June 7, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Hello, MindSite Readers!

In today’s Daily, a neurologist explains what dreams may reveal about your mental health, two psychologists offer tips on how to recognize and squelch gaslighting, and the BBC looks at the mental health crisis of Afghan women and their families under the Taliban government.

Also in this edition: running during a depressive episode, why acts of kindness may be good for your mental health, and an Indigenous community in Northeast India looks favorably upon voluntary death – under very limited conditions. Plus: our policy tracker gives you the low-down on what the debt ceiling deal means for mental health spending.

Debt Limit Deal May Impact Future Mental Health Funding 

The debt ceiling compromise averted a disastrous government default with global ramifications, but the bill may make it more difficult to provide robust federal funding for mental health and substance use treatment over the next two fiscal years. One reason is that it may rescind, or claw back, funds for mental health or substance use treatment that are unspent or not already part of a binding agreement. Read our DC analyst Sarah Corcoran’s story for more.

Dreams may offer insight into mental health

Science still has much to learn about the relationship between dreams and our waking lives, but some researchers suggest that certain dream patterns can be a sign of neurological and psychological disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, or even Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia. In a wide-ranging interview with Scientific American and its French-language sister publication, Pour la Science, neurologist Isabelle Arnulf, head of the sleep disorders clinic at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, says that recurring nightmares can sometimes reveal serious physical illnesses.

In one example, a patient she screened for sleep apnea revealed he’d had the same nightmare for 10 years, one in which he kept sticking his head through the neck of a bottle and choking. “In fact, he was really choking, with one apnea incident each minute of sleep each night,” Arnulf said. “We offered him a CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] machine, and the nightmares were gone the first night!”

Arnulf also cautions that negative dreams (as opposed to nightmares) are not always bad for us. Although people with schizophrenia, for example, may dream in “flat, disjointed, limited and undiversified content,” such dreams do not necessarily mean someone has depression or schizophrenia. Instead, she says, dreams are just one piece of a larger puzzle that in some cases – but certainly not all – point to a mental illness.

In fact, negative or unpleasant dreams may simply help us process difficult experiences. Arnulf pointed to research from UC Berkeley neuroscientist Matthew Walker that suggests sleep and dreams help us to “emotionally digest” what happens to us during our waking hours. Dreams, Walker suggests, are an essential (although weird) replay of our days. In the case of negative dreams, they allow us to emotionally process daytime snafus without the physical symptoms of stress or anxiety that accompany us when we’re awake. “You might be reprimanded by your boss in the dream when suddenly a kitten comes to lick his ear, which lessens the emotions you’re experiencing in the dream,” Arnulf explained. “In the end, this reexposure to the events of the day could lead to the progressive extinction of negative emotions.”

How to recognize (and extinguish) gaslighting 

Why is it so hard for people to recognize gaslighting when it’s happening to them? Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast: Gaslighting is emotional abuse characterized by an abuser manipulating and distorting someone else’s reality, often in an effort to control them. The term is born of a 1938 play, “Gaslight,” that was later adapted into a 1944 film of the same name, which depicts a woman whose husband manipulates their home’s gaslights in an attempt to drive her insane as he moves to steal her fortune. In a column for the Washington Post, psychology experts Robin Stern and Marc Brackett explain how to recognize gaslighting and stop it. 

The telltale sign of gaslighting is when the victim  knows something is wrong but their partner — the perpetrator — uses shame, criticism or bizarre observations to pull them into a distorted reality under his or her control. Victims of gaslighting may feel confused, feel the need to continually apologize and even question their sanity.

If you think you’re being gaslit, here is what Stern and Brackett recommend: 1) Record or write down conversations to help you distinguish truth from distortion. Find where your partner veers the conversation into gaslighting territory, and if the relationship is worth salvaging, work out ways to avoid triggers that derail communication. 2) Respect and honor your feelings. 3) Trust your feelings and use your voice to assert your own decisions. 4) Connect with a solid support system. Know that emotional abuse is not okay and that you can take steps to leave if the relationship does not change. 

Pressures on Afghan women sparks mental health crisis

Distraught over the future as a result of the many restrictions placed on women by the Taliban government, rising numbers of Afghan women are opting for suicide, according to Afghan psychologists. Dr. Amal, a psychologist identified only partially for her protection, told the BBC she’s been overwhelmed by calls for help from girls and women who were recently banned from school because of their gender. “We have an [epidemic] of suicidal thoughts in Afghanistan. The situation is the worst ever, and the world rarely thinks or talks about it,” she said. “When you read the news, you read about the hunger crisis, but no one talks about mental health. It’s like people are being slowly poisoned. Day by day, they’re losing hope.” 

Official numbers on the suicide rate among Afghan women aren’t available because the Taliban government doesn’t track such data. Instead, the BBC cited a 2023 study from the Afghanistan Centre for Epidemiological Studies that found two-thirds of Afghan adolescents say they are depressed. However, that only hints at the extent of the crisis.

Many of the families who spoke with the BBC said that women being banned from school was a primary reason for their devastation. One father, whose name was not printed to protect his identity, said he believes shutting women out of universities led to his daughter’s suicide. “She wanted to become a doctor. When schools were closed, she was distressed and upset,” he said. “But it was after she wasn’t allowed to sit for the university entrance exam, that’s when she lost all hope. It’s an unbearable loss.”

In other news…

It’s not unusual to feel like a slug during a depressive episode. And even though scientists have found exercise can help prevent and/or ease depression, finding the energy to lace up a pair of shoes can feel overwhelming enough to skip a run. But Runner’s Health says you can still do it, and they’ve got just the map to show you how. My favorites in the list of suggestions: Give yourself grace and set a realistic goal for movement. Reading that, I recalled that I used to never jog because I was embarrassed about how long it took me to run a single mile. A runner friend of mine suggested that I give myself permission to stop focusing on a certain distance and just decide how long to run. “When you show up for your run consistently, the distance will naturally improve,” he said. He was right. 

A recent study found that sleep apnea may accelerate the buildup of amyloid beta proteins found in Alzheimer’s disease, according to a report from Medical News Today. Similarly, treating sleep apnea might decrease one’s risk of developing the disease. 

In an atypical way of embracing death, anthropologist Bikash K. Bhattacharya wrote about an Indian tradition of voluntary death for the greater good. The essay, published in Yes! magazine, looks at the fading practice of misi-muh by the Idu-Mishmi, an Indigenous community in Northeast India. In some areas, the practice remains socially acceptable when one is terminally ill and experiencing excruciating pain or when one is afflicted with a highly contagious disease and risks spreading it throughout the community.

Apple has added new features for mental health to its Apple Watch. With the latest update, Apple Watch users can find new ways to track their moods, engage with mental health apps, and measure how much time they spend outdoors, Mobile Health News reports. In addition, users will be able to take depression and anxiety assessments in the Apple Health app.

A new study suggests that expressing kindness can help reduce anxiety. Inc. reports that, in a search for antidotes to anxiety, Ohio State University researchers tasked people with anxiety to do one of the following actions a couple times per week: perform small acts of kindness, plan an enjoyable social activity, or write about their challenging thoughts. All of the approaches worked, but being kind worked best. “The group that practiced random acts of kindness had greater reductions in depression and anxiety and higher satisfaction with life. And, while acts of kindness and social activities both improved people’s sense of social support, practicing kindness improved it even more,” researchers said.

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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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...