In our print magazine this month, Hanna Rosin tells the story of her son Jacob’s diagnosis with Asperger syndrome, in the context of the psychiatric community’s recent change in the definition of the disorder to part of what’s now known as autism spectrum disorder.
We received a lot of thoughtful responses from readers who have experience with the disorder in their own lives, themselves or their families, about how the diagnosis has affected them, and what the changes in definition mean to everyone. Here are excerpts from some of those stories.
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4.4 percent of the U.S. has bipolar disorder, as best we know. The global rate is about half that, though detection and diagnosis vary dramatically. Still, treatment for the millions of people with the at-times debilitating condition involves an impressive degree of trial and error amid arrays of pills.
This week in the journal Psychiatry Research, doctors at Brown University published their findings that more than a third of people with bipolar I disorder who were admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Rhode Island were taking four or more psychiatric medications.
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Why, Justin Bieber? How could you so rashly destroy our belieb in you?
“Why is one of the most affluent stars throwing eggs at his neighbor’s house?” asks Conan O’Brien.
“Cause he’ a “f*cking idiot,” Joel McHale responds.
Possibly, but that’s not the full story. The child-star meltdown is a trope: Lindsay Lohan went from portraying a set of precocious campers in 1998 to becoming synonymous with the word “tantrum.” Amanda Bynes has had her own share of psychological turmoil, some of which included “janky wigs.” For more examples, Buzzfeed helpfully provides a listicle of 16 Disney stars who have been arrested.
A closer look at the psychology of early acclaim helps explain some of these implosions. There aren’t that many studies of child stars—it would be tricky to corral them all into some university lab to fill out questionnaires—but psychologists who have studied the effects of young stardom say strict parental limits are key to preventing post-adolescent disasters.
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We can put a man on the moon a rover on Mars but we’re still figuring out our own brains. Mental illness is stigmatized, potentially overdiagnosed, and often misunderstood. Scientists are still learning new things about where conditions come from, while sufferers figure out how to cope.
William V. Harris, a professor of history and director of the Center for the Ancient Mediterranean at Columbia University, studies mental illness in the classical world—ancient Rome and Greece. Though the body of knowledge we have at our disposal is still not totally sufficient to understand mental illness today, there’s an added level of difficulty involved in trying to apply today’s knowledge to earlier civilizations. Or in understanding those civilizations’ concepts of mental illness in a time when the gods were thought to be involved in everyday life, and hallucinations weren’t something to worry about.
Harris is the author of several books, and most recently edited Mental Disorders in the Classical World, published last summer. I spoke with him over email about how the ancient Greeks and Romans approached mental illness and what we can learn from them today.
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Forget mindfulness meditation, computerized working-memory training, and learning a musical instrument; all methods recently shown by scientists to increase intelligence. There could be an easier answer. It turns out that sex might actually make you smarter.
Researchers in Maryland and South Korea recently found that sexual activity in mice and rats improves mental performance and increases neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) in the hippocampus, where long-term memories are formed.
In April, a team from the University of Maryland reported that middle-aged rats permitted to engage in sex showed signs of improved cognitive function and hippocampal function. In November, a group from Konkuk University in Seoul concluded that sexual activity counteracts the memory-robbing effects of chronic stress in mice. “Sexual interaction could be helpful,” they wrote, “for buffering adult hippocampal neurogenesis and recognition memory function against the suppressive actions of chronic stress.”
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Positive thinking has been a mainstay of self-help for hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” A hundred years later, Henry David Thoreau said, “Thought is the sculptor who can create the person you want to be.” William James claimed that the greatest discovery of his generation was that “human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”
In the latter half of the 19th century, a man named Phineas P. Quimby founded the New Thought movement. Born in 1802, Quimby was a small, black-eyed, energetic man with little formal education. A clockmaker’s apprentice, he abruptly changed careers in 1838 when he became fascinated with Mesmerism (named after Dr. Mesmer, who had attempted to cure illness using the mind, eliciting ridicule and rejection among his colleagues and eventually forcing him to leave Vienna in 1777). After practicing on a 17-year-old boy, Quimby proclaimed himself a healer, based only on his self-training. Quimby believed that disease was nothing more than an “error of the mind.” Since disease sprang from the mind, not the body, it had to be cured using the mind.
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"Here’s what’s worked: nothing." Scott Stossel writes with resignation in the cover article for the current issue of The Atlantic, “Surviving Anxiety.” (Inside the magazine it’s titled “My Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life”.) The story, adapted from Stossel’s forthcoming book, tells of his life with anxiety disorder; how he remains high-functioning despite it, and maybe in ways because of it.
The Atlantic editors invited readers to send in stories of their own experiences with anxiety. We said that “several” stories would be selected for publication on TheAtlantic.com. As you’ll see by the length of this post, I failed handsomely at paring it down to several.
We got so many interesting submissions, and there was even more that I wanted to share than is here. Rather than run three or four people’s stories in full, we decided to run parts of many. 43. I also pulled salient quotes from most of the excerpts along the left margin. People interpreted the writing prompt very broadly, so some of it is lighthearted, and some of it is tragic. There is some advice on what works, how to keep perspective, and what makes things worse. In aggregate I hope it reads like a mixtape that reflects how widespread all of this is and how deeply it resonates.
I’d like these to mostly speak for themselves, but I will call out a couple recurring points. Anxiety is not a choice. Don’t tell people with anxiety to “stop worrying.” Do reassure them. Don’t leave them alone. Talk about your anxiety with friends and family. Be attuned and empathetic to it in others. Own your own.
Unlike Stossel, many people have found that certain treatments, behaviors, and ways of thinking about their anxiety can be helpful. Okay, here are your stories.
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My little sister’s depression was realer than mine, less childish. It was not self-inflicted, but deep and hard-wired and inescapable. Ultimately we could not save her.