Children and Mental Health

Oftentimes, we excuse our children from having mental health problems because we want to protect them from the stigma of being labelled.  Instead, we prefer to accept that they will simply “grow out of it”.  Unfortunately, 1 in 5 children have a mental health issue, and 2/3 of them don’t receive mental health treatment.  Those without treatment may indeed improve on their own, especially with good guidance and learning how to cope with the problems they are having.  However, oftentimes, these children develop further mental health problems as they grow into adulthood because their problems were never acknowledged and they didn’t receive ways to deal with their struggles.   

Oftentimes, children reveal their symptoms through their behaviors and is oftentimes seen in how they are functioning within the home, at school and/or in their social interactions.    Common behaviors include a decline in school performance or poor grades, repeated refusal to go to school or take part in normal activities, persistent disobedience, frequent temper outbursts and increased irritability, sleeping and eating problems, withdrawal from others, frequent tearfulness, increased worry or anxiety, being quite fidgety or hyperactive, and the list goes on.   Without treatment success, potential consequences include school failure, involvement in the criminal justice system or legal problems, social services involvement and possible placement, self-injurious behaviors, sexual promiscuity, or suicide.

There are various screenings that are helpful to identify if a child is reaching their full potential or if they are heading towards emotional, attentional or behavioral problems.  Kids have lots of stress in their lives.  They need adult help.  Let’s do what we do best – take care of our hurting children.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

Losing the Potential of a Good Relationship Due to Our Own Lack of Awareness

Aren’t we supposed to put the needs of others first?  Isn’t there the belief that If we give to others, they will in turn reciprocate; especially in relationships?  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen that way.  In fact, it has become increasingly noticeable in our close relationships that we teach people how to treat us.  Specifically, if a partner acts one way, the other tends to react to the contrary as a means to find a balance.   For example, if you are passive or your spouse is more controlling, your partner unintentionally plays out the opposite role.  Or, if you are exceedingly generous, you may be teaching your partner to be more self-centered, without either one of you being aware that your generosity has gradually grown into resentment and your partner has lost focus on a mutually nurturing relationship.    We seek a balance, and instead of being on the same team, we try to find an equilibrium by being contrary to one another.

Likewise, we oftentimes choose partners that corroborates with the “dance” we oftentimes mimic and are accustomed to while growing up and witnessing our parents’ relationship.    Despite efforts to “be different” from how our parents got along, we oftentimes find ourselves repeating what we tried hard to avoid.  

Despite good intentions, these patterns seem to sway us in directions we do not want to go.  Staying balanced without the extremes, and leading our own “dance” without generational influences can happen by being more aware of these patterns and communicating with each other about them.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

WHERE DID THE LIGHT GO?

Why is it that mental health symptoms are generally worse for many people during the winter months?  Good question.  Much of it has to do with the lack of sunshine.  So, you may ask, what does sunlight exposure have to do with mental health?  Long story short, one of the main chemicals released in our bodies to improve our mood is Serotonin, and some of the effects of Serotonin are triggered by how much sunlight our eyes actually receive.  As the days are shorter and it is colder outside, most of us don’t get outdoors as much as we would otherwise do.  Thus, we receive less sunlight which results in less Serotonin which results in increased depression or anxiety, as well as other manifestations.  

An adjunct problem during winter time comprises of our reduced motivation to be physically healthy.  Truly, who wants to go outdoors to exercise?  It’s cold outside, and excusing ourselves with a good book, a warm drink and curling up with a warm blanket sound so much more delightful.  Unfortunately, not exercising doesn’t satisfy our overall well-being, and more we are vulnerable to emotional difficulties.  When we don’t continue our exercise regimen, we limit the release of endorphins which actually is used to relieve tension or stress and boost our physical and mental energy.  

During winter months, we also tend to eat more with added junk food and carbohydrates.  As we become more absorbed with food and feel the added weight, our self-esteem is usually affected.  Having a negative self-image also impacts how you look at yourself; causes intimacy difficulties and you are more prone to depression and anxiety.  Also, our sleep cycles change during the winter months., impacting our REM sleep which helps us regulate our mood and process emotional experiences.  Without REM sleep, we are more susceptible to increased emotional reactivity and emotional problems.  

In view of all this, it almost feels like things are stacked against us when we face winter.  Of course, that doesn’t take into consideration the delight of winter-time and all those not affected by mood changes; most of us are here because we have chosen to be here.  However, those that are struggling with increased emotional difficulties during the wintertime, here are some things you can do to make it through: 

  • Eat right
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get more sun; that means getting outside at least half hour each day, like it or not.  Also, people diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder benefit from a light box which simulates actual light.
  • Get sufficient sleep; be it going to bed early to get 8 hours in, developing a bedtime routine, or using supports like candles, meditation, reading, essential oils, massage, etc.
  • Get into projects or activities that you might like, even if you don’t feel like it
  • Socialize more with others
  • Work on your New Year’s resolutions or develop goals and plans to complete them

When the light isn’t shining, do what you can to still have a good winter.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

A Mixed Bag of Emotions during Christmas Time

The Christmas season is full of joy, with all of its frivolities, like gift exchanges, church bells, singing choirs, family gatherings, hoof noises on the roof, rich foods, and the real reason for the season of whom many still celebrate.  Depression, or anxiety, or irritability, or frustration just don’t fit with the holiday season… or do they?  Actually, reality hits most of us in the face as we realize that holiday cheer isn’t exactly a given; especially with high expectations, money woes, and even with the pressure to be cheerful despite not feeling that way.  So, what do we do to improve our holiday cheer with a mixed bag of emotions?

Here are some tips:

-Make plans ahead of time; figure out what needs to get done and make it a priority.  Stay on track until it’s completed before you start the next “to-do” task on your list.

-Try to get along with everyone; avoid conflicts during this time of year and instead make a time later on to disagree and work through stuff when the house isn’t full of company and stress is at its foremost.

-Focus on the good; enjoy your blessings.  Find gratitude in what you do, what you experience, the interactions you have…

-Try to relax and let the “need to be perfect” size way down to “enjoying the moment”.  No one really cares if your house is perfect or if you have one more item made for Christmas.

-Take care of your own health; don’t cut back on sleep, eat nutritiously, don’t forget exercising, and get outside a bit to get refreshed.  Your body drags along with you during this holiday season; why not take care of it.

-Focus on what matters; we all have our own significances.

-Smile anyways; it makes others feel good and it also can have a positive effect on you as well – “Fake it ‘til you make it”.

-Allow others to give to you; let someone in, especially if you are sad or grieving, or if you are stressed or frustrated, or if you feel alone and vulnerable.  We all need each other, especially during a holiday season.  Allowing someone in helps the giver and the receiver.  It is important to feel connected.  We need each other.  It is part of the human condition. 

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

St. Williams Mental Health

What Every Child Wants Their Parents to Know

“Dear Parent, as you understand further about what I’m going to tell, you will know more about how to help me grow up.  Just to blurt it all out: ‘YOU’ are the most important person in my life! You may not believe it, but our relationship either shapes me or breaks me.  No matter what is going on with you, I NEED YOU to be there for me!!  MY LIFE IS AT STAKE!  I NEED you unconditionally!  I need you when I cry.  I need you when I don’t want you.  I need you when I can’t sleep.  I need you when I say, “I hate you!”.  I need you to help me when I make mistakes.  I need you to say you’re sorry.  If I scream or throw food on the floor, let me know you love me.  Help me learn to calm down so I can let you know why I’m angry.  With love and discipline, guide me as I try to figure out how to deal with my problems, don’t yell at me and tell me I’m a brat.  I need you to love me through and through – no matter what, despite my mistakes. 

Unconditional love is actually the main ingredient that helps my brain grow normally.  You see, my brain shapes and grows as it is fed through my thoughts and feelings about what happens to and you and me; and the more I feel loved, the more I feel secure and safe and more able to put the pieces together.  However, the more I feel dismissed or a problem-child, the more my brain tells me that maybe I’m not worth much. Even if you don’t mean it but I am placed in the shadows when you are struggling with adult problems, I can take it personally.  Or, if you tend to be sad a lot or angry and we don’t have that love connection, I can blame myself for your heartache. Or, if you aren’t secure, will I learn that life is uncertain and project it through a monster under my bed who gives me nightmares, or even worse some day?  My brain hasn’t fully developed so am wide open to interpretation. 

It is time for you to help me figure out how to deal with all the stuff I don’t even know about. You know, I’ve never lived before so there is everything I don’t know.  I am in your hands!  You are the one to help me grow up with confidence and loved.  Keep me in your mind.  Let me know that you ‘get me’. Stay with me and share my mind with yours.  As you enter my world, you will understand me.  As you enter my world, I will better understand you.  Let me feel loved and cherished.  As we become like one mind, we may meld into our own beautiful dance together.   I know that this, in itself, is the most important gift of all.   Then, I will know you are with me and I can trust you to care for me, no matter what; even if your crabby or sad, even if you had a bad childhood, even if we have some bad genes…I know we are connected and you will always be there to be alongside me, especially to guide me as I try to figure out who I am and what I’m all about. 

Thank you for being with me, through thick or thin.  Thank you for thinking that I’m the best thing that ever happened to you.  Thank you for dealing with your issues so that you can be the best parent in the world for me.  We set our focus on tomorrow.  Thank you.    Luv, Your young little child.”

Claudia A. Liljegren, LICSW, Clinical Psychotherapist

SAD During the Holidays

Despite the joy of the season and with all of its good cheer and merriment, most of us find only shifting spurts of jolliness here and there during the holidays.  Of course, this oftentimes is self-imposed, with the expectations of “doing it all”, like putting up the most awesome Christmas tree and lights, doing cookie and candy exchanges, sending packed Christmas letters, and buying the right presents for everyone and their brother, and making sure this Christmas is the best one for the kids.   Too much of a good thing, I suppose, sometimes.

But, how about those dear people who find this time fraught with sadness?  There are all sorts of reasons or situations that preclude some from the Christmas spirit, be it lingering loneliness with a lack of family connection or close friends, the reality of setting the table for one less person due to a loss in the recent or remote past, being paled with increased pain and suffering from surging medical issues, having no money, or dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder whose vision is shadowed by dark colored glasses.  ‘Tis the season to be joyful, with fistfuls of love and compassion thrown out to all who can grasp it, like candy at a parade; it is part of the Christmas spirit!  Yet, sadness can be spotted any which way you look during the holiday season, if we choose to see it. 

Spite our nose and off our face, most of us have “good reason” for keeping those fistfuls of love clutched in our own hands.  Oftentimes, we become discombobulated with our own list of “must do’s”, putting off the other list of “extra’s” or niceties until the end, if there is time.  And, then there are those awkward moments that keep us from reaching out to help a stranger; “What should I do?  What if my approach is wrong? What if I say or do the wrong thing? What if they think I’m nosy?  Would my effort even be worth it?  What if I offend them when I try to help?”.  So, on with our traditions; celebrate with our spurts of joy as we rejoice in the season of Christmas, and leave well enough alone, right?  Still, for many of us, there is that looming sadness underneath it all that just stays inside.

And in our silent ways, we all know that somehow, during the holiday season, giving out love and touching someone who needs it, seeing the joy in their face and feeling a little shiver inside, has to be one of the greatest gifts of all?  So, what does all this mean anyways?

And, you may wonder what this has to do with good mental health during the Christmas season.  You guessed it; it has everything to do with it!  Feeling good, doing good, feeling loved and giving love makes it all better for most.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

The Commission of Farmers and the Toll it has Taken

It is December, and the onset of winter has come before us.  Usually, crops are in, farm equipment has been put away, and farmers can finally sit back and chalk it up to another year. Yet, Mother Nature has the final call – farmers see in plain sight the fear of freezing temperatures or accumulated snow in their fields.  Harvesting is a month behind already, and farmers hope and pray that their corn will soon dry sufficiently without the leering risks of foreseen elevated costs and a disappointing bottom line.

Yes, farmers either know the hazards before they take on the lifestyle, or learn all about it by living in its trenches.   Each farmer is called to determine their own risk level and their ability to manage the rollercoaster of the occupation.  There are blessings and risks abound, and the lifestyle is likely one of the primary motives to keep on keeping on.

So, why is the suicide rate among farmers more than double that of veterans and 5 times higher compared to that of the general population, reported by the 2018 Center for Disease Control (CDC).   Why is depression and anxiety rampant among this group? 

For farmers, their work is who they are, and oftentimes considered their life purpose.  To change careers is way beyond consideration as farming is a way of life.  Most difficulties are beyond the control of farmers.  Some of the challenges faced by farmers and those living in rural and remote communities include dealing with fluctuating crop and input prices, shifting interest rates on land and loans, weather changes, current politics around tariffs, trade and the farm bill, and difficulty accessing services. 

Primarily, the culture of farming takes on a number of principles that may also lead one towards increased mental health struggles or suicide. 

  1. Overall, farmers do their work alone, and they suffer with depression and anxiety alone.  Seeking help or talking to friends about their struggles goes straight against privacy and independence. A typical phrase in farm communities include; “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public”.  They simply “suck it up” and push through the emotional pain.  It is part of the culture.  It is part of that independence. 
  2. Unfortunately, the farming culture views their high rates of anxiety and depression as weaknesses, and not common conditions.  The perception of personal failure when things don’t go right feeds into the need to do it all; work harder, work longer, breathe endurance.  It’s like the saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going”.

With all this, farming does have its mental health vulnerabilities.  Suicide is an isolated decision; and with the forced winds of today’s obstacles, a culture of independence, isolation and privacy, an erroneous belief that mental health issues are not for the strong, and self-identification is determined by their success or failure, “checking in” with them once in a while could save a life.

Claudia A. Liljegren, LICSW

Thanks Giving

Usually, we look at Thanksgiving as a holiday started by the pilgrimage of our ancestors who celebrated a successful harvest in the new land.  Being grateful this day is usually the tradition.  It may also be of interest to know that if you take the words, “Thanks” and “Giving”, you also have two primary keys to improved mental health.  As is oftentimes the case, those who feel over-whelmed with negativity easily lose perspective on the part of their lives that they otherwise might feel more grateful.   

Gratitude is a choice, and it isn’t necessarily easy.  In the end, you have to choose between being thankful or remaining in the habit of reveling in negative emotions. Of course, you can remain luke-warm with gratitude by reflecting on it during special occasions, like Thanksgiving; but you may be sure that in the midst of mental health problems, negative emotions will remain dominant.

If you do indeed choose gratitude, there is increased research showing that gratitude exuberates both physical health as well as mental and emotional well-being.   According to the National Institute of Mental Health’s research and numerous other resources, gratitude expands self-esteem.   As it is difficult to blend depression or resentment with a grateful heart, bad thoughts take a back seat while gratitude takes the lead.  Similarly, gratitude expels worries and ruminations with a growing habit of thanksgiving and a focus on others.   Gratitude also helps calm down stress and improves symptoms of trauma.  It also supports and encourages resilience while fighting off the worst of times.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that with gratitude, there are no more mental health issues, but it does help to manage them better.

Gratitude opens the door to more and truer relationships through appreciation, cooperation, enhanced empathy, reduced aggression and acknowledging others’ contributions.  In addition, gratitude improves physical health with a tendency to experience fewer aches and pains, increased motivation towards a healthier self and an overall focus on feeling healthier.  Another advantage of gratitude is that it helps people sleep better, just by jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed.  Being grateful is a way we can back away from a place of lacking to a place of contentedness.

So, if gratitude spawns enhanced empathy as is implied with the word, “Thanksgiving”, giving is also a natural next step for improved mental health. Within society, many of us think well-being in terms of what we have, such as our level of comfort, or our income, or our possessions, or our status as the markers. But evidence shows that what we do and the way we think actually have a far more meaningful impact on mental health and wellbeing.  According to neuroscience, increased activation and strengthening of certain parts of the brain occur when we give to others.  So, “Thanks” and “Giving” may be the way to go to improve our mental well-being.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW< LICSW

Clinical Psychotherapist

Turning the Mind

Have you ever worked at “the power of positive thinking”?  Have you ever met someone who mostly felt optimistic and upbeat?  You know; the kind that easily throws out a litany of jokes and readily smiles with an easy laugh; the person that stands out in a crowd and easily makes others feel good; the one that infects others so that the happy feeling is contagious.  How do they do it?  Maybe it’s heredity, or they had a positive family or good environment while growing up. Or, maybe it’s in the genes.  Well, whatever it is, what do the rest of us do if we aren’t so lucky? 

It is a lot easier to ruminate about the negative things in life; you know, our short comings, other’s deficiencies and how they affect us, all the bad things that have happened to us or that we are currently experiencing, the money we don’t have, the fun we aren’t having, the unfairness of it all, the famine and large poverty base throughout the world, etc., etc., etc.  With all this, how then do any of us succeed at positive thinking?  Well, there are ways.

One strong restorative approach is called “Turning the Mind”, a skill learned in therapy groups to improve a client’s mood and perceptions of themselves, others and the world at large.  Turning the mind is actually a hard process to do.  It takes a lot of work.  Unfortunately, many attempts fail just because we give up when we return to our old ways.  You may not have known, but our brain motherboard bends according to how we think and feel.  So, if you are a negative thinker, your brain has developed a neural electrical system that has supported and reinforced depressing thoughts for as long as you have had them.  It becomes harder and harder to break that brain circuitry.  However, it is possible.  Learning and practicing positive ways of thinking and feeling can result in a change in how you view your life and how to move forward.

In order to change the brain, we need to become more aware of what we are doing to ourselves; how we feed and get stuck with the bad thoughts and emotions, and how we pull away or discard the positive ones.   We have to learn ways to be more mindful of our thoughts and feelings and how we can better manage them.   Oftentimes, spending time meditating or in prayer can be key factors in learning how to see yourself at a distance and guide yourself through this awareness.  As you become more aware of how you get stuck with your emotions or your negative thoughts, you then are more able to recognize that you are in charge and you can make decisions about how to regulate your emotions and thoughts.  No longer are you clutched into the grips of negativity by your thoughts and feelings.  Instead, you have the ability to learn new skills and move towards a more positive you.  With continued practice, “turning the mind” towards an optimistic outlook is indeed within reach.  It takes time and practice, but it does happen.  Just think, you may end up being the one who carries the jokes and moves the crowd with your jovial self. 

Claudia A. Liljegren, LICSW

St. Williams Mental Health Services

Relationship with Food

Do you have an Unhealthy Relationship with Food?

Eating is a required action we all share as a means to maintain our health.  There are those who struggle with eating due to a medical condition, but there are others who struggle with a medical condition due to their eating disorder. 

General statistics indicate that at least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S., and at least one person dies every 62 minutes as a direct result from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are a serious medical problem that can have long-term health consequences if left untreated.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness of which adolescents and women over 50 are more prevalent.  

There are several types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia Nervosa or a focus on weight loss in which the individual has a poor body image and believes they are never thin enough, prompting excessive dieting, exercise, purging or use of laxatives.
  • Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder or restrictive eating or avoiding certain foods because of its texture or odor.  These symptoms usually begin early in childhood.
  • Bulimia Nervosa or the cycling of extreme overeating or binging to purging or other behaviors to compensate for overeating. 
  • Binge Eating Disorder or excessive overeating

An unhealthy relationship with food is oftentimes a symptom of an underlying problem.  Usually, it is prompted by various life stressors combined with psychological struggles, such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and/or overall difficulty coping with emotions.  Overuse of substances, genetic traits or a having a family pre-disposition can also be contributors. Oftentimes, those with an eating disorder initially use eating, or lack thereof, as a way to control at least one aspect of their lives.  However, their eating behavior progressively spirals out of control and they end up not being able to manage their own eating. 

Treatment is complicated.  You may have a friend or relative that has an eating disorder, but do not even know it.  Oftentimes, those with eating problems hide their behaviors and deny having a problem, interfering in their first step in treatment; admitting they have a problem.  Mostly, individual or group out-patient or in-patient psychotherapy and possibly psychotropic medications are required to work through the denial, comply with a food monitoring plan, and deal with secondary symptoms of depression, anxiety, etc., through stress management, modification of unhealthy relationship patterns and learning adaptive ways to feel in control of their eating and other aspects of their lives.  Unfortunately, symptoms of an eating disorder can last for many years and return during times of stress, despite previous treatment.  Catch yourself if you have an unhealthy relationship with food.  There is too much at stake.

Claudia A. Liljegren, MSW, LICSW

St. Williams Mental Health