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What’s New in Mental Health?


What’s New in Mental Health?

By: Jessica Plouffe

As a follow-up to the article that was posted a few weeks back, here is another compilation of news related to mental health over the last two weeks!

Poor Sleep Triggers Viral Loneliness and Social Rejection

It is well-known that a lack of sleep causes temporary cognitive declines, such as poor memory or concentration. However, it was not previously understood that a lack of sleep can also dramatically impact one’s social life. In fact, according to this study from UC Berkeley, having too little sleep can cause symptoms that mirror those of social anxiety – particularly feelings of loneliness, less overall social engagement, and less close contact. The sleep loss both lowered the activity in social regions of the participants’ brains, including the “theory of mind” region which is responsible for understanding what another individual might be thinking or experiencing, and increased the activity in the brain regions that are activated during an invasion of personal space, which perhaps not surprisingly is associated with perceiving threats. In fact, the sleep-deprived participants demanded 18-60% more personal space than they had when they had received a full-night’s sleep. As has been demonstrated via social anxiety research, these symptoms in turn make a person appear less socially attractive to others, and perhaps worse, this study demonstrates that they can be contagious. Participants recruited online who viewed videos of lonely-appearing experiment participants reported that they felt more lonely after watching the video. With up to 50% of Americans feeling lonely, and loneliness greatly increasing one’s mortality rate, it is probable that an overall lack of sleep – probably stemming in part from our overly fast-paced lifestyles – is a great contributor to the mental health crisis that we are facing.


Original Journal Article:

Students’ Social Skills Flourish Best in Groups with Similar Skill Levels

This study from the University of Missouri demonstrates that children with social disorders would benefit more from being grouped with other children with similar social abilities, regardless of the type of deficiency that the student has, rather than the current practices of grouping children by specific disorder (i.e. Autism Spectrum Disorder) or out of convenience based on class scheduling or other factors. The reasoning behind this makes a lot of sense – most disorders that cause social deficits have a wide range of ability. With autism (ASD), for example, there are children who have mild to moderate social deficits but are ahead of their non-ASD peers in other areas, but there are also children who have severe deficits in social skills and in most other life skills; it makes sense that helping all autistic children at once would not provide enough assistance either for the higher functioning or lower functioning children, and it would be more difficult for children to identify with peers with vastly different abilities. Rather, it would be more beneficial to the students to pair the higher-functioning autistic students with other higher-functioning students with ASD or other social disorders, and pair the lower-functioning autistic students with other lower-functioning students with ASD or other social disorders. This, according the authors, would help the children to help and learn from each other, likely because it is a closer peer relationship. While this study only examined a middle school population, it is likely that such changes would be beneficial to all ages.

Of course, not every school district will have enough students in need or enough resources available to implement these changes; perhaps social groups that span multiple districts could be successful in smaller districts.


Original Journal Article (There is paid access only to this article):

Can Service Dogs Help With Anxiety?

This article, which cites several recent peer-reviewed studies,  suggests that there are definitive benefits of service dogs for people suffering from anxiety. Service dogs can recognize the onset of a panic attack before the person is aware, for example, and can be trained to fetch help in the form of medications, a phone or another person. A dog can also soothe an anxious handler by licking, allowing the handler to pet him or her, or providing deep pressure therapy. They can turn on lights or ensure that a room doesn’t contain a trigger for anxiety or PTSD. Of course, most people who do have service dogs also see benefits from therapy or psychiatric medications.

There are rather extensive criteria to obtain a service dog (for good reason), such as recommendation letters from doctors or therapists and the ability to partake in training the dog, and not everyone with a psychological disorder will qualify for a service dog. Another option is an emotional support animal (ESA).While ESAs are technically pets, they are still subject to restrictions, including a letter from a therapist indicating how the animal would help the client, though these restrictions are much less stringent than for a service dog. ESAs also have some protections that a family dog will not benefit from; they are exempt from pet-free housing rules, for example.

Even if a service dog or ESA is not an option, dogs in general can offer companionship, an excuse to exercise, opportunities for positive social interaction, and lower cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. Any dog can provide these benefits to an owner, and cats or even smaller pets can offer companionship.



About the Author: Jessica is a Senior at Western Connecticut State University studying Psychology as part of the Kathwari Honors Program. She is a Research Assistant at WCSU’s Cognition lab and President of the same university’s Psi Chi Chapter and a member of the Psychology Student Association.