them all the time. And I’d appreciate it if you hit that subscribe button, people! Thanks everybody, be well.
A Coronavirus PSA
Before we get to this next blog on suicide, I must say something related to Coronavirus transmission, because I’m tired of yelling it at my television when I see people doing it or talking about it, how “safe” it is. What is it? It’s “elbow love,” bumping elbows with someone to say hello, goodbye, good job, whassup, whatever. Think about this, people: during this viral outbreak, what have we been asking people to do when they sneeze or cough? Ideally, to do so in a tissue, but that’s not realistic, it rarely happens, so we ask them to sneeze or cough into their bent arm, at the elbow. Get the picture? The droplets they expell during that sneeze or cough are deposited everywhere surrounding that area, including the part you bump, so if your “bumpee” has Coronavirus, even if they have no symptoms, you, the “bumper” get those bijillions of virions on your elbow, and you can take them home with you. Then maybe your spouse or partner welcomes you home by putting their hands on your arms to give you a kiss… and now half a bijillion virions may be on one of their hands, just waiting to be deposited everywhere. Bottom line: for as long as this virus is around, use your words, not your body, to say whassup. So pass this knowledge on…not the virus.
Suicide is always a very difficult topic for every family, and in thirty years as a psychiatrist, it’s never gotten much easier to broach this subject. What motivated me to write this blog is a recent conversation I had with the father of one of my young patients, a fourteen-year-old named Collin, who in fact had just made what I believed was a half-hearted suicide attempt; the proverbial ‘cry for help.’ Understand that half-hearted does not mean it’s totally safe to blow it off, but we’ll get to an explanation about that later. His father, Lawrence, who prefers to be called Law, was a single parent, a widower after metastatic melanoma devastated the family of three about eighteen months before. Shortly after the mother, Sharon, passed away, Law brought Collin to my office. It was clear from the first appointment that Collin was depressed, and had been for some time. Psychotherapy was difficult with him, and it took about five appointments to establish more than a tenuous relationship and for him to begin to open up to me. I had tried him on a couple of medications, but they never seemed to do the job. I strongly suspected that it was due to a compliance issue. Actually, I’m certain that it was. He just didn’t take them regularly or as directed. That always mystifies me, patients who are miserable, anxious and depressed, but they take their meds haphazardly, at best; meds that could turn their worlds around…not because they’re inconvenient, and not because of side effects, just because. So, the tenuous connection made for less than optimal psychotherapy sessions, and that, combined with the absence of appropriate meds, put Collin on a path that led here, my office, 22 hours after his attempt. I was a little shocked by his attempt, but very shocked at how effectively, how deeply, he was able to hide the monumental amount of pain that he had obviously been feeling. His father Law looked exhausted, shellshocked, and was having such difficulty talking about it for a number of reasons, but he told me that one of the main reasons was shame. He was ashamed that Collin was so ill, and even ashamed that he was ashamed of it. He was ashamed that he could do nothing to help him, and ashamed that he had possibly caused or contributed to his son’s illness. I told him repeatedly and in several different ways that I understood, that his feelings weren’t unusual among parents of children like Collin, that he absolutely was helping him, and that while mental illness does have a familial component, he was not responsible in any way for his sons illness or attempt. Unfortunately, I don’t think he really heard a word I said. In my experience, suicidal ideation, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and the actual act of suicide affects everyone it touches in a way that no other psychiatric illness does. But in this situation, I think Law was thinking about what his life would be like if Collin tried again and succeeded. It would be very sad, alone, and lonely.
Facts and Figures
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming 47,173 lives in 2019. Montana and Alaska have the highest suicide rates, which is interesting because both of those states have very high gun ownership rates. Believe it or not, New Jersey is the lowest. I have no clue why that would be the case. There were 1.4 million suicide attempts last year in the US. Men are 3.54 times more likely than women to commit suicide. Of all the suicides in the United States last year, 69.67% were white men; they don’t seem to be doing so well. The most common way to commit suicide is by firearm, at about 50%; suffocation is 27.7%, poisoning is 13.9%, and other would be the rest, things like jumping from a tall building or bridge, laying on train tracks or jumping in front of a subway car or a bus. Among US citizens, depression affects 20 to 25% of the population, so at any given point, 20% of the population is a bit more prone to suicide, as obvi people must first be depressed (chronically or acutely) before attempting suicide. There are 24 suicide attempts for every 1 completed suicide. The most disturbing statistic is that suicide rates are up 30% in the past 16 years, with a marked increase in adolescent suicides, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24.
You would think the US would have the highest suicide rates in the world, but in fact, Russia, China, and Japan are all higher.
Suicide Risk Factors
What are some factors that may put someone at higher risk of suicide?
– Family history of completed suicide in first-degree relatives
– Adverse childhood experiences, ie parental loss, emotional/ physical/ sexual abuse
– Negative life situations, ie loss of a business, financial issues, job loss
– Psychosocial stressors, ie death of loved one, separation, divorce, or breakup of relationship, isolation
– Acute and chronic health issues, illness and/ or incapacity, ie stroke, paralysis, mental illness, diagnoses of conditions like HIV or cancer, chronic pain syndromes
But, understand there’s no rule that someone must have one or more of these factors in order to be suicidal.
Mental Illness and Suicidality
In order to make a thorough suicide risk assessment, mental illness must be considered. There seem to be 6 mental health diagnoses that people who successfully complete suicide have in common:
– Bipolar disorder
– Schizoaffective disorder
– Post-traumatic stress disorder
– Substance abuse
Suicidal ideation refers to the thoughts that a person may have about suicide, or committing suicide. Suicidal ideation must be assessed when it is expressed, as it plays an important role in developing a complete suicide risk assessment. Assessing suicidal ideation includes:
– Determining the extent of the person’s preoccupation with thoughts of suicide, ie continuous? Intermittent? If so, how often?
– Specific plans; if they exist or not; if yes, how detailed or thought out?
– Person’s reason(s) or motivation(s) to attempt suicide
Assessment of Suicide Risk
Assessing suicide risk includes the full examination/ assessment of:
– The degree of planning
– The potential or perceived lethality of the specific suicide method being considered, ie gun versus overdose versus hanging
– Whether the person has access to the means to carry out the suicide plan, ie a gun, the pills, rope
– Access to the place to commit
– Note: presence, timing, content
– Person’s reason(s) to commit suicide; motivated only by wish to die; highly varied; ie overwhelming emotions, deep philosophical belief
– Person’s motivation(s) to commit suicide; not motivated only by wish to die; motivated to end suffering, ie from physical pain, terminal illness
– Person’s motivation(s) to live, not commit suicide
What is a Suicide Plan?
A suicide plan may be written or kept in someone’s head; it generally includes the following elements:
– Timing of the suicide event
– Access to the method and setting of suicide event
– Actions taken toward carrying out the plan, ie obtaining gun, poison, rope; seeking/ choosing/ inspecting a setting; rehearsing the plan
The more detailed and specific the suicide plan, the greater the level of risk. The presence of a suicide note suggests more premeditation and typically greater suicidal intent, so an assessment would definitely include an exploration of the timing and content of any suicide note, as well as a thorough discussion of its meaning with its author.
I spent years teaching suicide assessment to other physicians, medical students, nurses, therapists, you name it. It all seems super complicated when you look at all the above factors written out, but as I always taught, it becomes clearer when you put it into practice. What are we doing when we embark on a suicide assessment? We’re determining suicidality, the likelihood that someone will committ suicide. You’re deciding how dangerous someone is to themselves using the factors discussed above. You’re either looking at how lethal they could be, how lethal they are at this time, or how lethal they wereduring a previous episode of suicidal ideation or previous suicide attempt.
When we put this all into practice, we look at statements and actions to determine how dangerous a person is. Did someone say, ‘if so and so does this, I’ll kill myself’ or, did someone act but just scratched their wrist? Those would be low level lethality, and they would not be very dangerous. Did someone buy a gun, load the ammunition, learn how to shoot it, go to the place where they planned to kill themselves at the time they planned, and then practice putting the gun to their head…essesntially a dry run? That would be the most lethal; that person would be the most dangerous. Those are the two poles of lethality and danger, but there are variant degrees and many shades of gray, so you really have to discuss it very thoroughly with each individual.
Let’s say a 15-year-old is in the office after taking a big handful of pills in a suicide attempt. I ask him if he realized that taking those pills could have actually killed him, and he says no. He’s not that lethal, not that dangerous, because even though his means (pill overdose) was lethal, he didn’t know it was, so lacking that knowledge mitigates the risk, making him less dangerous. Example: acetominophen is actually extremely lethal. People who truly overdose on it don’t die immediately, but it shuts down the liver, killing them two days later. A person that takes a bunch of it thinking it’s a harmless over the counter drug is not that dangerous, because even though their method was lethal, they didn’t know it. In a similar manner, I’ve had people mix benzos with alcohol, which is another very lethal method. It’s a very successful way to kill yourself, but a lot of people don’t realize it, so it’s not that lethal to them. In the reverse case, people who know about combining alcohol and benzodiazepines, who know how dangerous it is, are dangerous, highly lethal to themselves.
People who play with guns, like Russian Roulette-type stuff; or people who intentionally try asphyxiating or suffocating themselves, as for sexual pleasure; or people who tie a rope to a rafter and then test their weight…these people are very dangerous, very lethal, very scary to psychiatrists.
Where someone attempts suicide is also very telling, very instructive in determining their lethality, how suicidal, how dangerous they are. If they do it in a place where there is no chance of being found, of being interrupted, they are very suicidal, very dangerous. Contrast that to doing it in a place where there are people walking by, or in a house where someone is, or could be coming home, then they are not as suicidal, not as dangerous. As an exaple, let’s say someone leaves their car running in a garage when they know that no one will be around for 2 days. That is very dangerous, they are very suicidal. If someone takes an opiate overdose at night when everyone’s in bed so they won’t find them for many hours, they are dangerous. If someone takes the overdose during the day, when people are awake at home, they are less dangerous.
A change in somone’s behaviors and/ or outlook can also help determine lethality. When people start giving away their possessions, that is a sign that they are very lethal, very dangerous. Another factor that can be informative is if an unnatural calm comes over them, and they say that they have no more problems, and everything is great. That is an indicator of serious lethality, major danger. These people have a sense of ease because they know that they’ll be dead very soon, and they don’t have to worry about things anymore. These are ominous signs.
Giving information about an attempt also informs a person’s level of lethality. If someone makes a statement of intent to commit suicide, they are not very dangerous. For example, a spouse saying ‘if you leave me, I’ll kill myself’ or ‘you broke my heart, I can’t live without you, I’m going to kill myself’ those statements alone do not indicate a very dangerous person. Not telling anyone and hiding when they plan to attempt is much more dangerous. There are many cases when people don’t come out and tell, but they aren’t being very secretive, intentionally or not, possibly even subconsciously. They leave clues, almost giving people a road map. This is very common, and these people are typically discovered. The discovery can either totally abort the act before it’s attempted, or can abort after the attempt, but in enough time to get the person help. This is why for every 1 “successfully” completed suicide, there are 24 failed suicide attempts. Similarly, someone who says ‘if this thing (interview, event) goes my way, I’ll be good, but if it doesn’t, I swear I’ll kill myself’ is not that dangerous, not very suicidal, because they’re bargaining, which means they’re still living in the real world. But, someone who does not want to negotiate, doesn’t care to affect things one way or another, may not be living in the real world, and they’re dangerous, they may be high risk to enter the world of the dead.
There are a couple other things to be considered in assessing risk of suicide, determining how dangerous someone might be. If someone is impaired, using drugs and/ or alcohol when they attempt or consider suicide, and if they are not suicidal when they’re clean and sober, they are generally not that suicidal, not that dangerous, they just have a drug or alcohol problem. When they get clean and sober for good, the risk is essentially zero, barring anything else. In a similar way, if someone is suffering from a mental illness when they attempt or consider suicide, but when you correct that mental illness they are not suicidal, they are not a huge danger.
So during suicide risk assessment, you can be looking at someone having a nebulous thought and/ or making a statement that a lot of people may have or make, and you know that they’re not very dangerous; or looking all the way to the opposite side, someone who thinks about it, formulates a thorough plan, picks the place and time, aquires all the things needed to commit the act, writes a suicide letter, and practices the complete act soup to nuts, and you know that they are very, very dangerous. And all the shades in between.
So that’s my primer on suicidal thinking and assessing suicide risk. There are lots of factors to keep in mind, and sometimes it’s a little like reading minds, but you get more proficient as the years go by…it’s easier to tell when someone is misleading or being honest and open. If you enjoy a humorous approach to character studies in all sorts of diagnoses, you would enjoy my book, Tales from the Couch, available on Amazon. I mean, most of you are isolating, sheltering in place anyway, right? Might as well entertain yourself! Check it out. – Dr. Mark AgrestiLearn More
Electronics are awesome! Right?
Home computers became available in the early to mid-80’s, but didn’t gain major popularity until about 1990. Home computers were mainly for word processing and games until the advent of the world wide web. Originally unleashed in 1989, the www was developed chiefly to facilitate the exchange of information among professionals on medical and scientific studies, technical blah blah blah and protocols for building nerdy thingamabobbers. All super tres importante stuff. It wasn’t long before the www came into its own, evolving to revolutionize life as
we knew it in the dawn of the 90’s. And it hasn’t stopped evolving, it literally grows exponentially every minute of every day, 24/7-365. The obvious potential of the www sparked a sort of resurgence of the electronic age. Suddenly everyone wanted, no, needed a computer at home….desktop at first, then laptop once they got them to weigh less than 20 pounds and cost less than $9k. For a little while, the laptop was the most portable window to the www, but then around the mid-2000’s the first smart phones hit the market, followed by the first iPad in 2010, and now we even have watches to wear the www around our wrists.
So roughly 30 years ago, our world changed, solidifying our entry into a realm where electronics rule. That means that people who are currently age 30 and under were raised in this electronic world. They had nearly limitless access to computers, video games, smart phones, iPads, on and on. When he was 13 years old, my son had an innate knowledge for all things electronic. If I didn’t know how to unlock this code or clear those cookies, I could hand the device to my kid and he would fix it with zero hesitation. I know I’m not the only one that’s experienced this slightly annoying/disturbing phenomena. The other day, my patient EmLea told me she hired her 15-year-old neighbor to hook up her new TV/DVR/Blu-Ray setup she had given herself for Christmas. He didn’t even look at a single word in any of the manuals. And to top that off, he knew what every button on the various remote controls meant and how to switch to the different components, etc. It took him way longer to teach EmLea that stuff than it took for him to unpack and set the TV and all the components up. Our children of the “www era” entertained themselves with computers, games, text messaging, emails, computer card games, social media like Instagram and Facebook, then YouTube and WhatsApp, on and on. They grew up on electronics and have zero fear that they might break something or permanently damage it if they pressed the wrong button the way that many of us “old folks” do. I can’t talk about the advent of the www and social media without mentioning dating apps. Talk about limitless! There are dating sites for every sexual proclivity, hookup sites like Tinder and Grindr, and social sites of all sorts. People spend unbelievable amounts of time on dating apps. They tell me about it and it blows me away. And kids have access to these sites, because parents don’t bother to block them. Then again, maybe they don’t know how to or even know it’s possible to do so. The kids have the upper hand here- they’re far more savvy than their parents, so they get quite the education from those dating and social sites, believe me.
Speaking of education, the www really allowed people to start educating themselves independently. For someone of my, ahem, maturity level, it was incredible! I mean, when I was in college and I needed to research a topic for a paper, I went to something called a library, where there were infinite rows of shelves with books of all sorts. Technology of the day was microfiche! I can practically hear the millennials asking google or Alexa what that is at this moment. A little help: it’s pronounced micro-feesh. And once I gathered all the information I needed, I had to type my papers. Not type on a computer and print, but type on a typewriter or maybe a word processor, which back then didn’t refer to software- a word processor then was basically a high tech typewriter. Again the millennials are like, “huh?” I have to compare that to my son’s situation again- during his high school years, he was required to use a laptop in all of his classes. Every kid was, and everything had to be done on the school’s network- every project and assignment. A far cry from my day.
But I have to say, the information available and the ease and speed of access on the www was and is almost incomprehensible. Unless it’s novel, something that a PhD candidate has studied for two years can be learned in very short order, minutes even. The www also allowed us to start finding old friends and then making new ones. It allows us to live in an alternate reality of our own creation, a place where we tune in and get likes and collect friends and build reputations and online brands. And if we come across something we don’t like, we just go someplace else, another screen, another site. Just consider this: a boy, born in 1990, growing up, all he knew was to come home from school, play videogames, hit up social media, surf the internet, kill some brain cells on YouTube, watch Netflix, shop Amazon Prime, install different apps, upload videos… why go out? Why interact with actual people when you can watch them? Same diff, right?
Today, the socialization, the entertainment, and the information all come to you. Everything is immediate gratification. Everything is online. There is no frustration. The minute you don’t like something, you move, you uninstall, you block, you end notifications, you unfollow, you flip an electronic switch and whatever you don’t like goes away. So naturally, what happens is that you only follow what you like. That’s human nature. The world is your oyster. You create a world where online, everything is just what you like. You never have to deal with people, people who have different opinions, people who you don’t like, people who have negative things to say. You create your own world…the world according to you. That’s all you see. Everything else fades to black, ceases to exist.
It sounds great, right? You have this world where all the information you could ever need is at your fingertips. You can talk to anyone you want in the whole wide world. You can buy anything that’s for sale…and even some things that aren’t. You can collect friends that are of like mind.You can get dates when you want to. When you think about it, it’s awesome, in the strictest definition of the word, deserving of awe. The www is arguably mankind’s greatest feat to date, maybe even greater than the dawn of civilization. It’s changed us in many ways, and for the better. Huge advances in medicine, technology, science, you name it are owed to the www and what it facilitates. It has brought people together and allowed the exchange of ideas and information to and from everywhere on the planet, and it has advanced our society.
What could ever be wrong with this? It sounds great, right? Well, as with many things, if you scratch the surface, if you look harder, go deeper, there are problems created by the www, human problems. First, it’s not real. The electronic world on the www is not reality. I’m sure some of you are like ‘duh Dr. Agresti’ but I see people in my office every day who forget that. Sane people for whom the line between real reality and the electronic world they created has blurred. When you talk to someone online, you’re not talking to someone who is sitting in front of you. It is not a human interaction- it is an electronic one, a string of 1’s and 0’s. You can’t trust it. For all you know, it could be a bot or some form of artificial intelligence. This will be the issue of the not-distant future. As it is, we humans have to prove our human condition to a computer so it will allow us to log on to secure sites these days, typing in those crazy sideways upside down wierd scrawled letter/number codes. So who’s controlling who?
Depending on the communication medium, there is some element of reality in that it could be another person, but you don’t know who that person really is. Catfishing runs rampant online, a 22-year-old woman is often an 80-year-old man. Without meeting in person, you can’t know who you’re “talking” to, so you can’t trust. And if you can’t trust, you have to have walls up, and you can’t have a true connection through those walls. On social media you can have a thousand friends, but when life goes sideways, when you need someone, you’ll likely find there’s no one you can really talk to. And meeting real people in real life during a lifetime mostly spent in an electronic world and zoning out to your own alternate reality can be problematic. You lack the social skills, you lack the speech skills, you lack the emotional skills, and you lack the ability to tolerate frustration because these aren’t necessary in the electronic world. When you do manage to meet new people, you lack the social creativity to know how to interact, how to hold your body, how to use voice inflection, and how to read body language- these skills are missing. And in the real world, as you come across random people, you are bound to find opinions that differ from yours. This will cause anxiety, frustration, and even anger, because all of a sudden, you can’t log off, uninstall, block or unfriend…it’s in your face and you have to deal with it. I call this the “frustration phenomenon,” and this occurs frequently and consistently when people who choose to live in an electronic world of their own creation are forced to dip their toes in the deep end of the real world.
Because I mostly treat people under age 30, when I’m out and about, I find that I pay attention to what people of this age group are up to. When I notice something interesting, sometimes I’ll even approach them, introduce myself, and ask them about it. I was recently at lunch with some of my office staff and we were chatting about this and that. Next to us was a table of four mid-twenty-somethings. Even though they were less than five feet away for the best part of an hour, I couldn’t have picked a single one of them out of a lineup. Why? Because their faces were all buried in their phones. The table was silent, save for the light clickity click sound of typing. Aside from placing their orders, they didn’t speak at all. I had to know more. With my staff rolling their eyes, I cleared my throat, introduced myself as a psychiatrist and asked them why they didn’t speak to each other. They all kind of looked at each other and back at me and gingerly set their phones down, as if asked to do so by a parent. Obligatory. Some mumblings of ‘I don’t know’s’ and shrugged shoulders followed. One brave one said they just always took lunchtime to catch up on social and check comments and see what friends were up to. I went around the table and asked each how long they spent doing anything online in a given 24 hour period. Their answers shocked me: 14, 13, 11 and 12. But even more on weekends. They laughed when I commented about it being a full time job. But I wasn’t kidding.
Another offshoot of the frustration phenomenon occurs in these age-30-and-unders. Because they surround themselves only with music, things, and opinions they like, they have little to no tolerance for anything else. I call it the “other annoyance.” I noticed this while talking to a patient named Stu. He always wore earbuds, even in appointments. When I asked him about it, he said that he had to have them because when he had to be out in public, his music helped him drown everything out. He said he found other music, other people and their voices, and even random everyday noise to be annoying, so he avoided it all whenever possible. Stu was so immersed in a virtual world he created and filled only with things he liked that he had no tolerance for anything outside of that. Anything ‘other than’ was annoyance, and I presume that my presence and voice was included. Another issue with the generation raised on an electronics diet is that they never learned how to entertain themselves. Every time that there’s nothing to do, whenever boredom rears its head, they look to the electronic devices to entertain rather than trying a new activity or trying to meet new people. So social skills suffer further, and the disconnect from the real world becomes wider. There is detachment from the real world. Everything is the same in the electronic world, no matter where in the world you might be. The scenery remains unchanged.
Because this is a new problem, we have to learn to view and solve it in a novel way. As I see it so often, I have some suggestions for parents. When raising a child, the majority of their day must be totally electronic device free. This time should be spent interacting and talking with parents, siblings, and friends. Some time should also be spent doing something independently but device free- coloring, reading, playing with pets, etc. There must be strict limits on how much time is spent on electronics, whether that’s TV, iPad, phone, or games. We’re now realizing the true impact of electronics and how critical this issue is during a child’s developmental years. I’m convinced that the human brain will not develop appropriately if we don’t have significant ‘off time.’ And I’m concerned that we humans are beginning to evolve around electronics rather than the other way around. Even adults must have large blocks of time off electronics. Addiction is a real problem. This is illustrated by the fact that we now even have detox protocols and treatment centers for electronic addiction.
Don’t quote me on it, but I think we’re headed towards a society where we actually have electronic implants in our brain. Think about it. They could put an electronic device in your brain, some circuitry or device where you could access the www by utilizing the chip in your brain. I think it’s coming. And I think there will come a day in the future where we may have to wonder if we’re dealing with or “talking” to a robotic device or a real person. Ultimately, I think we’ll use the power and the resources of the electronic world to our best advantage, but we just can’t be caught off guard. Through the wonder of the www, the electronic world has evolved so quickly and has become such a dominant part of our lives, but now we’re learning that we need to exercise some restraint with it. The moral of the story? We can’t be dependent on the electronic world if we also want to control it.Learn More
Your Brain on the Holidays
Your brain is always busy, but it feels busier during the holidays, and rightly so. There’s a lot for it to think about during the holiday season: what to buy, for whom, and how much to spend, how to make time to visit family as well as friends, how to dodge certain co-workers at the office Christmas party, and hopefully how to squeeze in holiday naps in between eating some good home cooking. Because holiday time tends to pile on the stress, researchers are fascinated with the subject of what is happening in our brains while we’re trading time wrapping presents and plastering on a smile to spread genuine holiday cheer.
Researchers believe that not only does the brain actually change over the holidays, but that they even know what culprit is: nostalgia. Essentially, nostalgia is that bittersweet feeling of love for what is gone, and the longing we feel to return to the past. The holidays lead to a special feeling of nostalgia that is unlike any other. Reminiscing with family, watching old holiday movies, eating favorite dishes, smelling the familiar smell of your grandparent’s house, and maybe even sleeping in your childhood bed….the holidays are a heady mix that induce nostalgia on steroids. But even more than this, therapists actually say that we should basically “expect to regress” during the holiday season. Who doesn’t want to be a kid again, to look forward to going home for the holidays? While “home” means different things to different people, I think even Ebenezer Scrooge can relate to the notion that when we celebrate the holidays with loved ones, something in us changes; it feels different. There is a child-like nostalgia, a forward-looking feeling of anticipation. Research suggests that’s because there are some serious changes in our brains during the holidays. Here are some examples of things that you might experience as a result of nostalgia:
1. You Want to Eat All of the Food
That’s pretty much what happens when you’re back in your mom’s or grandma’s kitchen, eating a meal with your siblings, is it not? You’re not just eating a meal, you’re living a memory, so you want it all! Eating a lot during the holidays is totally a real thing, and science says it’s largely because aromas trigger vivid memories, just like the smell of your grandparent’s house takes you right back to being seven years old. And socially, the same thing happens. Just because you and your siblings or cousins are grown-ups doesn’t mean you’ll act that way. Remember, if you’re regressing over the holidays, so are they. But just remember to be an adult and use your manners around the dinner table.
2. You Want to Drink All the Alcohol
There are many reasons that people drink more during the holidays. Studies have shown that the average American sees a 100% increase in their alcoholic drinking habits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Along with the holly jolly holidays comes an increase in social functions, holiday parties and dinners out, which inevitably leads to more alcohol consumption for most adults. Many of us look forward to celebrations during the holidays, but it’s amatuer hour when it comes to drinking… a time when some people who don’t normally drink actually drink far beyond their limits. Some of these people will suffer adverse consequences that range from fights and falls to traffic crashes and deaths. Sadly, people often put themselves and others at great risk just for an evening of celebratory drinking. So please, get a clue and get an uber. There is no reason to drive after drinking…remember: more than two means an uber for you!
3. You Want to Buy All of the Things
Holiday shopping, for most of us, feels pretty miserable. The music is loud, the mall is crowded, and you’re half way to the checkout before you realize you don’t actually know your uncle’s shirt size and you didn’t double check if your office Secret Santa recipient has any allergies. What’s worse? Apparently, shopping during the holiday season changes our brain, and even the most self-controlled shoppers can fall victim to marketing masters. That cheerful holiday music? Those festive colors? Those free samples around every corner? The bright cheery lights? Marketing. Allllll marketing. And, all pretty much intended to get you to relax, have a good time…and loosen that hold on your wallet and kiss that money goodbye. And not even any misteltoe!
4. Maybe You Don’t Want to Get Out of Bed
Not everyone enjoys the holidays. For some people, it can trigger serious battles with mental health, depression and anxiety. Between 4 and 20 percent of people experience a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD, which is a depression that generally sets in during early winter and fades by spring or early summer. Even people who are not diagnosed specifically with SAD may still experience depression and anxiety over the holidays. Why? Well, we postulate that people’s desire for perfection can become crippling during holiday time. People see more of each other and have more than the usual amount of time to compare themselves to others during the holiday season, in terms of what they can or cannot afford to spend on gifts or where they may travel for vacation. People often try to do too much and end up over-extending themselves.
The holidays are meaningful to people for many different reasons. For some it is a religious holiday, for others a time to spend with family and friends, and even a time of sadness and loneliness for some. Whatever the holidays mean to you, you really need to make it a point to take good care of yourself during this busy season…it’s the best gift you can give yourself.Learn More