November 1, 2022

By Rob Waters

Good morning, MindSite News readers. In today’s edition, we have some new research to share. One study finds that user-affirming computer games can extend the benefits of ketamine. Another finds that cats can be just as beneficial as dogs in the realm of emotional support. Plus, researchers are growing more concerned about the impact of TikTok on kid’s mental health – and how little we actually know about it. And more…

Happy talk, smiley faces and ketamine

One problem with ketamine, the anesthetic increasingly being used to treat depression, is that its antidepressant properties can come on rapidly and powerfully – but the effect is often fleeting, fading after days or weeks. Now researchers may have found a way to extend those benefits by using, of all things, computer games.

Via Shutterstock

Rebecca Price, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, wanted to keep the better times rolling and decided to focus on the poor self-image and self-loathing many depressed people feel. As NPR’s Health Shots blog reported, she and her colleagues created computer games that connected positive messages – or smiley faces – with the letter “I” (as in me) or photos of the user.

“Every time they click on their own photo, what appears right afterwards in that same location is a smiling face,” Price told NPR. Her study of 154 people, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that using this kind of positive reinforcement, “we could extend the antidepressant effect of one infusion of ketamine for at least a month” and, for some, up to three months, she said.

Since ketamine is rarely covered by insurance, and one infusion can cost $300 to $800, the approach could make ketamine treatments more durable – if the findings are borne out in other studies. Just wondering, though: Would watching a Stuart Smalley Daily Affirmation video have the same enhancing effect?

Saturday Night Live via YouTube

Listen up, dog supremacists

Colleges and universities are increasingly allowing students to have emotional support animals, but, according to a 2017 report, 86% of them allowed dogs only. Grrr. But now a survey of students and faculty at colleges and universities in Belgium found that they are also interested in feline-induced stress relief. The survey also found that “highly emotional people” and women were most interested in feline companionship, according to Medical News Today. (No, I am not making this up. And – full disclosure: my wife and I have three cats.)

The story also noted recent research from Janet Hoy-Gerlach, a professor in the School of Social Justice at the University of Toledo in Ohio. She studied a program that placed shelter dogs or cats as emotional support animals with people with serious mental illness. She found that “participants with dogs and participants with cats both experienced a statistically significant decrease in depression after living with their respective ESAs,” according to Medical News Today. She also told the publication that people with cats experienced a greater decrease in their depression scores. “More people could be reached with related benefits if cats were more widely incorporated into animal-assisted intervention programming,” she said.

Psychedelics & Mental Health Live Conversation Series

MindSite News founding editor Rob Waters will be in conversation with journalist and Asian Psychedelics Collective founder Simran Sethi to discuss ethnic and racial disparities in mental health.

At the MindSite News YouTube channel, you can also watch the recording from last week’s Psychedelics & Mental Health live conversation with Double Blind Magazine, Minority Trip Podcast and Lucid News.

YouTube video

What is TikTok doing to our kids’ mental health?

TikTok is the favorite social media platform of Gen Z, with six out of 10 teens reporting that they use it daily. But with 1 billion users around the globe, researchers are getting concerned about how little they know about TikTok’s effect on our mental health, according to The Guardian. “It’s embarrassing that we know so little about TikTok and its effects,” Philipp Lorenz-Spreen, a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, told the British publication.

That’s a worry when it comes to “the TikTok Generation,” aka Generation Z. Most American teens have accounts on TikTok, and 16% report that they use it almost constantly. “We owe it to ourselves and to the users of these platforms to understand how we are changed by the screens we use and how we use them,” Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s hospital who studies technology’s impact on kids, told the Guardian.

One thing that concerns researchers is that the content linked to harmful eating disorders and other “extremism” is also widespread on TikTok. Moreover, the site “optimizes content for minutes and hours of view time” rather than the usual metrics such as clicks and engagement most social media platforms favor, according to the Guardian. “What that does to the brain, we don’t know,” said Lorenz-Spreen.

Recently TikTok has come under fire for its users’ irresponsible postings such as the Benadryl challenge (inviting users to get high by ingesting large quantities of the antihistamine, and leading to at least one death), challenges that invited students to vandalize school bathrooms and slap a teacher in the face, and a “blackout” challenge that a lawsuit alleges led to the deaths of several young girls. “Compared to other social media sites, TikTok is uniquely performative,” said Rich. “This leads to both interesting content, and some edgy ways of seeking attention that are less healthy.”

See MindSite News writer Diana Kapp’s piece last month on TikTok’s obsession with narcissism.

-Diana Hembree

It’s November and that means we are getting ready for our end-of year fundraising effort. As a member of the INN, the Institute for Nonprofit News, donations of up to $1,000 made to us between now and the end of the year will be matched dollar for dollar.

There’s no better time to support our reporting on mental health.

In other news…

A ‘dose-response’ relationship: the more hours a person works in a stressful job, the more likely they are to suffer from depression. That conclusion is hardly surprising, but the numbers from this study in the New England Journal of Medicine are stark. Medical residents, those newly minted new doctors who work insane hours while getting their first years of experience, offered a good way to test the impact of stress and overwork. The finding: Residents who worked 90 or more hours a week experienced increases in their depression symptom scores that were three times greater than those who worked just 40 to 45 hours a week. 

And finally, Happy Halloween. It’s too late for tonight’s festivities, but we did want to pass on this advice from NAMI and Mile High Psychiatry: If you continue the celebration this week, or in future years, avoid costumes that stigmatize the mentally ill (or other groups), including costumes and themes that involve a mental hospital or asylum, straitjacket, or conditions such as schizophrenia or psychosis.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Rob WatersFounding Editor

Rob Waters, the founding editor of MindSite News, is an award-winning health and mental health journalist. He was a contributing writer to Health Affairs and has worked as a staff reporter or editor at...