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“An Antidote for Mindlessness” from The New Yorker

Ever tried to be more mindful? The concept of mindfulness often comes up in discussions of well being, but how can being mindful take form? How does it particularly apply to students?

“Mindfulness training, Jha hypothesizes, may work as a protective factor against the typical stresses of student life–or any stress, for that matter, since it improves emotional equilibrium and enables people to better handle distractions.”

Read the whole article, “An Antidote for Mindlessness” by Maria Konnikova here

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You Don’t Have to Be Strong

Take a look at a new Huffington Post blog post by Harvard freshman Yingying Shang, following the bomb threat that triggered a nationwide media frenzy in December. Shang argues that the events point to a deeper issue on Harvard’s campus and at colleges nationwide: the difficulty many face in admitting weakness in a high-stress environment.

Read the article here.

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The Irony of Despair

See an eloquent op-ed on suicide by David Brooks in today’s New York Times.

From the article:

“But people don’t kill themselves in bundles. They kill themselves, for the most part, one by one. People who attempt suicide are always subject to sociological risk factors, but they need an idea or story to bring them to the edge of suicide and to justify their act. If you want to prevent suicide, of course, you want to reduce unemployment and isolation, but you also want to attack the ideas and stories that seem to justify it.”

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“Spark” Your Brain: Exercise and Mental Health

“Spark” Your Brain: Exercise and Mental Health

I am currently reading a book entitled, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” for my HEB course on none other than STRESS.  The opening quote from Plato reads,

“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

Although, “perfection” may not be something for which one should aim, Plato’s voice clearly presents the idea that physical activity is a natural human instinct. The pop science book by Dr. John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman contains chapters on Learning, Stress, Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, Hormone Changes, Addiction, and Aging. Overall, Ratey believes in many cases, exercise can serve as an effective treatment for mental disorders. In an evolutionary light, stress is supposed to ready our bodies for physical movement (e.g. chasing after food, running from a predator), but today when our “stressors” include deadlines, relationships, and traffic, we rarely utilize this extra energy and tension by moving. We are sedentary, with stress building in our bodies.  Ratey provides scientific evidence and personal stories from his patients on how to use exercise as an outlet, treatment, and tool through which to obtain a healthy lifestyle.

Here is a review of the book. I highly recommend it!


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“Almost Depressed”: New Book by Shelley Carson

“Almost Depressed”: New Book by Shelley Carson

Check out a great article in the Harvard Gazette about a new book by Harvard faculty member Shelley Carson: “Almost Depressed: Is My (or My Loved One’s) Unhappiness a Problem?”

Read the article here.

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TED Talk: “How to make stress your best friend”

TED Talk: “How to make stress your best friend”

“Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal urges us to see stress as a positive, and introduces us to an unsung mechanism for stress reduction: reaching out to others.”

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Reflections on Graduation

Reflections on Graduation

By anonymous

I was standing at Senior Bar when it hit- a muted but slowly growing panic, an urge to run, to seek the shelter of my room and hide under my covers and maybe just to go to sleep.  Surrounded by the vaguely inebriated, tightly packed bodies of far too many of my classmates, many of whom I’d only shared a few words with in the dining hall or at a party, I found myself feeling quite alone.

I’ve had mental health difficulties while at Harvard, but I’ve never been a particularly terrible case.  I never took a semester off, did reasonably well in all of my classes, and I don’t think I ever even turned in an assignment late.  I can’t exactly say I powered through my four years here with ease, but my struggles were survivable with a little help from friends and the good fortune of being able to seek healthcare off-campus.

This past week, however, has been particularly hard for me.  The flurry of emotions associated with graduation and departure have riled up some of the nasty elements in my mind, and as a result I’ve spent most of the week thus far in bed fending off roommates and friends trying to drag me to senior events.  When I finally gave in and went to Senior Bar, trying to satisfy the part of myself that was chastising me for staying in when I ought to be celebrating, and seeing people, the result was predictable.

I don’t mean to detract from anybody else’s experiences this week.  I know that most if not all of the events so far have been well-planned and enjoyable for many of the attendees.  By sharing my experiences, I’m hoping to achieve two things.  First, I’d like to open the door to the idea that there are other ways to celebrate.  The “Last Chance” “Booze Cruise” party binge may work for many of my classmates, and that’s fine, but it doesn’t work for me.  Second, I’d like to express my hope that everyone who does attend the various senior events takes a moment to look around and note which of their classmates aren’t there.  As one of them, I can say that we certainly still want to celebrate and talk and say goodbye, but we might just need you to work with us to do it our way.  So- please, find us and ask us out for tea or drinks or even just lunch in a dining hall.  We’ll say yes.

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Is Mental Health Seasonal?

Is mental health seasonal?

New Google-based research suggests that we’re happier — and saner — in the summer months


Is mental health seasonal?(Credit: Shutterstock)
This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Spring has sprung, at least for most of us, which means sundresses, seersucker and boozy croquet parties on the front lawn. Goodbye happy lamp, hello mimosa.

But it’s not just champagne that’s lifting our spirits and banishing the wintertime blues. According to Google (and a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, Harvard and Johns Hopkins) mental illnesses — such as obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anorexia — are far more seasonal than we think.

The epidemiologists, led by John Ayers, combed through every Google search performed in the United States and Australia between 2006 and 2010, looking for queries like “symptoms of” and “medications for” OCD, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar, depression, anorexia, bulimia and schizophrenia.

The Internet, the authors note in a study forthcoming in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (PDF), is “the world’s most relied-on health resource. Because of mental health’s complexity, stigma, and obstacles to care, patients are likely to investigate their problems online.” At the same time, tracking a population’s longterm mental health indicators is difficult for epidemiologists; phone surveys are often unreliable — would you want to discuss the voices in your head with a complete stranger? — and cost prohibitive. Google queries, on the other hand, are nakedly honest and free to collect.

“This is ‘Moneyball’ for mental health,” Ayers told me. “Big data and hypotheses-free investigations will allow for an unprecedented growth of knowledge across disciplines, especially mental health.”

If, as the researchers suspected, mental illness has a seasonal component, monthly dips and peaks in American self-help searches should be inverted from Australian ones, where winter arrives in March and lasts through September.

Indeed, that’s just what they found. Overall, American mental illness queries rose 14 percent in January while Australia’s 11 percent uptick came six months later (in July).

Upon closer inspection, certain disorders appeared to be particularly season-dependent. Queries involving “anorexia” and “bulimia,” for instance, were 37 percent higher in winter than in summer; schizophrenia-related searches took an equal jump, while ADHD searches climbed 31 percent. “Anxiety,” on the other hand, only appeared slightly more frequently in colder months than in warmer ones.

“We were very surprised to find that this seasonal pattern was replicated across a number of disease categories,” Ayers said. “For example, we saw strong seasonal patterns for schizophrenia, a disease for which symptom severity had not been associated with seasonal patterns, no doubt in part due to the challenges of performing field surveys of individuals with psychotic symptoms.”

The researchers propose several mechanisms that might make mental illness more seasonal than previously thought.

Daylight, certainly, has an impact on our circadian rhythm and has long been implicated in wintertime affective disorders. Vitamin D deficiency, too, may play a part, as a lack of sunshine decreases the body’s ability to absorb the nutrient. Summer, meanwhile, brings an increase in omega-3 consumption — thought by some physicians to promote mental wellness — as well as an obvious social benefit: long, warm evenings to go for jogs, play in the garden and share a beer with the neighbors.

“There is a lot more we need to learn about mental health and seasonality,” Ayers said. “For instance, is there a universal mechanism that impacts our mental health? We don’t know, but our data suggest looking is an excellent idea.”

Google can’t answer such questions, of course — even if it appears to know us better than we know ourselves. The “why” of mental illness, being a uniquely human condition, is a human one to solve.

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New Piece in the Crimson’s Mental Health Series

To Hell and Back

(Taken from the Harvard Crimson)
The morning birds sang sweetly as I walked from Lamont Library at 4 a.m., carrying my heavy backpack to Mower A-11 for an hour of sleep after studying for the Life Sciences 1b final. It was the bittersweet sound of spring, the spring of 2011, when the sun rose when you wished it was dark and it set when you wished it was still bright.

I do not remember a point at which I was happy in that freshman spring semester. At the end of the semester, my attitude was confirmed when I saw that grade on my transcript: D+. It stood there like a demonic fire, making the C+ I received in Math 1b look like a Hoopes Prize. I had worked so hard, torturing my body and torturing my mind, for a D+ in a class that I loathed. It brought down my freshman year GPA to a 2.7. Frustratingly, although I really wanted to learn the material, I felt that the class could not teach it to me well. At the time, I couldn’t imagine how much that hellish freshman year would change my life for the better. It taught me a great deal about the importance of experiences, how they shape you and how you can use them against your fears, and it also taught me how flawed the GPA system is in assessing students’ success and its detrimental effect on students, especially on their mental health.

My freshman year began with such excitement, with the thought of all the great people I could meet, the awesome classes I could take, and the amazing activities I could engage in—only to end with depression. I only had a few close friends, and I was even afraid of opening up to them. I would go back to my room to try and hold back my tears. I spent my summer in a similar state, trying to figure things out. I felt so alone. I needed someone to talk to.

That summer, I spoke to a close friend about dealing with depression, and he recommended a book called “The Power of Intention.” The book’s ideas were enthralling to me: I decided to take up meditation. Soon, miraculously, it began to work, clearing my mind of negative thoughts. I had long forgotten what happiness felt like, but now I was beginning to remember. I started meditating daily. By meditating, I felt myself reaching a deep state of peace; positivity came flowing in. I could feel a strong presence, calmly assuring me that everything was going to be alright.

At the beginning of sophomore year, I decided to concentrate in organismic and evolutionary biology instead of molecular and cellular biology, relishing the big picture framework that it seemed to offer. That fall I took an advanced class in OEB—and I loved it. I also took two classes in religion, which impelled me to take up a secondary in that field. I had found my niche. After struggling with feeling alone, I finally decided to embrace Room 13 and the Bureau of Study Counsel. Though I do occasionally experience some depression,  I am now nowhere near the rut that I was once in.

Harvard is a place for personal growth in addition to academic growth, and experience—even struggle—is necessary for that growth. My grades have improved, but what is the point of getting good grades without any personal development in the process? Those with lower GPAs, like me, are a part of the Harvard community. Our voice is rarely heard, but it is about time that it is.

Our grades and our GPAs do not define who we are. They are constructs; they categorize you based on someone else’s parochial understanding of excellence. In reality, of course, only you can define who you are. We all came to Harvard because we could think out of the box, not because we could fit into it. So why should we fit into a box that someone else creates for us?

I have realized that the difficulty with using GPA in academics is that it is not as nuanced as the grade system. Whereas grades are meant to track your progress throughout a course, the GPA system only provides a picture on where you stand at the course’s conclusion. Unfortunately, we tend to use this holistic system in unhelpful ways—ways that tend to equate a number on a transcript with our own self-worth.

Students here contend with serious mental illnesses each and every day. It is important to consider these issues, and assure these students that they are not alone. But it is just as important to reconsider the kind of academic culture we promote. To promote good academic culture, we must believe in Harvard and we must believe in each other. It is our interpersonal experiences that help shape us, not our GPAs. The good moments will make us happy, and those dark spots that we are in at times will make us find the courage and the desire to move to higher ground. And when we get there, we realize that if it was not for that experience, we would not be on that higher ground. Every bad experience, at the end of the day, is just an opportunity in disguise.


Avinaash Subramaniam ’14 is an organismic and evolutionary biology concentrator in Lowell House. This piece is part of a semester-long series organized by Student Mental Health Liaisons to encourage conversation around mental health; previous pieces may be found here and here.

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TED Talk: Thomas Insel, Toward a new understanding of mental illness

TED Talk: Thomas Insel, Toward a new understanding of mental illness

A TED talk that frames a new look on mental illness.  Check it out!

Today, thanks to better early detection, there are 63% fewer deaths from heart disease than there were just a few decades ago. Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, wonders: Could we do the same for depression and schizophrenia? The first step in this new avenue of research, he says, is a crucial reframing: for us to stop thinking about “mental disorders” and start understanding them as “brain disorders.” (Filmed at TEDxCaltech.)

The Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Insel supports research that will help us understand, treat and even prevent mental disorders.

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