Blog Archive


Sleep Paralysis: Not the Stuff Sweet Dreams are Made of

00Child Development, Circadian Rhythm, Dreaming, Featured news, Memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Sleep December, 19

Source: John Henry Fuseli at Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

As a child, I would sometimes find myself wide-awake in bed, but unable to move. Some nights, I would hear voices in my room, as I felt invisible forces pinning me down. When I would finally regain control of my body, I was left feeling terrified.

Sleep Paralysis affects roughly 8% of the general population, yet its cause remains speculative, full of competing scientific, cultural and religious explanations.

Our current understanding is that sleep paralysis happens during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is a sleep-cycle in which a person’s eyes and brainwaves move at an accelerated rate, similar to a wakeful state. In this paralyzed limbo between sleep and wakefulness, people may experience multi-sensory dream activity, including auditory and visual hallucinations, that are generally described as terrifying. Scientifically, these interpretations of sleep paralysis are plausible, but one component remains especially elusive. Many report a common visual archetype—a dark figure sitting on their chests.

In Medieval Western philosophy, an “Incubus” was a seductive male demon who rested on the chests of sleeping females. In late Latin, “Incubo,” roughly translates to, “nightmare, one who lies down on (the sleeper).” Similarly, some Inuit communities recognize sleep paralysis as “Uqumangirniq,” a term that in Shamanistic practices refers to an individual who is sleeping or dreaming and whose soul is vulnerable as a result of being consciously unguarded. In Brazilian folklore, the “Pisadeira” is a crone with long fingernails who rests on the bodies of those who fall asleep. Sleep paralysis in Nigerian culture is referred to as “Ogun Oru”, or nocturnal warfare, during which sufferers are visited by a female entity. This malevolent being is present in numerous other cultures as well, including in Ethiopia as “Dukak,” in Egypt as “Jinn,” in Thailand as “Phi am,” and in Newfoundland, Canada as “Old hag.”

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Alison (name changed), explained that she experienced sleep paralysis during childhood, then again in early adolescence, and only a few times in her early twenties. Likewise, Asher (name changed), commented that he experienced sleep paralysis in his childhood and again recently, explaining:

“Over the last few years I have noticed it in particular, and even had some more aggressive and frightening situations occur during this time.”

If sleep paralysis can be understood as being a universal by-product of REM sleep, why do many experience this natural occurrence at random moments in their lives as opposed to every time they sleep? When asked to elaborate on the frequency of sleep paralysis, Alison commented:

“As a child, I remember it happening often. Within that time frame my grandfather was ill, and then passed away. As teen and adult, I can remember about 5 times, during this time there was family illness again- so my best guess was stress was the cause.”

Scientific studies have reported a correlation between sleep paralysis and posttraumatic stress disorder, explaining why for some, these incidents manifest during stressful periods of life. However, this does not explain why many who have endured stressful events do not suffer from sleep paralysis at all.

And how do we understand the shadowy figure that appears to some? Alison explains:

“Most of my experiences involved seeing a shadow at the end of my bed. The scariest was when it felt like someone was pushing me down – standing or floating above my body.”

Similarly, Asher described what he remembers:

“Something viewing my own motionless body, and oddly enough I have felt my breathing feel as though it was slowing down.”

In Alison’s case, the shadow was visualized as being either at the end of her bed or floating above her paralyzed body. The reason that some feel a demon resting on their chest is explained as the psychological interpretation of the chest pressure experienced during motor paralysis.

The feeling is experienced as very frightening, even traumatic, as described by Keira (name changed). Keira says she continuously endures sleep paralysis roughly four nights a week, with her earliest recollection from when she was about eight-years-old. She explains:

“I’ve seen hands reaching at me from the ceiling. . . demons on my chest, figures around my bedroom and I’ve felt insects crawling under my skin.”

-Courtney Campbell, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Healing Trauma with the Help of Tattoo Art

00Career, Depression, Embarrassment, Featured news, Resilience, Self-Harm, Trauma November, 19

Source: Nickola Pandelides, used with permission

“I think I’ve always struggled with my mental health. Even as a little girl I can remember being uncontrollably sad and stand-offish from people… I can remember feeling such sadness and hatred towards myself that I felt like I just needed to let it all out.”

When university student Krista (name changed) was young, she suffered from debilitating anxiety attacks and feelings of self-hate, which led her to begin self-harming at the age of 12. Self-harm can take on many forms such as cutting, burning, scratching, or other means of self-injury.

Artist and mental health advocate Nickola Pandelides has been a tattoo artist for three years at Koukla Ink, a tattoo shop that she owns. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Nickola describes noticing that people with personal difficulties were increasingly coming to her for help and she wanted to do something about it:

“So many clients were coming to me for scar cover-up tattoos. I realized that there was a need for it, that there needed to be a safer space for people to go to open up about these things…that’s when I started Project New Moon.”

Project New Moon is a non-profit tattoo service for people who are left with scars from self-harm. Nickola has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the project from people all over the world, showing that there is a widespread desire for such services. Nickola has been running this project out of pocket since May 2018.

“There have been over 200 responses, and a huge wait list that I can’t get to all on my own, so we definitely need help, and we’re trying to start funding through GoFundMe.”

Unfortunately, there is still stigma surrounding self-harm. In particular, people perceive these visible scars from self-harm negatively, often judging harshly and treating these survivors poorly. One of Nickola’s clients, Emily, has a story similar to that of Krista; she also struggled with self-harm, and eventually decided to get a cover-up tattoo. In an interview, Emily explains:

“The stigma around self-harm scars is huge. A lot of people see people in our situation and think they’re just looking for attention, which is a huge problem because then people don’t get the help they need… Everyone expresses their pain differently.”

The reasons that people choose to self-harm are complex, and can be difficult to understand. However, self-harming behaviour is generally thought to be a way to release or distract from overwhelming emotional pain and anger, or to feel a sense of control. The act of self-harming may temporarily relieve negative feelings, but Emily describes how it ultimately led to remorse in her case:

“I decided that I wanted to get a tattoo to cover my scars because I felt a lot of shame and guilt for what I had done to myself… As I got older, I would look at my scars and I would feel so embarrassed, so I would try to cover them with bracelets, but I would always have to take them off eventually and my scars were still there.”

Emily explains that her tattoo represents growth and change; it has helped her to forgive herself and acts as a reminder that she can still turn her life into something beautiful despite all the pain she once felt.

Many of the women who come to Nickola for cover-up tattoos are mothers who have been living with their scars for years. She tells me about one mother’s story that stood out to her:

“She was a drug addict and had recently become sober. She had a lot of scars on her arm from scratching and picking, and self-harm as well. She had a little boy, and he was getting to be the age where he would be starting to ask questions. I think it really mattered to her that she would have something positive [her cover-up tattoo] to talk to him about, and that her scars would be less noticeable so she could kind-of protect him from that.”

After turning their darkest memories into something beautiful, Nickola explains that her clients’ feelings of powerlessness, shame, and embarrassment are replaced with relief, and a regained sense of control. She remarks that many of her clients feel as though getting the tattoo was an essential part of their healing journey:

“I think a part of healing is also being able to feel on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Krista also received a cover-up tattoo from a different tattoo artist. As an artist herself, Krista wanted her tattoo to be a reminder that her hands should be used to make beautiful art, instead of being used to hurt herself. She explains that even though she is still working towards recovery, getting her tattoo gave her not only a sense of control, but also the motivation to refrain from self-harm:

“I think it’s changed my life by not allowing me to cut there anymore. I don’t want to ruin the tattoo so it’s even more incentive to take better care of myself.”

-Emma Bennett, Contributing Writer , The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Death Gives a Wake-Up Call

00Bystander Effect, Featured news, Gratitude, Grief, Resilience, Trauma October, 19

Source: Ilya Haykinson at Flickr, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

On a quiet summer evening a few years back, while taking a walk in Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto, I witnessed an event that would change the course of several peoples’ lives. As I relaxed under a tree in the park, watching families enjoy themselves, I heard a loud noise and saw a large branch from another tree fall onto where a couple was sitting. I heard a woman scream, and the man beside her was now trapped under the branch.

Walking a few steps closer, I froze, trying to understand what I’d just seen, which seemed unreal. I felt helpless. Others reacted differently than me as some tried to remove the fallen tree branch, some tried to resuscitate the man, while others comforted his wife, saying the ambulance would soon come. It felt like it went on for hours. Once the yellow blanket was placed over the fellow, I knew it was over. He was pronounced dead.

Mike Lee, one of the three people who performed CPR on the victim, described the shock he felt immediately after the event in an interview with the “Trauma and Mental Health Report,” which is republished here:

“The biggest thing that went through my head was that there was nothing going on: no hurricane, no lightning, no typhoon, no volcano or violence; nothing. Just a beautiful day and this tree branch just happened to fall on this guy and killed him on the spot. How could something so beautiful, a beautiful day, turn into such a traumatic event?”

For me, it felt surreal, as if I’d lost control of my existence. I kept thinking that it easily could have been me under that tree. Later, I was left with unresolved questions about God, the universe, my existence and life’s meaning. And, despite having the courage to take action initially, Mike was affected by the traumatic experience too.

“I was in shock. I just walked around with my bike; I couldn’t even get on my bike to ride it. I kept thinking how thankful I was that I was ok and I kind of felt happy that I actually did something – that I didn’t just lock up and freeze. And then, I called my parents to say “I love you”. I was pretty traumatized, to be honest. I am pretty sure that I went home and cried.”

People experience trauma in different ways. For example, some re-experience the trauma itself, have nightmares, get bouts of anger and sadness, experience dissociation and even PTSD. Mike did not experience many negative consequences of this event although, at the time, he expressed sadness. That resonated for me. Sadness and disbelief along with dissociation were what I’d experienced.

Research has shown that dissociation is common after trauma, especially when extreme physiological arousal is present. Most who experience dissociation feel a sense of detachment from their lives. For me, dissociation provided some emotional distance, a buffer to protect myself from the overwhelming emotions that accompany something so tragic.

There are many unique challenges to overcome when faced with a traumatic experience and for some, it becomes a lifelong journey. In some ways, I feel fortunate because for me, facing my mortality was a wake-up call, one that encouraged me to try to live a more authentic and meaningful life. Mike shared similar thoughts:

“I will never forget that day, it was a pretty defining moment. It reminded me that you have one chance at life, and you never know when things are going to go bad. You can be safe your entire life – not fly on planes, be careful on buses, wear your seat belt, don’t do drugs, don’t drink – and you end up in a park one day and a tree falls on you. It just opened my eyes and made me realize life is short, so why not just make the best of it?”

A few months after the event, Toronto police presented Mike Lee with an award for his actions. Mike’s mother accepted it on his behalf, as he had already moved to Japan to start a new business. He had previously quit his job, as the incident led him to re-evaluate his life. Mike explained:

“If there is anything I would want as a message coming from me is for people to really reassess their beliefs and what they are holding onto as the most important things in their life.”

 -Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


When Vicarious Trauma Victims Suffer From PTSD

00Anxiety, Compassion Fatigue, Environment, Featured news, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Trauma October, 19

Source: Charli Forrester, Used with Permission

Prolonged exposure to stress can have devastating effects on mental health. In fact, neuroscientists have found that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in the brain’s structure and functioning, making people more prone to mental illnesses such as anxiety, mood disorders, and in particular, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Typically, we associate PTSD with “shell shock”, war veterans, or assault survivors; and we are not wrong about this. But what we sometimes miss is that trauma exists in many forms, stretching way beyond these limits.

Amy Rolfes is an American retired middle school special education teacher and former Executive Director at an American-founded orphanage in Johannesburg, South Africa.  Located in one of South Africa’s poorest neighbourhoods, Amy witnessed extreme violence and corruption. Gang violence, murder, and rape were just a few of the realities. This was all new to Amy, who often found herself in survival mode.

Upon returning home from Johannesburg, South Africa, Amy found her mental health was now severely affected. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, she says:

“For the first two years that I was back from South Africa I absolutely was affected by my trauma; I was debilitated, but I couldn’t identify it and no one else could either.”

Amy felt disoriented and struggled to understand the roots of her pain. She experienced flashbacks and had trouble sleeping for months. She remembers a friend suggesting she might be suffering from PTSD.

“I remember that moment so clearly because I threw my hands up in the air and said ‘for God’s sake I wasn’t in Vietnam!’” But Amy started to consider that maybe her friend was right.

It’s common for trauma survivors to minimize their psychological suffering. Some internalize or brush off symptoms. This happened to Amy.  She would ask herself why it was so hard to cope.

A study on PSTD symptoms in 9-1-1 dispatchers shows how wide-reaching trauma can be: It’s not even necessary to be physically present during a traumatic event or even personally know the victim for the event to adversely affect mental health. Vicarious trauma can be as overwhelming as experiencing the situation first-hand.

As Amy explains:

“That’s the part that I am most worried about. People are going over and doing this good work and they are becoming traumatized. They are experiencing trauma and they are hiding it because of shame, and because of not even understanding. If you don’t come home assaulted, or with your arm chopped off, everybody says ‘you’re fine’; and so I kept telling myself ‘no, I’m fine.’”

Amy believed her distress was “less-than” the distress of those who’d experienced trauma first-hand. But the effects of vicarious trauma were debilitating. She contacted the Headington Institute, an online training-centre that partners with humanitarian relief and emergency responders. It provides support, resources, and coping strategies for those who have experienced traumatic stress and vicarious trauma during and after deployment. After reaching out to them, Amy felt as though she was not alone anymore.

“Now, I clearly see that it was as if my entire body was on fire, flames of trauma shooting out.”

Through therapy and writing about her experiences, Amy found recovery. She says the writing process helped her to let go of the disturbing memories and allowed her to distance herself from the trauma.

Amy says:

“It is a sense of peace, after recovering from this trauma, understanding it, learning about it, even re-telling the stories, I really do feel a sense of peace. I feel that there is trauma and crazy things that happen in this world, but nonetheless, everything happens for a reason. I am a lot more accepting, and a lot more forgiving. I feel a deeper sense of self.”.

–Emma Bennett, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Integrated Classrooms Fail Teachers and Students

00ADHD, Cognition, Confidence, Education, Featured news, Self-Esteem September, 19

Source: Ryan McGuire at Gratisography, some rights reserved

Sharon (name changed), an elementary school teacher in London, England, taught a challenging class last year. Out of a large group of 30 students, three were diagnosed with autism, one with dyspraxia, three with ADHD, and two with ODD. Despite her 25 years of experience, she felt stressed balancing the needs of these students with the needs of the class as a whole, and almost resigned from her position. 

Many teachers can identify. Students with special needs are often placed with teachers who have received no training or resources to help. This occurs in schools that have welcomed students with disabilities, but are not yet fully inclusive. Schools like this are said to be integrated. 

According to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in an integrated school, students with special needs are placed in existing educational systems. In contrast, inclusion involves making changes to the entire system to allow all students to have access to a learning environment that best suits their needs. These accommodations can range from specially formatted worksheets to in-class tutors to special technologies. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities states:

“Placing students with disabilities in mainstream classes without appropriate structural changes to, for example, organization, curriculum and teaching and learning strategies does not constitute inclusion.”

Many schools fail to provide teachers with appropriate resources. And teachers’ training programs do not sufficiently prepare teachers for working with students with special needs. The lack of support places significant stress on teachers who struggle with the dual challenges of educating a large class and catering to each student’s individual needs.  In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Josee (name changed), an elementary school teacher in Ontario, said:

“It’s stressful. It’s a lot, especially because I have big classes… and they are two different grades…There are times when I just feel very overwhelmed.”

And it’s not just teachers who are stressed, students are affected as well. Tammy (name changed), who teaches elementary school in Berkley, California, said in an interview that she has observed students suffering self-esteem issues due to their needs not being met in the classroom. In her words:

“It’s heartbreaking to see a child that just has no confidence in their own abilities because they aren’t able to do the work they see their peers doing. It’s a vicious cycle too, they can’t do the work so they check out, and then they fall even farther behind. I try my best to celebrate and make visible some kind of success that child has had, whether it’s social or physical or artistic or whatever, just to give them a more positive self-image, but it’s a really hard thing to spend every day struggling to understand what’s happening around you.”

According to the CDC, in the United States, 15% of children ages 3 to 17 have a neurodevelopmental disability; this includes all developmental disorders, learning and intellectual disabilities, and motor and language disorders. The number of children in the same age group with mental, emotional, or behavioural disorders is estimated at 13% to 20%. These students often require individualized learning and attention within the classroom.  

However, without adequate training or resources, teachers find it difficult to give students the help they need. Rebecca (name changed), an Ontario elementary school teacher  explained in an interview:

No teacher knows exactly what to do with each kid and each diagnosis. Yes, there’s accommodations for academics, but it’s not always the academics that needs help, it’s the behaviour, it’s the self-esteem, it’s their growth, their confidence.

To better help their students, teachers require additional training on how to work with students with various disabilities, as well as assistants or co-teachers in the classroom to share the load. Other resources include technologies to better help students and the ability to consult with specialists. With these resources, schools can take the final steps towards become fully inclusive.

And, in schools that have successfully adopted a philosophy of inclusion, the benefits are significant. In a study conducted by Thomas Hehir, Professor of practice in learning differences at Harvard University:

“There is clear and consistent evidence that inclusive educational settings can confer substantial short- and long-term benefits for students with and without disabilities.”

Schools should keep working toward their goals of inclusion to create classrooms where both students and teachers are given the tools they need to succeed. 

-Roselyn Gishen, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


The Hidden Struggles of Animal Rescue Workers

00Animal Behavior, Depression, Featured news, Resilience, Suicide, Trauma September, 19

Source: 12019 at Pixabay, Creative Commons

During the civil war in Syria, veterinary surgeon Amir Khalil from the charity organization Four Paws International, travelled to Aleppo to rescue surviving zoo animals. Before the war began, the zoo was home to around 300 animals, yet by July 2017 only 13 remained. After months of intense negotiations with the Syrian and Turkish governments, local factions and warlords, and two dangerous rescue missions later, Khalil managed to save all 13 animals. Prior to this rescue, Khalil had rescued animals from conflict zones in Libya, Gaza and Iraq. 

When tragedy strikes, most people think about the potential harm done to human lives. However, many care deeply about animals and are willing to put their lives at risk to save them. In fact, during Hurricane Katrina, of those who did not evacuate their homes, 44% did so because they did not want to abandon their pets.  

Research has even shown that there are some circumstances in which people chose to save pets over humans. One study showed that 40% of people chose to save their own pet over a foreign tourist. Another study showed that when presented with a fictional news story, people cared more about crimes involving dogs and children than adults. A possible reason for this surprising finding was likely due to the vulnerable nature of animals. In fact Khalil felt compelled to rescue many animals in the past simply because the zoo animals were dependent on humans. In an interview with The Telegraph, he explained: 

“Humans have the option to escape, but animals caged in a zoo don’t have this option. It was humans who brought animals to these places. They cannot speak, they have no political agenda, but they are messengers from the darkness, they bring hope.”

Other animal rescue workers express similar sentiments. Darren Grandel, Deputy Chief of the investigations department at the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, explained in an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) that the most difficult part of his enforcement work is witnessing innocents being harmed: 

“The animals, all the time, are the innocents. It’s not that they’ve chosen to engage in a type of activity that can harm them. The humans have done it to them. So a lot of the time you’re seeing innocent animals being harmed, sometimes in very horrific ways, in ways that you couldn’t imagine someone hurting another living thing. It can be very, very traumatic.”

When working on rescuing  animals such as in the wake of a natural disaster, a similar type of trauma can be experienced.  In a TMHR interview, Miranda Spindel, a veterinarian with 19 years of experience, including a decade with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals explained:

“On deployment, you are typically away from home and often working in conditions that are less than ideal. Sometimes, there are animal owners as well as animals involved, who may have experienced very stressful and emotionally challenging situations and require skilled and compassionate care, too. Often the work is physically as well as mentally challenging.”

Animal rescue work, though important, severely affects the mental health of these individuals. Humanitarian aid workers and first responders report high rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD. Animal rescue workers occupy similar roles, rescuing and proving aid to animals in distress and likely experience similar mental health problems. And, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, those in protective service occupations, including animal control workers, have the highest rate of suicide, at 5.3 per million workers. 

Veterinarians and others individuals who work with animals also experience high rates of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious traumatization, refers to stress symptoms that result from providing care and empathy to humans or animals in distress. 

Janice Hannah, Campaign Manager of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Northern Dog Project described one such experience in a TMHR interview:

“I remember visiting a rural shelter. The dogs were literally stuck in a poop filled fence, cold, wet and hungry. That was the end of shelter work for me – I had been to so many similar shelters around the world and am reminded of the sadness felt in those situations. Though those feelings dissipate over time, it never goes fully away. You end up building up more and more sadness and discomfort around all the animals that you see but can’t make a tangible difference about the circumstance. 

There are some programs in place, such as support groups and internal services within organizations to help animal rescue workers recover from trauma. Yet, more needs to be done to better help individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping animals. Increased peer support and open communication without fear of stigma are required to better help individuals with mental health problems. Spindel emphasizes that preventative measures are equally important:  

“Whether or not workers are suffering from mental health issues, the circumstances are generally enough, in my opinion, that mental health services and resources should be made available as a matter of routine. Trained support during the deployment – or even before – not just debriefing afterward – seems critical to building resiliency for this type of work.”

From enforcement officers to veterinarians, many different professionals work selflessly to rescue innocent animals from harm. With greater support services, these individuals will be better able to cope with the stresses of their job, enabling them to better help animals in need.  

-Roselyn Gishen, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Post-Secondary School and Homelessness

00Depression, Education, Featured news, Loneliness, Productivity, Sleep August, 19

Source: liborius at Flickr, some rights reserved

Under the ivy-covered walls of many universities lies a disturbing phenomenon: homelessness. Many find it incomprehensible that homelessness would exist in these spaces, but it does. A study by Michael Sulkowski shows that student homelessness is growing at an “unprecedented rate,” with 1 million affected. Rising tuition costs, coupled with a higher cost of living, makes it unlikely that student homelessness will be resolved any time soon. 

In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Maya (name changed for anonymity), a fourth-year psychology major, explained what it was like living as a homeless university student:

“I would search for empty lecture halls to sleep in. I would adjust my sleep schedule by sleeping during the daytime and remaining awake at night, because it was much safer to do so.”

“I would carry my bags with me, which contained all of my belongings. Classmates and friends would ask me why I was always carrying my stuff around, but I was hesitant to tell them that I was homeless. I was afraid and ashamed of my living situation and did not want anyone to know. I was afraid that people would judge me and believe that I was to blame for my homelessness,”

When at school, Maya said that it was hard to focus on her studies and practice self-care, as her homelessness took top priority:

“I would try to do everything in my power to not bring attention to myself. I would not ask questions in class, and I would avoid making friends with other classmates. I felt sub-human and inferior. I found myself deteriorating both physically and mentally. My hair began to turn grey and greasy, my skin was pale, and my mental health was in shambles. I was so focused on my homelessness that my grades also began to suffer.”

Eventually, things got a little better for Maya, as she found a temporary place to stay:

“One of my friends was a student executive for a women’s advocacy club on-campus, and she told me that I could use the office to sleep. It was a relief because I was given food, menstrual pads, and tampons, as well as a place to sleep. It really helped me to get back on my feet.”

Why does homelessness among university students seem to be an invisible issue? Stephen Gaetz, director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and Professor at York University explained this issue in an interview with CBC News Toronto: 

“The hidden homeless is a much different population compared to the homeless population that is seen in emergency shelters. Student homelessness is often overlooked because they pull all-nighters in school, take showers in the gym, and sleep on the couches.”

According to Sulkowski’s study, youth homelessness receives less economic resources compared to adult homelessness. Youth who experience homelessness encounter several barriers to their academic success and well-being, leaving them vulnerable. One barrier that Maya had to overcome was difficulty accessing on-campus resources:

“When I tried to access counseling services, the first thing they asked me was my address. I did not have one, so I used my mother’s address instead. Something as simple as an address was a large issue for me, which isn’t something that we think about too often.”

“But even when I tried getting help for my living situation, I was given the run-around. I would call one service, and they would refer me to another one. I honestly felt like no one cared and wanted to help me, so I stopped asking for help.”

And Maya’s story is not unique. Recently, one student at the University of Alberta shared his experience with homelessness, explaining that he “slept in parks or near malls” and would find himself “frequently accessing the university food bank.” Despite the number of anecdotes regarding student homelessness, there is no national approximation for the number of post-secondary students facing homelessness in Canada, and university-specific data are not currently available.

I asked Maya what she believed post-secondary institutions should do to address the growing issue of student homelessness, given her own experience:

“Firstly, I think that campuses should have services that allow students who are homeless to access these resources without having to provide sensitive personal information. Secondly, having a kitchen on-campus stocked with food so students can prepare their own meals. Oftentimes the food that is provided by the school’s food bank is not accessible because you need a fridge or stove in order to eat it.”

Student homelessness is a problem that goes unseen. For many who experience it, they resist speaking out for fear of being shamed by their circumstances and ridiculed by others. 

—Zeinab Mohamed, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

—Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


When a subway passenger dies by suicide, workers suffer too

00Featured news, Mental Health, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, Trauma, Work August, 19

Source: Lily Banse at Unsplash, Creative Commons

In an article in a Canadian daily, The Globe and Mail, Oliver Moore reported that during 2016, 21 suicide attempts occurred on Toronto’s subway system. In fact, a study published by the Journal of Urban Health considers suicide on subway platforms to be a public health issue.

Subway delays by attempted suicide not only affect passengers, the victims and their families, but drivers as well. Subway workers and drivers who have witnessed a suicide have been reported to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Research suggests that those exposed to human-generated traumatic events have a greater chance of developing PTSD.   In an interview with Vice Magazine, psychologist Wilfried Echterhoff discussed the long-lasting psychological trauma workers face when confronted with a death on the worksite:

“Some people have never been confronted with death before…To suddenly be confronted with it in such a violent way can lead to PTSD or a serious depression.”

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Robert (name changed), a retired subway worker with over 30 years of experience, described an incident he faced while working: 

“One Saturday afternoon maybe around 11:00 a.m. or 12:00 p.m., I witnessed a lady jump off the subway platform. I needed to go upstairs and tell my supervisor and my supervisor told me that my face was all white. They kicked everyone out and only the police and ambulance were allowed to come in.” 

Nik Douglas, a train driver who worked for the Northallerton subway station in the UK, noted in an interview with The Independent:   

“When I was on my own I’d burst into tears for no reason, I found sleep hard and I’d have flashbacks during the night and day. I could be in a room full of people with a really good party atmosphere but feel alone and isolated. That’s one of the biggest things I remember, feeling alone… It changed my life instantly from who I was to what I have become. Some people aren’t affected, but two years after it happened I’m still not the same person.”

In deciding what was best for his mental health, Nik took six months off work to deal with his PTSD. Recent studies suggest that in Canada, 6.5% of subway workers have been absent from work due to witnessing suicides while working. Last November, this rate was at its highest with 7.44% of employees absent. Some employees are unable to return to work altogether and opt to receive compensation from their employers.

Nik experienced intrusive distress and feelings of isolation. Kevin, a 39-year-old subway driver expressed his feeling of being responsible for the suicide of a man:

“When he looked at me and our eyes met, time just stood still. It felt like driving your car over railroad tracks, that rumbling feeling you get … I realized then that I just killed somebody.”  

In his years of working at the subway, Robert explained the brief protocol subway workers go through once they have witnessed a suicide:

“The subway drivers have to talk to the police after that happens. They always have to stay and give a statement. Then they’re taken off duty for that day. Then they get sent home or to counselling. It depends on what the driver wants to do. It just started recently in the last five or six years.  The company asks if the drivers want to speak to someone.”

Effective suicide preventions have been created to decrease the suicide rate in subway stations and increase safety. Subway stations in Tokyo have implemented glass doors that open for passengers to board the subway only once it has arrived in the station. Other preventions put in place are blue lights and mirrors set up to discourage suicide attempts. In London and Paris, these forms of preventions have been effective too. 

In addition, intervention programs, including the Gatekeeper Program, exist for those who are feeling suicidal.  However, interventions put in place for subway workers who experience suicides are rare. Most workers deal with the effect of these experiences on their own. In Robert’s words:

“If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen.  There’s nothing you can do. They don’t tell you this can happen or that can happen.  They won’t tell you what can happen when you sign up for this job.  They don’t tell you that workers deal with this.  They don’t train you how to deal with it.  They won’t ever tell you what to expect even when training people.”

Social support is argued to be one of the most powerful factors in recovering from PTSD and is known to decrease risk for depression, foster resilience, and reduce stress in those who have experienced traumatic events.  Mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy has shown to reduce stress and increase recovery in those with PTSD.  

Lucia Chiara Limanni, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


Universities Can Do Better To Help with Mental Illness

00Anxiety, Attention, Emotion Regulation, Featured news, Social Life, Stress August, 19

Source: Filip Bunkens at Unsplash

A good friend of mine, Jessica (name changed), was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in September of 2017, the same year she enrolled in university. And, as is the case with many other mental illnesses, her anxiety took over her life.  

Post-secondary students all over the world face mental illnesses that affect their schooling.  Research done at the University of Alberta suggests that half of the student population felt “overwhelming anxiety” within the past 12 months of attending university. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Jessica shares her experience dealing with anxiety at school as a “feeling of constant worrying that goes away only when she leaves class”.  

After taking some time to review her current situation, Jessica dropped out of school. Psychologist Martin Antony, professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, and author of the Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook discussed the impairment those with anxiety-related disorders can experience:  

  “It is not uncommon for people with especially high levels of anxiety to drop out of school completely or take a leave of absence from school.”

Despite this fact, there has been little research on the relationship between anxiety and quitting school. One study found that out of 201 individuals with anxiety disorders, 49% dropped out of school, with 24% of dropouts attributing their decision to their anxiety. These students often struggle with going back to school and completing their degrees. The main hindrance Jessica faces is the delay in receiving her degree:

“The art program has specialized studio classes where they teach pottery, photography, sculpting, painting, stone carving, things like that. I don’t know how long it’s going to delay my schooling.”

Without being physically present in these classes, Jessica fails to complete her degree requirements.  Inevitably, this puts her behind in finishing her typical four-year degree.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests that accommodations can help alleviate anxiety experience at school. In the U.S., students have the right under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to request accommodations such as writing in alternative exam rooms, or receiving longer time for exams.  

However, these accommodations are quite general, and may do more harm than good. Clinical psychologist, Anu Asnaani, at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania explains the importance of meeting the needs of each student. As anxiety and depression based disorders require specialty interventions, Asnaani believes that school administered accommodations will not treat them.

Similarly, Martin Antony agrees that accommodations recommended by schools may help maintain anxiety rather than help students overcome it:

“One of the most powerful ways of overcoming a fear of being around others is to practice being around others. However, accommodations may run counter to this idea by isolating students. Accommodations such as these may help people to feel more comfortable in the short term, but they may also interfere with overcoming fear in the long term.”

Jessica recalls her experience with the counselling and disability service at her university as unhelpful. She received accommodations of lecture notes, a seat with an empty chair on each side of her, the ability to sit close to the back of the room, and alternative exam testing. Yet, none of these accommodations helped reduce her anxiety.

Regarding counselling, disability, and student wellness centers across all post-secondary institutions, Asnaani recommends: 

“If the techniques and therapy that the counselling centers at school administer are not working for the students, then being able to make a referral to community partners is important.  Other resources that students can look at for help or finding a suitable therapist are the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies and Anxiety and Depression Association of America.” 

Inevitably, Jessica enrolled in online classes to slowly continue working towards the completion of her degree. However, this isn’t always a solution, especially for individuals in hands-on programs, such as art. For Jessica, the online classes helped eliminate her anxiety.  She is now able to work on her course work in the comfort of her own home. 

Anxiety therapies often teach their patients how to be their own therapist. When asked about mechanisms students learn in therapy, Asnaani and Antony agree that exposing yourself to the feared situation over time and cognitive-behavioural therapies can help reduce anxiety in students.  

For Jessica, the experience has been life changing.  She often wishes that she had received more support from her school and offers this piece of advice to others in similar situations:

“Take things step by step, you and your well-being are the most important. It’s okay to take time for yourself and there is no rush to finish school. There are other routes to take if you are unable to attend classes, such as taking online classes like I’ve been doing. You are not alone in this situation and there are always people to talk to and resources available to you, whether at the school or even online.”

Fortunately, for Jessica, online classes enabled her to complete some of her first-year elective courses. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of adequate tailored accommodations for post-secondary students experiencing mental disorders preventing them from gaining the education they need for their future careers.

– Lucia Chiara Limanni, Contributing Writer , The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today


What Happens After Children Are Freed From Captivity?

00Caregiving, Cognition, Depression, Embarrassment, Featured news, Law and Crime, Shyness, Trauma July, 19

Source: James Sutton, creative commons

On occasion, we hear of extreme cases of child abuse, making family names like the Turpins infamous.

The 13 Turpin children were held captive in their house, where they were limited to only one meal a day and one shower a year. Twelve of the children were subject to extreme physical abuse, and one suffered from sexual abuse. The eldest child, who was 29 years old, weighed only 82 pounds.

Cases like these often publicize legal proceedings and atrocities committed by the parents, but disregard what happens to these children—the victims— in the aftermath. 

Research on children held captive is sparse, however, there are some studies of other high-profile cases where children suffered extreme deprivation. A well-known one is Genie, a child who was isolated in a small bedroom where she was strapped to a toilet seat during the day, or trapped in a crib with wire covering. She received absolutely no stimulation and was only fed infant food. 

When Genie was found at age 13, she was unable to perform basic functions, such as chewing, biting, standing or walking. She spent years trying to learn to speak but was unable to acquire language fully or normally. After years of testing by psychologists and physicians, her mother forbade further assessment of Genie, and she is now living in the care of the state of California.

Maude Julien, a psychotherapist from France who herself was subjected to captivity by her parents, now treats patients who are victims of trauma. In an interview with The Trauma and Mental Health Report, Maude describes her experiences growing up.

“For about 15 years, I practically never went out. I never went to school; my mother was my home-school teacher. My father wanted to create a superhuman, uncorrupted by this world,” Maude said. “I had to undergo a ‘training of the mind’ in order to become this ‘superhuman.’ He wanted me to believe that the world outside was terrible.”

Maude described the effects of severe trauma caused and explained her recovery process.

“I had to learn the simplest, most basic social conventions like speaking to strangers or finding my way around. Above all, I had to learn how to talk, because my long periods of forced silence had made me almost mute,” Maude said.

“Even though I was learning all this, I was still imprisoned behind the ‘gates’ of conditioning. I could still hear in my head, day and night, the tick-tock of my father timing everything,” she said.

Maude described her recovery as the need to “free herself from the mental and emotional hold” she was under. It took her more than ten years to overcome the consequences of her imprisonment.

Maude explains how reading, and connecting with animals and other people helped her cope with trauma. She attributes her ability to get out of the house to her music teacher and describes her second husband’s parents as an instrumental part in helping her mature.

“I was 24 when I met them and they helped the child inside me grow up. I felt unconditional parental love for the first time; it’s one of the greatest gifts in the world,” Maude said.

Children who have been held captive by a relative often think they deserve it and live with a heavy feeling of shame and guilt. 

“It’s usually shame that prevents victims from seeking help,” Maude said. “They have also a feeling of isolation, because a predator like my father, makes the victim believe that he alone can love and protect them.”

Children reported in these high-profile cases may feel guilty for having “betrayed” their parents, yet may also feel relief for having escaped. She describes living with this duality as being very “painful.”

“They will have to free themselves from the ‘psychological leash’ imposed by their predator,” Maude said. “They will have to learn how to trust certain people, and they will have to learn how to recognize other predators and stay away from them. Most of all, they have to learn how to trust themselves.”

—Amanda Piccirilli, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. Muller, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

-Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today