Category: Loneliness

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In Post-Secondary School and Homeless

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

Source: liborius at Flickr, some rights reserved

Under the concrete, 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 counselling 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

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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

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Solitary confinement offers no prep for the outside.

10Anxiety, Environment, Featured news, Loneliness, Social Life, Social Networking March, 19

Source: Solnovi at DeviantArt, Creative Commons

Ryan Pettigrew is a Colorado native who spent eight years of a 12-year prison sentence in solitary confinement. Struggling with bipolar disorder as a teen, he was abandoned by his parents and left homeless. On the streets, Pettigrew turned to drug trafficking to survive, and was eventually indicted on assault and drug charges. His resulting incarceration led to time in prison isolation for fighting with another inmate.

Solitary confinement is the practice of keeping a prisoner apart from the general population of a correctional facility. Prisoners spend up to 23 hours per day in their cell alone, deprived of both environmental and social stimulation. The majority of Colorado inmates in isolation have a mental illness.

In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Pettigrew said:

“For the most part, solitary in Colorado is 24-hour lockdown. I went eight years without seeing sunlight, without human contact. Without anything.”

Cells vary widely, even within North America. Some cells include a bed, toilet, and television. Others contain no furnishings and a bucket or hole for use as a toilet. Not surprisingly, the United Nations (UN) states that placing a person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment, and is tantamount to torture.

Partly due to pressure from the UN, both American and Canadian governments have expressed intentions to reduce the use of isolation in correctional facilities. Pettigrew believes that this change is long overdue, stating in another interview that solitary confinement exacerbated his bipolar disorder. He claims that this type of prisoner abuse often leads to anti-social behaviour after incarceration, rather than to rehabilitation:

“My message to the public is: regardless of how you feel about criminals, most of them get out [of prison], and public safety requires they be released prepared to become productive citizens rather than angry and ignorant. I’m not asking for sympathy, just a rational win-win solution.”

Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist from Harvard Medical School, spent much of his career researching the impact of solitary confinement. His findings show that it produces a distinct psychiatric condition. Symptoms include hypersensitivity to external stimulation, hallucinations, panic attacks, problems with thinking or memory, intrusive and obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and impulsivity.

Pettigrew experienced many of these symptoms himself:

“The first six months to about a year [in isolation] was really hard. It felt like the walls were closing in. I would have panic attacks and start hyperventilating.”

In a recent PBS documentary, Last Days of Solitary, Grassian stated:

“One of the important clinical findings in solitary confinement is that people deprived of an adequate level of stimulation become intolerant of stimulation. They overreact; they become hyper-responsive to it, and they can’t stand it.”

Upon being released, Pettigrew found that he was not the same person he used to be. Before his incarceration, he was outgoing and loved to socialize. Afterward, he no longer enjoyed being around people and moved to the countryside to avoid contact:

“I get overly stimulated very quickly. Just too much going on drives me crazy. My first week out, I locked myself in my brother’s basement. That’s why I like the country. There are not all the noises and lights.”

In an interview with PBS, Grassian also explained that the brains of people who are exposed to extended periods of isolation show greater activity in response to external stimuli, compared to those who haven’t.

In light of these findings, some U.S. prisons, including Maine State Prison, are reducing their dependence on this type of punishment. The prison’s warden Rodney Bouffard said in the PBS documentary that every effort should be made to reintegrate prisoners into the jail’s general population. He believes that keeping them in isolation is harmful:

“Putting them in confinement and forgetting about them is going to make them worse. There’s no question in my mind. If I have someone who comes in with a five-year sentence, you can have them do their whole time in segregation. But I wouldn’t want them living next to me when they release them.”

Instead, Maine State Prison’s program teaches inmates to resolve conflicts without violence and to control their actions and emotions. Between 2011 and 2017, Maine State Prison successfully reduced the number of inmates held in solitary confinement from 100 to 8. And now over 30 other state prisons are attempting solitary reforms.

It may not be possible to eliminate solitary confinement immediately, but reducing its use is in the best interest of prisoners and the public.

– Stefano Costa, 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

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What Can Minimalism do for Mental Health?

00Consumer Behavior, Featured news, Gratitude, Happiness, Health, Loneliness, Mindfulness, Sensation-Seeking February, 19

Source: Torley at flickr, Creative Commons

Ryan Nicodemus was once a senior executive making a six-figure income in a corporate job. He found himself unsatisfied with his life and depressed. He explains:

“I had everything I ever wanted. I had everything I was supposed to have. Everyone around me said, ‘you’re successful.’ But really, I was miserable.”

He looked to his life-long friend Joshua Fields Millburn for advice. Millburn pointed him toward Minimalism, namely, placing less focus and meaning on material possessions, and simplifying life to concentrate on what makes a person happiest and most fulfilled.

Nicodemus re-evaluated his circumstances and decided to de-clutter and downsize, leaving his career to pursue a life of simplicity. Together, he and Millburn branded themselves “The Minimalists.” The two attribute improved mental health to this change.

These experiences are detailed in their film Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things where they also reveal their difficult upbringings. Both Nicodemus and Millburn witnessed addiction and substance abuse in their families. They faced the limitations that come with living in low-income households. Their challenging pasts initially led them to aspire to acquiring wealth and material objects.

Rick Hanson, a psychologist whose work lies in personal well-being, states in the film:

“I think we’re confused about what’s going to make us happy. Many people think the material possessions are really at the center of the bull’s eye and they expect that gratifying each desire as it arises will somehow summate into a satisfying life.”

He goes on to say that this is not the case, and that the media perpetuate this way of thinking.

In the film, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris argues that it is natural to use other’s lives or what’s in the media as yardsticks to measure one’s own success. He adds that this approach can lead to immense dissatisfaction.

Research seems to back up Harris’ claim. Mario Pandelaere of Ghent University cites a relationship between materialism and depression. Further, Pandelaere has found that “materialists” are, on average, not the happiest people.

In fact, Rik Pieters of Tilburg University has established a link between materialism and an increase in loneliness over time, and also reports a correlation between loneliness and depression.

And, there is support that materialistic consumption doesn’t lead to satisfaction.

The Minimalists advocate tackling materialism and consumption to fight depression. They describe excess consumption as a hunger that never gets fulfilled, and as a hopeless search for contentment. They say that, when letting go of the need to consume, people can tune in to their feelings and address unhappiness. Nicodemus and Millburn note:

“No matter how much stuff we buy, it’s never enough.”The two maintain that, if people abandon what is superfluous and only keep the items that add value, they can lead more satisfying lives. By regularly asking “Does this add value to my life?”, people are left with possessions that either serve a purpose or bring joy. Nicodemus and Millburn claim that answering this question leaves more room to build meaningful relationships and facilitate personal growth.

Not everyone agrees. With increased attention on Minimalism and de-cluttering in the news, there is some backlash to the movement. Many people are asking “How accessible is Minimalism? Is it something only for the wealthy elite?”

Most cannot afford to uproot their lives or leave their jobs to engage in a Minimalist lifestyle. Also, the portrayals of Minimalism so often seen on social media—images of chic white walls and trendy delicate jewelry—are far from attainable. Some people even say that they like having lots of knick-knacks and “clutter”, opting to call themselves “Maximalists.”

In his discussion of materialism, Pandelaere says:

“Everybody is to some extent materialistic, and materialistic consumption may not necessarily be bad. It may largely depend on the motives for it. If people consume in an effort to impress others, results may be adverse.”

– Fernanda de la Mora, 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

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For Mentally Ill, Jail Diversion Program Gives Second Chance

30Featured news, Health, Law and Crime, Loneliness, Politics, Psychiatry, Psychopathy March, 18

Source: octopusdevon at flickr, Creative Commons

On February 8, 2015, Natasha McKenna—a 37-year-old who suffered from mental illness—died following an incident in which she was tasered four times by law enforcement.

After a week-long delay in transporting her to a county jail in Virginia, where she would be provided with mental-health resources, she became agitated. In an effort to regain control, officers used a stun gun on her multiple times. Despite CPR to revive her, McKenna passed away shortly after.

McKenna had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and depression when she was just fourteen. Her case highlights a growing issue in county jails and prisons across America: resources are scarce for offenders with mental illness.

In 1992, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group released a report revealing alarmingly high numbers of people with serious mental illness incarcerated in the United States. The subsequent 2002 report showed that little had changed in the preceding ten years.

But shortly after McKenna’s death in 2015, Fairfax County Jail—where she had been held—created a Jail Diversion Program (JDP). The objective of this program is to divert low-risk offenders in mental-health crises to treatment rather than send them to a prison setting that exacerbates their symptoms.

JDPs are designed so that authorities, alongside certified crisis clinicians, have the capacity to decide whether a non-violent offender who suffers from a mental disorder is directed to a JDP where they can receive treatment, or is arrested. JDPs give offenders the opportunity to work with a trained mental-health clinician, ultimately transforming how resources are provided.

Sarah Abbot, the program director of Advocates—a JDP in Massachusetts that works with the Framingham Police Department—believes that JDPs are crucial in early intervention for mentally ill offenders.

During an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Abbot explained:

“JDP’s effectively divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system, and have been shown to be successful in the prevention of unnecessary arrests for those who suffer with a mental illness. Police choose to transfer offenders to JDPs 75% of the time.”

Abbot believes that early intervention via JDPs is key to preventing those with a mental illness from reoffending. In 12 years of operation, Advocates has successfully diverted 15,000 individuals from the criminal justice system into treatment.

During calls related to misdemeanors, police respond to the scene with a JDP clinician. After consulting the clinician, the officers use their discretion, along with information from victims and bystanders, to decide whether or not to press charges. Alternatively, the officer can choose to secure treatment for the offending individual at a JDP.

In the latter case, the clinician performs an assessment to determine if the offender meets the criteria for inpatient care. If so, they are diverted from arrest and placed in a local mental-health facility where they receive intensive treatment through the support of counsellors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

The purpose of JDPs is to de-escalate encounters with mentally ill offenders and create a cooperative environment for assessing the situation. Abbot views their contribution as a form of compassionate justice:

“If we can keep mentally ill individuals out of the criminal justice system, their lives will ultimately be better by default. How much better depends on the quality of the treatment they receive and the individual’s commitment to success.”

The literature on JDPs suggests that placing these individuals in treatment programs within their community, where they have the support of family and friends, inevitably results in lower rates of relapse in comparison to incarceration.

Abbot believes that JDPs are vital in keeping individuals away from the isolation of a jail cell:

“My hope is that we divert people like Natasha McKenna into proper treatment, because once they are in a cell, things can escalate quite quickly.”

If somebody with a mental illness has an arrest on their record, JDPs keep doors open to them for education, employment, and housing. JDPs have the potential to protect individuals like McKenna, and provide offenders suffering from mental illness with a second chance at living stable lives post-arrest.

–Nonna Khakpour, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report.

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report.

Copyright Robert T. Muller.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Staffing Shortage Underserves Long Term Care Residents

10Aging, Cognition, Dementia, Featured news, Health, Loneliness, Social Life February, 17

Source: Chris Marchant on flickr, Creative Commons

In the summer of 2014, I volunteered at a long-term care facility (LTC) in the Peel Region of Southern Ontario. Most of the residents who lived there were diagnosed with some form of cognitive impairment, primarily dementia. I saw first-hand the unfortunate reality of understaffing, and how it leads to deficits in patient care.

As the elderly population has grown, Ontario has seen a 22% increase in admission rates of LTC residents as of 2014. And the number of residents with cognitive impairments is especially high. According to the Ontario Long Term Care Association’s 2014 annual report, 62% of residents have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia resulting from stroke, developmental disability, or traumatic brain injury.

Patients with cognitive impairments may have other mental health disorders as well. The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) indicates that 25.9% of residents in Ontario long-term care homes have shown symptoms of depression through 2013 and 2014.

In my time volunteering at the LTC, I noticed that residents often refrained from socializing because they were unable to take part in events due to memory deterioration, speech issues, and physical ailments such as paralysis or arthritis. Most residents required staff to transport them from one place to another and though they worked hard to support residents, there were simply not enough staff to supervise these daily activities.

Jane (name changed for anonymity), the Supervisor of Activation at an LTC in the Peel Region, spoke to the Trauma and Mental Health Report about this issue. Jane is responsible for organizing activities that motivate elderly residents to engage in social interaction and improve cognitive well-being.

Jane agreed that one of the biggest challenges for LTCs is staffing:

“Year by year, the case load of different residents is increasing, but with such little funding we do not have enough staff to support their needs. If residents aren’t participating in daily events and activities, their cognitive functioning is negatively impacted.”

A University of Ottawa study found that between the years 2000 and 2010, over 60% of residents with multiple cognitive deficits lacked stimulating therapeutic activities and social support. It showed that while residents received sufficient assistance with physical needs, such as feeding and changing, cognitive functioning continued to worsen in areas like memory and attention.

Jane also explained that despite research emphasizing the importance of activities that are engaging, staffing shortages make it difficult for these activities to be held in LTC homes:

“We need more activation staff for art therapy, music therapy and physiotherapy as these activities are beneficial to residents’ cognitive functioning. However, many activities are cancelled or postponed because of a lack of staff to facilitate the activities and monitor the residents. A few years ago, residents only needed one staff member or nurse for assistance, now they need two or more people. Sometimes, they’re left waiting for support.”

But perhaps the real issue here is funding. Adequate funds are necessary to increase the amount of staff within LTCs, so that residents can develop social relationships, participate in interactive activities, and improve their cognitive functioning and capabilities. Jane agrees:

“Funding hasn’t increased yet the resident conditions are changing and they require more care. The caseload is increasing, with little funding.”

Funding should also be allotted for appropriate staff training. LTC residents with cognitive impairments have a unique set of needs. According to the University of Ottawa study, residents require assistance in areas such as memory retention and engaging in regular social activities to help them interact and feel like recognized members of their community.

Making use of mental health first aid programs, such as the workshops offered atConestoga College and the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Geriatric Mental Health Serviceconference, can go a long way in improving the services staff provide.

As a past volunteer for an LTC home, I have seen the impact of limited support on residents’ lives. Greater funding and more staff to facilitate therapeutic activities are crucial to optimizing the care residents receive and to ensuring better cognitive functioning.

–Afifa Mahboob, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

–Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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Sexual Freedom: Only Part of the Equation for LGBTQ Refugees

20Anxiety, Embarrassment, Featured news, Loneliness, Resilience, Sexual Orientation, Stress July, 16

Source: Eric Constantineau on Flickr

Montgomry Danton is a gay man from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. In June 2014, he fled persecution in his home country to claim asylum in Canada because of his sexual orientation. By September 2014, he had been granted refugee status under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act of 2002.

Leading up to his official hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board, Danton experienced the fear and anxiety common to many LGBTQ asylum seekers. He reported feeling isolated and depressed, being unable to sleep or eat, and experiencing thoughts of suicide. At one point, Danton wanted to give up and return home to Saint Lucia, despite the danger this would have posed to his life.

One might imagine that after a successful refugee hearing, the difficult part would be over. It would be time to start building a new life in Canada. But for Danton, and others like him, the struggle to become established in a new country can be as stressful as the claims process itself. In an interview with the Trauma and Mental Health Report, Danton said:

“It was a relief to know I can actually stay in Canada to be who I really am and be comfortable with myself and also my sexuality. People think coming to Canada is a good thing, you know? But you have to prepare for challenges.”

Some challenges are broad, ranging from finding affordable housing, to gaining employment, to securing basic necessities like food and clothing. But others are more specific to individual circumstances, including language barriers and cultural unfamiliarity.

LGBTQ refugees, in particular, may continue to experience social isolation, perpetuating a sense of danger and persecution. Individuals who have undergone physical and emotional trauma may not be able to move past their experience and attain a sense of personal safety until they establish a support system in Canada.

For Danton, building a new life has been stressful, edging him back towards the depression he experienced during the refugee claims process, and before that, in Saint Lucia:

“There are certain times I just wish I was back home because if I was back home I would be comfortable living my life.”

He, like many others, has been struggling with the concept of ‘home.’

In Saint Lucia, Danton did personally meaningful work as an outreach officer for the LGBTQ organization, United and Strong, and lived with his partner. In Canada, he is unemployed, has moved four times since his arrival, and has been dependent on the assistance of acquaintances and friends.

“In Saint Lucia, if it was safe for me to be who I am, to show that I’m gay, I wouldn’t think about coming to Canada. I would have stayed.”

For Danton, and for other LGBTQ asylum seekers, safety, security, and freedom of expression are only a few aspects of a meaningful existence. As a refugee, he has had to sacrifice many other significant parts of his former life, which is a common tradeoff for many in his position.

And the choice between freedom of sexual expression and stable housing and employment is an unimaginably difficult one to make, as is the choice between safety from persecution and the comforting presence of friends and family back home.

Still, Danton emphasizes his gratitude and appreciation at being granted asylum. He is happy to feel safe, to be far from the persecution he experienced on a daily basis in Saint Lucia, to be accepted into a country like Canada where he hopes to reclaim his life.

“At the end of the day, I’m still grateful and I’m trying my best to not let the challenges get the best of me. I’m thinking about moving forward.”

– Sarah Hall, Contributing Writer, The Trauma and Mental Health Report

– Chief Editor: Robert T. MullerThe Trauma and Mental Health Report

Copyright Robert T. Muller

This article was originally published on Psychology Today

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At CAMH, Pet Therapy Helps Decrease Stigma

00Emotion Regulation, Featured news, Happiness, Law and Crime, Loneliness, Psychiatry, Therapy May, 16

Source: Ryan Faist, Used With Permission

When I tell others that I volunteer with my dog in a pet therapy program, they assume my work involves children or the elderly. I am not surprised: the benefits of animal-assisted therapy for these groups are widely known.

But my dog Rambo’s “patients” are quite different. He and I volunteer at an inpatient unit at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. The people Rambo sees every Tuesday reside in the Secure Forensic Unit.

Accused of committing crimes ranging from shoplifting to homicide, these individuals all suffer from severe mental illness. Their treatment at CAMH is court-ordered, and they are routinely assessed by mental health professionals to determine if they can be held responsible for their crimes.

Theresa Conforti, the co-ordinator for Clinical Programs and Volunteer Resources at CAMH, explains how pets factor into the equation:

“For the past 10 years, CAMH has had their own Pet Therapy Program that is very unique and caters only to the clients at CAMH. The clients value the unconditional love and affection the dog gives them on a weekly basis. The importance is that this program bridges the gap for those who have had to leave their furry friends to come to treatment, and for those who will not be able to own a dog due to financial restrictions or housing situations. The weekly visits ease loneliness, improve communication, foster trust, decrease stress and anxiety, and are a lot of fun!”

The program assesses the volunteers for eligibility, while the dog goes through an evaluation with a professional service dog trainer. Conforti notes:

“This works because those interested in volunteering at CAMH are not here to stigmatize our patients, rather they are here to make a difference and di-stigmatize mental illness.”

To say the experience has been rewarding for volunteers like me would be an understatement. Patients are happy to see Rambo, talk to him, pet him, or just be in the same room with him. Not only does he give them a break from their daily routines and the confinement of their unit at CAMH, but he also offers unconditional affection to those in the program.

And while the benefits of pet therapy are numerous, unconditional affection is the critical point here.

When people find out where Rambo and I volunteer, I am often asked whether I fear for our safety, highlighting the common misconception that individuals with severe mental illness are dangerous and violent. Stereotypes like this further perpetuate mental illness stigmatization.

But animals do not judge. They do not care about physical appearance, diagnoses, or criminal history. Conforti recalls:

“One of our dogs went on a unit and a selective mute client—a client who chooses not to speak—had knelt down and whispered in the dog’s ear. No one heard what the client said to the dog, but it was the first time the client had ever spoken. And he had chosen to do so to a dog that will not judge nor will expect much from him. I love that story because it shows that dogs are there to help, love unconditionally, and, most importantly, they do not stigmatize.”

This may be one reason animal-assisted therapy programs are gaining popularity globally. A program in Bollate, Italy, has introduced the use of dog therapy for prison inmates. Valeria Gallinotti, the founder of the program, explains:

“My dream was to organize pet therapy sessions in prison because it’s the one place where there is a total lack of affection, where dogs can create calm, good moods, emotional bonds and physical contact.”

The program has been a hit with inmates, who look forward to the dogs’ visits and have formed a sense of close companionship with them. When asked who his favourite dog was, one of the inmates said:

“Carmela arrived and didn’t know what to do. She was so scared, sort of like us when we arrive in prison. Now, like us, she too is getting used to the experience.” 

Whether part of psychotherapy, physiotherapy, or a prison inmate program, animal assisted therapy can give people the extra motivation needed to get through the challenge of treatment or confinement. Patients and clinicians alike have a lot to gain from therapists like Rambo.

– Essi Numminen, 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

Patients with Misophonia require help and understanding

Patients with Misophonia require help and understanding

10Empathy, Featured news, Happiness, Loneliness, Neuroscience, Relationships, Social Life November, 15

Source: Rick&Brenda Beerhorst on Flickr

Some people find the sound of nails on a chalkboard or the rumbling of a snoring spouse irritating, but what if the sound of someone breathing sent you into a fit of rage?  This is a reality for many sufferers of misophonia.

Only recently garnering attention from researchers, misophonia is a condition where individuals have a decreased tolerance for certain sounds.  Chewing, coughing, scratching, or pen clicking can provoke an immediate aggressive response.  Verbal tantrums are common and in severe cases, sufferers may even physically attack the object or person causing the noise.

“I turn my eyes to face the source of the noise and feel myself glaring at that person in rage,” misophonia sufferer Shannon Morell explains to The Daily Record.  “The only thing I can think about is removing myself from the situation as quickly as possible.”

Many sufferers begin to structure their lives around their struggle with the disorder and avoid triggers by socially isolating themselves.  Public spaces like restaurants or parks are readily avoided and in extreme cases, eating or sleeping in the same room as a loved one can feel impossible.  Even establishing or maintaining relationships is very challenging.

Misophonia can interfere with academic and work performance.  In a study by PhD candidate Miren Edelstein at the University of California in San Diego, patients reported trouble concentrating in class or at work due to distraction from trigger noises.  In some cases, students may resort to isolating themselves, taking their courses online.

David Holmes tells The Daily Record that he finds refuge in using headphones (whenever possible) to block out external noises while at work.

The cause of misophonia is currently believed to be neurological, where the patient’s limbic (emotional) and autonomic nervous systems are more closely connected with the auditory system.  This may be why hearing a disliked sound elicits an emotional response.  Aage Moller, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas, describes it as a complication in how the brain processes auditory stimuli.

Research shows that misophonia usually develops at puberty and tends to worsen into adulthood.

But misophonia is still greatly misunderstood.  There is a lack of research examining its causes or possible treatments.  There is no cure, and some critics even wonder if misophonia should be considered a disorder at all, arguing instead that it’s just a personality quirk.

While it seems there is little help available for people with the disorder, Misophonia UK, an organization dedicated to providing information and support to misophonia sufferers, outlines a number of interventions.

Tinnitus Retraining Therapy (TRT) involves teaching patients how to slowly build sound tolerance, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) focuses on changing negative attitudes that can contribute to the severity of the disorder.  In some cases, hypnosis can be used to relax individuals.  Breathing techniques are also taught so patients can learn to sooth themselves when hearing their trigger noises.

Keeping a diary to record feelings and providing education to loved ones are also strategies recommended by Misophonia UK.  Support groups and online forums like UK Misophonia, Selective Sound Sensitivity, and Misophonia Support also provide a way for sufferers to share their experiences and interact with others.

Researchers in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Amsterdam say that DSM classification may be necessary to pave the way for more recognition and research on the disorder, and that if misophonia is not regarded as a distinct psychiatric condition, it should at least be viewed as part of Obsessive Compulsive Spectrum Disorder (OCSD).

The prevalence of misophonia is currently not documented, and it seems few seek help.  Suffers of misophonia can only do so much on their own before the disorder starts intruding on their lives.

– Anjali Wisnarama, 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 Sex Offender Next Door: Why Reintegration Helps

The Sex Offender Next Door: Why Reintegration Helps

00Emotion Regulation, Featured news, Free Will, Law and Crime, Loneliness, Psychopathy, Sex September, 15

Source: Sara/Flickr

The release of a sex offender back into a community can be a deeply unnerving experience. Many of us are fearful for our comfort and safety, but attitudes like these may play a role in leading many sex offenders to re-offend.

Sex offenders are faced with multiple challenges upon release. Apart from self-regulation and learning how to control their thoughts and actions, they need to find housing, employment, and most important, a community that will accept and support their continuous rehabilitation.

Sex offenders are not typically strangers lurking in dark alleyways. The perpetrator is often someone the victim knows and trusts.  Robin Wilson, professor and program coordinator at the Humber Institute of Technology and Applied Learning, states that relatively few sex crimes, around 23%, involve a stranger previously unknown to the victim. The public has a misguided notion of who the typical sex offender is, and while sexual offender registries are valuable law enforcement tools, there is a growing need for community support.

Wilson considers a best practice approach as involving collaboration between respective operational, professional, and jurisdictional domains.  For real rehabilitation to take place, the community must be involved in the process.

In 1994, the Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA) model of reintegration began after a Canadian Mennonite pastor started a voluntary support group for a repeat sex offender. After almost 20 years in Canada and now functioning internationally, the COSA outlines a restorative approach to the risk management of high-risk ex-offenders, using professionally facilitated volunteerism.

Each ‘Circle’ is made up of a core member (the ex-offender) and four to six community members, individuals who volunteer their time to assist the core member in the community.  The program aims to create supportive relationships based on friendship and accountability for behavior –the development of openness among members being a crucial part of the process.

Simply put, ex-offenders are least likely to reoffend when they have ‘friends’ who believe in them.

Wilson found that offenders in COSA had an 83% reduction in sexual recidivism (repeating undesirable and/or criminal behaviours), a 73% reduction in violent recidivism and an overall reduction of 71% in all types of recidivism when compared to the matched non-COSA offenders. His 2012 study shows that community volunteers have an immense impact on improving offenders’ chances for leading normal and productive lives.

Sex offenders are a heterogeneous group, motivated by different factors says Michael Seto, the director of Forensic Rehabilitation Research at the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group. Seto considers that successful reintegration is not simply the absence of further offending.  “Successful integration would also mean that the person could live a pro-social, productive life within their circumstances.  This might include intimate relationships, stable employment, and positive community ties.”

The success of programs like COSA that work in conjunction with professional treatment programs can be attributed to the continuous re-humanization and the re-moralization of the offender.

Offenders are treated as members of the community and their network of support approaches them without apprehension about the past. Most important, they are given the confidence that they are in control of themselves and that they can choose to behave differently than before.

Seto says that a major obstacle for sex offender treatment is the stigma associated with being labeled a sex offender and being seen forever as high-risk, and that positive social support has a tremendous impact on treatment outcome.

Perhaps most encouraging is the story of a small community in Florida called ‘Miracle Village’, home to over 100 registered sex offenders – none of whom have reoffended. Its residents actively support each other in their attempts to build new lives and work to establish themselves as functioning members of their community.

Of note, the village does not accept those who have been diagnosed with pedophilia or convicted of violent sex crimes against strangers. Some say it is made up of lower risk ex-offenders who are easier to rehabilitate.

Wilson says that offenders targeted for COSA are usually those who have long histories of re-offending, have typically failed in treatment and have displayed intractable antisocial values and attitudes. Stable housing, as well as social support, has shown a relationship to reduced sexual recidivism and criminality among both child molesters and rapists.

The results are compelling: A supportive social network makes a difference.  Addressing an offender’s humanity, loneliness, and need for positive relationships has a strong impact.

Still, some sex offenders really are too high-risk to allow back into their communities. Seto says that while “successful reintegration is the aspiration for most sex offenders, some individuals pose such a high risk of re-offending that incapacitation is the only viable option. This can come in the form of long sentences, long term hospitalization, or indefinite sentencing according to (in Canada) Canada’s Dangerous Offender designation.”

Does it all seem too easy? One can’t help but wonder.  Then again, shouldn’t it be evident that an approach that shuns and ostracizes is doomed from the start?  Cananyone “re-integrate” when viewed as a pariah?

Perhaps the take-home message is about compassion and humanity. And our ability to overcome our insecurities when in the company of those who frighten us.

When Seto was asked whether he truly believes sex offenders can change, he responded “Yes…some of them.”

– Jana Vigor, 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