Archive for the 'Nepal' Category

Recent focus on child soldiers and what the research says

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has made its first ruling, convicting Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga of using children younger than 15 as soldiers. For basic media coverage, see here, here, and here. The conviction if Lubanga is the ICC’s first in its decade of existence, and for those of you interested, the BBC has a decent discussion of the costs, estimated at $900 million, here.

Lubanga could have been accused of any number of war crimes, but the ICC chose to focus on child soldiering (due to the quality of evidence, say prosecutors). The recent Invisible Children anti-Joseph Kony video recently trending on Twitter (no need for a link, I’m sure) chooses to also focus on child soldiering. Clearly this is compelling stuff for the media as well as legal teams, nightmare material for those who love kids and those who fear teenagers. From the sympathetic side we often hear simplistic pronouncements like this one from today’s New York Times:

Social workers say that even if children have enlisted willingly, looking for food, status or protection, they are often still permanently damaged by war-time violence and drugs.

There is, however, a research literature on child soldiers that presents a more nuanced picture. Although certainly former child soldiers suffer higher rates of physical and mental health problems than similar kids, the research suggests that there is more hope for them than is commonly portrayed. The work of Jeannie Annan and Chris Blattman show that there is wide variability in what child soldiering actually entails, and, that former child soldiers — far from being permanently damaged — are more active in peaceful post-conflict political processes than their peers. Theresa Betancourt‘s work shows that symptoms of emotional distress decrease over time among many, and I believe she has plans underway for treatment trials for those with continuing problems. Brandon Kohrt’s work presents (among other things) complex stories of reintegration through film, as well as research articles.

All this is not to say that child soldiering is in some way really not so bad. Making this a cause is indeed appropriate. But there is more to the issue than just crazed violent teenagers and their adult bad guy overlords. Child soldiers become former child soldiers, adults who live lives and can contribute to their societies.

Brain-mind or heart-mind; TMS or MST; DSM-5 or DSM-V? The American Psychiatric Association in New Orleans

This weekend and the first part of this week the American Psychiatric Association held its annual meeting in New Orleans, LA. In addition to staying out of the way of drifting gulf oil and seeing a lot of great music, I sat in on a few sessions in the monstrous Morial Convention Center to hear the latest from my psychiatric cousins. Psychiatrists in general fascinate me. On the one hand they rely heavily on the biomedical model to explain psychological phenomena (they are, after all, doctors), on the other they talk even more impressionistically than my psychologist compatriots (one of the presentations this year is on Chopin). As doctors, they know so much stuff (doctors have to memorize an amazing number of facts about the body), yet as researchers they can hardly handle more than two-by-two tables in their analyses (to be honest, most psychologists don’t do a whole lot better — they just don’t get published). I get asked all the time whether I’m a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and then, regardless of the answer, if I can prescribe; for those of you wondering: psychologist, and no.

On Saturday, I attended a session run by Devon Hinton (of Mass General) on cultural assessment of non-Western patients. In addition to Devon, his brother Ladson, Roberto Lewis-Fernandez, and myself, Brandon Kohrt of Emory University presented a paper on culture and symptoms. Brandon’s done a lot of work with child soldiers in Nepal, and presented on “child-led indicators” of distress among this population. Lots of good things in there, but my favorite was a distinction made among Nepalis between problems of the “brain-mind” and problems of the “heart-mind.” Your heart-mind is where your emotions are, your brain-mind where your thinking and cognition happen. Heart-mind problems are normal, brain-mind problems stigmatized. Although heart-mind problems can lead to brain-mind problems, they usually can be addressed successfully with appropriate social support. Critically, Brandon reported that Western psychosocial NGOs working with Nepalis affected by the civil war (which ended in 2006) had translated posttraumatic stress disorder into a term associated with brain-mind problems, and thus found it very hard to get people to participate in their interventions. It was only when they started using a heart-mind term that they got more people to participate.

TMS stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation. MST stands for magnetic seizure therapy. I’ll admit here that I am way out of my league here, but I’ll give you the synopsis. Both are new treatments for depression, and both involve magnets applied to your skull (falling under the somewhat euphemistic category of “brain stimulation”). In TMS you are awake, in MST you are under anesthesia. Okay, why do you want to do either of these things? Well, the treatment with the strongest therapeutic effects on people who have suffered multiple bouts of severe depression is well known to be electroconvulsive therapy, ECT. Yes, that means administering electric shocks to people’s brains. The problem with ECT is that associated with shocking people’s brains is some retrograde amnesia. So, electrotherapists have searched for more focal treatments at lower doses, and have found some success by putting strong magnets on the surface of people’s heads. I’m being a bit glib here, but really, this is pretty exciting stuff — particularly for those suffering from depression that is resistant to medication. For more on TMS, see the work of William McDonald; for MST, see Sarah Lisanby (she’s also done TMS work as well).

The development of DSM-5 was a big topic at APA 2010. The publication of the DSM-5 in May of 2013 (at APA San Francisco) is already a much-heralded event, and those on the various subcommittees have been doing due diligence throughout the various mental health conference circuits. I heard a lot about DSM-5 at APA 2010, but perhaps the most interesting proposed conceptual change I heard was the decoupling of disability from the notion of mental disorder. Since DSM-III (1980), criteria for diagnosing most disorders has included a functional criterion; i.e., you can’t just have some symptoms, the symptoms have to keep you from doing the things you want or need to do. So, someone with depression who is really sad but gets everything done cannot really have clinical depression. Decoupling symptom criteria from functional disability would put DSM-5 in line with the World Health Organization’s ICD-10/ICF system (ICD-10 is the WHO’s classification disorders manual; ICF is their functional disability manual). It would also clearly expand the number of people with disorders, as the functional criterion limits the application of a given disorder. Over-diagnosis will likely result. However, leaving things as they are means that the functional criteria limits prevention efforts: if you have to wait to diagnose a disorder before it becomes disabling, how can you administer (or more to the point, how can you pay for the administration of) prevention efforts? Stay tuned… or just check out the DSM-5 website. (By the way, it’s settled: DSM-5, not DSM-V.)


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