OSMI Blog

Computer Science Students and Mental Health Resources

Author: Christian Murphy
January 28th, 2020

Undergraduate Computer Science students at highly competitive institutions, such as the one at which I teach, live with a tremendous amount of stress. Courses are fast-paced and extremely rigorous, often requiring algorithmic thinking skills as well as strong programming ability. Students in large classes may feel like a nameless face, especially if they are members of historically underrepresented or marginalized groups. And outside of school, there is often pressure to get a job at a top software company, many of which typically have extremely competitive and selective hiring processes.

A certain level of stress is good and is part of the learning process, yet now more than ever, we are seeing Computer Science student stress turn into distress. Students often feel that they are unable to cope with their workload and the pressures they put on themselves, in addition to the pressures they feel from society, their peers, and from their families.

To that end, it is critical that Computer Science instructors signal that they care about their students’ mental health and create environments in which students can get the support they need. At the very least, instructors should ensure that students know about campus mental health resources such as counseling services, peer-to-peer hotlines, etc., by listing them in their course syllabus and in easy-to-find locations in course discussion boards and learning management systems.

Getting students to know about resources is the easy part: getting them to use those resources is trickier. An important step for instructors is destigmatizing their use and indicating that it is perfectly okay to ask for help when it comes to mental health. Students look to their instructors for guidance in both academic and life-related issues, and it can be very effective for instructors to make in-class announcements reminding students about these resources. Instructors who are not comfortable making the announcement themselves can invite representatives from student wellness groups to talk about these resources. Regardless of who does the talking, demonstrating to the students that this is important enough to mention during class goes a long way.

In my classes, I not only remind students about campus mental health resources, but I also state publicly that I live with a mental illness and see a therapist. I make it clear that I’m happy to meet with students if they’d like to discuss their mental health concerns with me. I know from discussions with colleagues that not everyone is as comfortable with being as open about this as I am, but this revelation certainly signals that I care about this topic as well as my students’ mental health. It is not easy to stand in front of a room full of 300 undergraduates and tell them about my mental illness, but later in the semester when a student tells me “I started using the campus mental health resources because of what you said in class,” then I know I’m doing something right.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Are Extreme Fasting and Biohacking Just Rebranded Eating Disorders?

Author: Beth Tucker Long
January 10th, 2020

Experts agree that fasting in moderation can be very beneficial, however, the trend towards extreme fasting has many experts worried. With the stigma around male anorexia, it also leaves many wondering if the male-dominant Silicon Valley culture is masking anorexia with scientific and technical terms to make it more socially acceptable.

Dr. Tiffany Brown, a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego Eating Disorders Center, explains that anorexia is very much considered something that just women suffer from and “people still have a difficult time recognizing similar behavior in men as problematic”.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been publicly promoting extreme fasting, including a three-day water-only fast. Dr. Valter Longo, director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, told The Guardian that he believes fasting can be very beneficial, but he strongly advises against extreme fasting like Dorsey is promoting. When popular tech celebrities begin endorsing these types of extreme eating patterns, it can be very difficult for people to see them in anything but a positive light – a way to be as productive (and get as rich as) these people they admire. The reality is, these extreme diets may be very dangerous or lead to health issues that people don’t anticipate, as an increase in gallstones.

To learn more about this extreme fasting trend and its dangers, read “Extreme fasting: how Silicon Valley is rebranding eating disorders” published in The Guardian.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

Mental Health Days for Students

Author: Beth Tucker Long
September 24th, 2019

In 2017, suicide reached a record high in Oregon state, becoming the second leading cause of death for 15-24-year-olds and third leading cause of death for 5-14-year-olds according to the Oregon Health Authority. A group of high schoolers gathered at a leadership camp decided something had to be done and came up with the idea of putting mental health on equal footing with physical health in schools. To do this, they worked with lobbyists and health professionals to get their idea in front of lawmakers, and Gov. Kate Brown signed the legislation into law in June of 2019. This new legislation allows days taken off for mental health or behavioral health to be counted as excused absences for school attendance purposes. Hailey Hardcastle, one of the student advocates, says "The reality is, kids are already skipping school for mental health reasons. They're just [using] tricks to make it look like you're sick. They say they have a fever, a headache or something like that to make their parents call them out of school for physical health when they're struggling mentally." Students often have to hide the real reason they need a day off from school because students are usually unable to make up tests or other work if the absence is unexcused. This new law will hopefully help students be more open about their mental health with their parents, teachers, and school officials. Read more in CNN’s article, “A new Oregon law will let students take 'mental health days'.

Shining a Light on Eating Disorders and Men

June 12th, 2019

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “In the United States alone, eating disorders will affect 10 million males at some point in their lives. But due in large part to cultural bias, they are much less likely to seek treatment for their eating disorder.” This means that about one third of the people struggling with an eating disorder are male. The cultural bias that makes seeking treatment difficult includes eating disorders being viewed as a feminine problem, misconceptions about what constitutes an eating disorder, and a major stigma around men seeking help for psychological issues.

Bethany Kassar, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of Outpatient Services at Summit Behavioral Health told The Daily Mail that she has seen a rise in eating disorders in young boys. Young boys are under a lot of pressure to achieve a certain weight and physique because of society's image of the perfect male body, as well as to be the "correct" weight for various sports.

The situation looks to be improving, though. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of men admitted to a hospital for an eating disorders rose 70 percent. Prominent male celebrities like Eminem, Dennis Quaid, Aaron Carter, and Robert Pattinson have all come forward about their own body image and eating disorder struggles, helping to break the stigma around males seeking help for eating disorders.

To learn more:

Photo by Padli Pradana from Pexels

Historic Fight for Better Care

Author: Beth Tucker Long
May 31st, 2019

When you think of the 1800's, you likely don't think of compassionate mental health care. The treatment for mental illnesses in that time period...left a lot to be desired. Those suffering from mental illnesses were confined in pens or cages and denied basic necessities, like clothing. If they were not behaving "properly", they were tortured and beaten until their behavior changed.

But in 1841, a wealthy woman from the East Coast began a campaign to change all of this. Dorothea Dix had just returned from being treated for tuberculosis in England. While she was there, she met many social reformers and became interested in the “lunacy reform movement” which was raising awareness about the conditions of asylums. She returned to Massachusetts and began investigating the conditions of the local population with mental illnesses. What she found angered her greatly, so she wrote a scathing “Memorial” to the state legislature calling out the horrible conditions and mistreatment. She also called for the construction of a facility designed to care for those with mental illnesses. Her words worked. In 1845, a joint committee of the state houses convened to examine the issue and later passed a bill based on Dix's recommendations.

Dix did not stop there. She continued campaigning for the next 40 years for mental health reform in all of the Eastern states and internationally in Canada, Scotland, and Russia. She helped found mental hospitals, schools for those with disabilities, and training facilities for nurses. She even spoke with Pope Pius IX and convinced him to build a new hospital for the mentally ill.

While there is a lot of controversy over asylums and mental health care hospitals, there is no denying that Dorothea Dix's compassion for others drastically improved the living conditions of an incredible number of people. To learn more about Dorothea Dix and her work, visit A Mighty Girl's blog post Dorothea Dix: The Compassionate Crusader Who Revolutionized Care for the Mentally Ill.

Mental Health Care Makes Good Business Sense

Author: Beth Tucker Long
May 8th, 2019

Oftentimes, we discuss mental health care at work in the context of social responsibility and caring for our fellow humans. However, making mental health care a priority within a company is about profit too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that depression causes 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers ranging from $17 to $44 billion dollars (USD).

Besides lost workdays, depression also leads to increased health care costs and reduced productivity at work. The CDC estimates that in a 3-month period, patients with depression will have 11.5 days of reduced productivity in addition to the 4.8 lost workdays. Many employees may quit when they cannot get the mental health support they need at work. CBSNews reported that replacing an employee that quits costs more than you might think. For a mid-range employee, replacing them can cost 20% of their annual salary. It jumps up to 213% of annual salary to replace an executive. Depression is expensive for employers!

More research is needed into how employers can most effectively improve the mental health environment at work. However, there are a number of strategies that the CDC recommends pursuing like holding depression recognition screenings, utilizing confidential self-rating sheets, training supervisors to recognize mental health issues, and making sure that all employees have access to mental health treatment through employer-provided health insurance benefits.

Just being open about mental health in the workplace can also make a big difference. Stew Friedman, professor at the Wharton School of Business and founding director of the Wharton Leadership Program, told Morra Aarons-Mele of the Harvard Business Review, “The conversations you instigate and your awareness in choosing topics of discussion are an important piece to the process of change. Openness encourages executives to share more about their own experiences, and that normalizes the experience of others.”

You can learn more about the costs of workplace depression in the Harvard Business Review article, “We Need to Talk More About Mental Health at Work”, and on the CDC’s Workplace Health Promotion website section on Depression.

Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds are My Heroes, But Not Just Because of Their Acting

Author: Aaron Saray
May 1st, 2019

How do you know you’re a true fan of Ryan Reynolds? You stuck with the Blade Trilogy just because you knew he was in Blade: Trinity. And while I don’t really care about the San Andreas fault line or a burning skyscraper, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson suckered me into spending my time and money on those movies.

I look up to these two actors for their acting prowess, of course. But what really made me a fan is how both have opened up about their battles with anxiety and depression. In twin articles in Men’s Health Magazine, Reynolds and Johnson share honest, thoughtful, and open explanations of their mental health struggles.

Johnson has shared on Twitter his own personal struggles recently. He went further and shared the story about how his mom struggled with her own depression and attempted to take her life when he was younger.

You wouldn’t imagine it with the swagger and charm he exudes, but Reynolds shares he’s nervous and anxious before every appearance. Sometimes his anxiety is so severe, it leads him to very dark places.

The bravery to be open in a competitive arena like Hollywood is pretty astounding. These two public figures, people just like us, struggle with mental health issues and aren’t afraid to share it and seek treatment. I’m proud to have them as my heroes.

For more information, check out these articles about Reynolds and Johnson: - Ryan Reynolds Talks Anxiety in ‘New York Times’ Profile - Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson Opened Up About His Battle With Depression - ‘Depression Doesn't Discriminate’ - Dwayne Johnson Shares How Depression Has Affected Him

Chronic Stress Can Make You Physically Sick

Author: Beth Tucker Long
April 24th, 2019

Sergio Caltagirone had an exciting career in computer security. He had successfully managed high-stress jobs at places like the National Security Agency, but over time, that stress lead to some major health issues. He thought his seasonal allergies were worsening, then he started getting headaches. Finally, he was having trouble breathing. Caltagirone went in to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor who diagnosed him with an extreme case of sinusitis, but they didn’t know what was causing it. They tried antibiotics, steroids, and finally surgery. After the surgery, Caltagirone felt much better, but the relief was temporary and the symptoms started up again. At this point, Caltagirone went in to talk about a very different issue than his sinuses - depression, stress, and anxiety. Through this line of questioning with his doctors, Caltagirone was diagnosed with Chronic Stress. While he is now able to manage his Chronic Stress, it has permanently affected his life and his ability to accomplish and handle things.

The American Psychological Association (APA) gives these recommendations for dealing with Chronic Stress:

Set limits. Tap into your support system. Make one health-related commitment. Enhance your sleep quality. Strive for a positive outlook.

Above all else, meet with a licensed mental health professional who can help you develop an effective strategy for your specific situation and needs. For more information on Chronic Stress, read the APA’s article, “Stress Won’t Go Away? Maybe You Are Suffering from Chronic Stress”. You can learn more about Sergio Caltagirone in his own words in “Chronic Stress and a Life: How Stress Almost Killed Me”.

A Greener Childhood Boosts Mental Health in Adulthood

Author: Aaron Saray
April 17th, 2019

Monday, I dug a hole. It was so large and deep that my German Shepherd fell into it, and my dad had to get him out. Tuesday, I went for a walk in a corn field next door and got lost. For hours, I wandered around until I finally found my way back home (and to think some people go to corn mazes during Halloween - not me!). Wednesday, I went into the woods and started to make a tree fort.

The year was 1990, and I was seven years old. I grew up in a rural area surrounded by trees, fields, and lots of greenery. I didn’t know it at the time, but this could have been one of the best gifts I got during my childhood.

According to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), access to green space in childhood is associated with stronger mental health in adults. The researchers found that a child growing up near greenery was associated with up to a 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders as an adult.

Kristine Engemann, the biologist who led the study, cautions against making a definitive link between these two conditions, however. She says the data is purely correlational. That being said, the study is based on nearly 1 million people in the Danish Civil Registration System. The data provided is so detailed that the PNAS paper was able to weight, compare, and limit other conditions like social-economic status and location.

It turns out, you don’t have to grow up in a rustic area like me to experience these benefits. Even urban dwellers surrounded by green spaces have the reduced risk. So, there’s no excuse - it’s time to walk to the park!

You can access the entire details of this peer-reviewed paper titled “Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood” online. Otherwise, stop by this NPR article for a detailed summary.

New Film Highlights Bipolar Disorder

Author: Beth Tucker Long
April 3rd, 2019

The passing of surfing legend Andy Irons in 2010 at the age of 32 stunned fans everywhere. Now, a new film looks at his life and reveals that he struggled with bipolar disorder since age 18. Not only is this film meant to celebrate the life and career of Irons, but it’s also working to shed light on bipolar disorder and its symptoms. “We want people who suffer from bipolar disorder to realize that they are not alone,” says director Steve Jones.

Bipolar disorder is debilitating, but treatable. Some of the most common symptoms are periods of depression mixed with periods of mania, a decreased need for sleep, uncharacteristic thrill-seeking behavior, and alcohol or drug abuse. You can learn more about the symptoms of bipolar disorder and the film about Irons’ life in the article, “5 Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder You Should Know” by Men’s Health.