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New Trends in Mental Health Treatment

By Sara Battista, NAMI Communications Intern

Despite the unprecedented number of people living with mental illness in the U.S., only about one-third of those in need of treatment will ever seek professional help. Although traditional psychotherapy is undoubtedly effective for many, some mental health professionals are actively searching for new treatment methods in order to make mental health care more accessible for the general public. Ultimately, they argue that alternative forms of treatment other than psychotherapy are necessary if the medical community hopes to see a decline in the prevalence and affliction of mental illness in the U.S. 

In an article from January 2011 published in Perspectives of Psychological Science, Dr. Alan Kazdin and Dr. Stacey Blase suggested that in order to relieve the burden of mental illness, the medical community needs to come up with more effective models of treatment delivery that are more practical and accessible for the majority of those in need.

The authors argued that every day obstacles including a lack of access to facilities or practitioners, ethnic and cultural barriers and transportation prevent too many people from receiving treatment. Since the one-on-one model of psychotherapy can be limiting due to time, geographical and financial constraints, the authors recommended a transition to the many other treatment methods in order to more efficiently help a larger portion of individuals. Technology, diet and exercise and support groups were among their many suggestions for new models of treatment that they believed in combination, would reduce the burden of mental illness in the U.S. Since the publication of their cogent arguments in 2011, many new, innovative forms of treatment have revolutionized the world of therapy, bringing the mental health community closer to their goal of providing accessible care for all Americans.

Technology

With millions of Americans surfing the Internet on a daily basis, technological advances are a practical way to provide people living with mental illness with helpful resources. To begin with, the Internet makes connecting with health care professionals accessible from the home or office. Web-based interventions can be accessed through chat-rooms, email, and video chat via webcam. The use of open forums like NAMI’s discussion groups also allow people who share common experiences with mental illness to connect online— a tool proven invaluable by the copious amount of research confirming the positive impact of social connection on psychological wellbeing. These technological developments not only broaden the portion of the population with access to therapeutic intervention, but also likely increase the possibility that clients will continue treatment.

The use of smart phones also offers users access to hundreds of virtual treatment resources. For example, an app called the CBTReferee utilizes methods adapted from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a highly effective treatment for a variety of mental illnesses including depression and anxiety disorders. Rather than the traditional method of carrying around a notepad, the app allows users to log their thoughts as they occur in order to monitor flawed thinking. Once thoughts are logged, users are able to evaluate what is untrue, unrealistic or unfair about each thought process.

Another popular therapeutic app called BellyBio Interactive Breathing asks users to place their smartphones on their stomach as it guides them through a deep breathing exercise useful in fighting anxiety and stress. This free app monitors breathing patterns while simultaneously generating peaceful music and light in synch with the deep abdominal breathing movements. BellyBio is especially useful for those living with anxiety disorders looking for effective relaxation tools.

Nutrition                 

Numerous scientific studies have confirmed the correlation between physical and mental health. Although maintaining a healthy physical lifestyle alone may not provide sufficient treatment for mental disorders, there are specifics habits one can easily implement into any schedule that have strong benefits for mental health maintenance.

The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that regular intake of omega-3 fatty acids can be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of a range of mental illnesses including depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Research suggests that children with ADHD may have a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, proposing that consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for managing behavioral symptoms. Likewise, taking omega-3 supplements in addition to medication may improve the symptoms of depression. Also notable is the protective effect of omega-3 fatty acids against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as research suggests that increasing intake reduces the risk of cognitive decline.

In addition to dietary adjustments, other useful physical health tips include regularly practicing meditation and yoga, both of which have been proven to have a therapeutic effect.

Meditation

A comprehensive study published in 2012 in Scientific Review of Mental Health Practices examined over 250 published studies on meditation, investigating 45 years of research on a diverse range of meditation techniques and how they influenced both mental and physical health. Results from the study make a strong case for the value of meditation, as the vast majority of findings support the effectiveness of meditation practices in cultivating positive psychological health.

Current research continues to promote the benefits of practicing meditation. For example, an article published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2013 investigated the effects of a six-week focused meditation training program on emotion and attention regulation in undergraduate students. Findings from this study revealed that the students who participated in the meditation training presented a greater reduction of negative emotion interference, along with a significant reduction in anxiety levels and an increase in concentrated attention, as compared to the students who did not meditate. Notably, the frequency of meditation was significant, as an increase in the frequency of practice led to improved emotional regulation. Results from this study suggest that meditation is a practical and effective treatment option for college students, who are at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues.

Yoga

A new study published this August in Complementary Therapies in Medicine analyzed the effects of yoga practice and the health characteristics of individuals who practice yoga. Responses from 1,045 surveys of participants between the ages of 19 and 87 showed a consensus that yoga led to improvements in the following areas: energy (84.5 percent), happiness (86.5 percent), social relationships (67 percent), sleep (68.5 percent), and weight (57.3 percent), Not surprisingly, the more participants practiced yoga, the higher their odds of reporting that yoga improved their mental and physical health.

NAMI’s Hearts and Minds initiative is an example of an educational program that promotes mind and body health practices for individuals who live with mental illness. Under the "Mindfulness" section on NAMI’s Hearts and Minds website, users can find expert advice on how to implement holistic methods that complement medication and therapy in order to provide additional support during the recovery process. Practices covered include basic meditation, guided imagery, yoga and Tai Chi, and creative outlets such as writing, art, music and dance.

Support Groups

Self-help tools such as books, the media and support groups can effectively reach countless individuals at a low cost. Support groups have been shown to have a therapeutic effect, as they foster connections between people who can relate to one another through their shared experiences with mental illness. Often, the experience of feeling understood and accepted by others helps people to feel less isolated. The ability to openly communicate about frustrations and challenges associated with mental illness is emotionally beneficially, while also giving group members the opportunity share effective techniques for managing symptoms.

Support groups such as NAMI Connection, a weekly recovery support group for people living with mental illness, connects people who are facing similar challenges and attempting to overcome their shared adversities. Such support groups allow people to learn from each other’s experiences, share coping strategies and offer each other encouragement and understanding.

While authors Kazdin and Blase raise some valuable points about the importance of improving the accessibility of mental health care for the general public, they still acknowledge the value of individual therapy. Rather than arguing against the effectiveness of psychotherapy, the authors emphasize the importance of finding new ways to expand upon traditional therapy in order to reduce the prevalence of mental illness.

Likewise, the authors also do not advise the independent use of any of their suggestions as a singular replacement for treatment. Rather, they suggest that collaboration between these disciplines and many others could better accommodate the large number of people living with mental illness. In fact, the authors are still open to exploring many other fields in the search for effective treatment options, as they said in their article, “Our illustrations are to advocate for partnerships rather than to limit who those partners might be.” While their suggestions are a good starting point, more research is still needed on applied intervention methods as they work towards the goal of decreasing mental health problems in the U.S.


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