Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Monday, January 30, 2012 4:48 PM
You need it. Everybody says so. Whether you’ve lost a loved one, a job, a relationship, or a pet, the one thing our culture insists will assuage your pain is closure—grief’s endgame. But is the concept of closure real, or is it just a way to exploit your heartache?
“Many bereavement scholars, grief counselors, and those grieving dismiss the idea of closure, but it continues to thrive in popular culture, politics, and marketing,” writes sociologist Nancy Berns in Contexts. Closure, which rose in popularity in the 1990s, “fits our culture’s quest to do things efficiently, following proscribed rules to get to a goal—in this case, an end to pain or loss. Since we are enmeshed in a consumer culture, it comes as no surprise that people turn to the marketplace to find grief rituals.”
And there are plenty of rituals to choose from: In the death care industry, where closure is king, a traditional funeral package can hover around $10,000. As cheaper cremations grow more common, funeral directors push viewings, which often require the cost of embalming, as necessary to reaching closure. There are also cremation-related products such as “memorial soil” (dirt mixed with ashes) and LifeGems (diamonds made from ashes); pet urns (to hold Fido’s ashes); and businesses like Air Legacy (to scatter ashes), all marketed as shortcuts to closure. The Everlife Memorials ash-scattering service, for example, claims that “aerial scattering offers a means of closure to families who are ready to take the final step in the grieving process.”
Other industries offer closure—for a fee—as well. Private investigators sell closure through the collection of evidence; psychics sell closure by offering answers from beyond; some forensic analysts even sell closure by hawking autopsies and the additional information they provide. And the growing divorce party industry sells products to help spurned wives and husbands shut the door on their marriages, with everything from party games like Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Ex to wedding ring coffins.
The business of closure reaches into the political realm, too. In an effort to advance their position, Berns writes, “death penalty advocates claim that killing a murderer will bring closure to the families of homicide victims.” She concludes:
The distorted message about grief that comes from closure marketing is this: You need closure. Salespeople and politicians have entered the business of grief counseling, but their advice is rooted in profits and politics. Expecting people to “find closure” within a particular time frame or after specific rituals does not help our understanding of grief. Selling products…in the name of closure exploits the emotional pain of grief, but it does not mean that closure exists or is needed.
That there is no finish line for grief frees you to experience it in a way that’s right for you. So, when it comes to the business of closure in your own life, consider leaving the door open—even just a crack—until you’re truly ready to ease it shut.
(article available to subscribers only)
Image by Alcino, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
Wednesday, September 14, 2011 2:07 PM
We’ve all taken sanctuary in a good book at the end of a hard day, a hard week, a hard month, but do the words on those pages contain actual healing properties? Bibliotherapists at the London-based establishment The School of Life think so, calling the personalized book-list prescriptions they offer “the perfect way for you to discover those amazing but often elusive works of literature that can illuminate and even change your life.”
Writer Alexandra Redgrave, of enRoute, decides to try out the shop’s bibliotherapy service, reassured that there is a long history backing the power of books. She explains:
Although bibliotherapy might sound like just another clever name for the self-help book section, the practice has existed since at least the end of the 18th century in Europe and the beginning of the 19th century in the U.S., where mental-health hospitals started setting up libraries in the 1840s as a means to treat patients. The American physician Benjamin Rush noted in 1812 that certain novels could cure melancholy—this at a time when it was commonly believed that sensationalist texts caused insanity. And British soldiers were prescribed fiction after WWII to help them recuperate from post-traumatic shock.
At her private session, Redgrave—considering a career shift and seeking courage—answers questions about her reading history, her childhood, and what is missing from her life, as the bibliotherapist thoughtfully takes notes. “Have you ever read The Year of the Hare?” the therapist asks, ruminating on the right book for Redgrave’s needs. “It’s about a Finnish journalist who takes a drive in the countryside, accidentally hits a hare and disappears into the woods to help it recover, leaving his former life behind for the call of the wild.” Redgrave is prescribed that novel on the spot, along with the promise of a longer reading list in a few days.
In addition to individual, group, and remote bibliotherapy sessions, The School of Life offers an extensive menu of options for optimizing personal fulfillment: classes (How to Balance Work with Life, How to Be Cool); secular sermons (on compassion, strangers, storytelling); lectures (Fear of Failure, Finding the Perfect Partner); and psychotherapy consultations. But bibliotherapy remains one of its most popular services.
Check out the sample prescriptions available online for the recently bereaved, the sleep deprived parent, the newly retired, the gainfully unemployed, and the broken-hearted—who are advised to read How to Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. Lonely hearts will soon “bid adieu to sadness,” The School of Life claims, and “embrace a new way of living.” Until then, at least they’ll have a good book to curl up with.
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Thursday, April 07, 2011 4:53 PM
Finding time for meditation is tricky, but I steal a few moments for it whenever I can: while reclined in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the hygienist; while riding the pleasantly rumbling bus on a morning commute; and, on increasingly rare occasions, while sitting on my bedroom floor in half lotus position. At this woefully meager rate, however, enlightenment—or any of meditation’s benefits—seems miles away.
For devout meditators (some with more than 10,000 meditation hours under their belts), meditation provides clear rewards. Scientists have indicated that meditation can alter experienced meditators’ brains, changing their gray matter to improve concentration and mental health. Now, even the time-crunched masses can enjoy the positive results of meditation, reports Jason Marsh in Greater Good. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagingreveals that “meditating for just 30 minutes a day for eight weeks can increase the density of gray matter in brain regions associated with memory, stress, and empathy,” Marsh writes.
Researchers studied 16 participants in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. None of them were master meditators, yet their brains were changed by 30-minute meditation sessions.
“When their brains were scanned at the end of the program, their gray matter was significantly thicker in several regions than it was before,” writes Marsh. He continues:
One of those regions was the hippocampus, which prior research has found to be involved in learning, memory, and the regulation of our emotions. The gray matter of the hippocampus is often reduced in people who suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The researchers also found denser gray matter in the temporo-perietal junction and the posterior cingulated cortex of the meditators’ brains—regions involved in empathy and taking the perspective of someone else—and in the cerebellum, which has been linked to emotion regulation.
Carving out even 30 minutes a day for meditation can feel daunting, but Marsh points out that every little bit counts:
The upshot of all this research seems to be: Small steps matter. Many of us can bring about positive effects on our brains and overall well-being—without an Olympic effort.
Source: Greater Good
Image by titanium22, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, February 21, 2011 1:48 PM
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 13 percent of the American adult population is getting treatment for a mental health problem, through therapy or medications. With these levels, it’s inevitable that quick fixes and wonder drugs enter the conversation. But can energy psychology—an immediate cure for what ails you, executed by simply tapping on acupressure points on your skin—be for real?
Albert Szent-Györgyi, the 1937 Nobel Laureate in medicine, observed that, “In every culture and in every medical tradition before ours, healing was accomplished by moving energy.” But although energy psychology (EP) has been around since the 1980s, it still struggles to gain acceptance from its professional peers. In Psychotherapy Networker, psychologist David Feinstein writes of his quest to discover whether EP is hoodoo or good medicine. Here, he witnesses it cure a woman’s paralyzing claustrophobia:
She was shown where and how to tap on a series of points on her skin while remembering frightening incidents involving enclosed spaces. To my amazement, she almost immediately reported that the scenes she was imagining were causing her less distress. Within 20 minutes, her claustrophobia seemed to have disappeared.
The tapping technique has been found to soothe other phobias like the fear of heights and negative emotions such as anger, guilt, and jealousy. As clinical evidence of these small victories comes to light, the method’s reputation is improving.
Beyond standard therapy-office ailments, EP has also proven effective on treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychologist Caroline Sakai led an especially moving session at a Rwandan orphanage. The results are encouraging:
Of the 400 orphans living or schooled at the facility, 188 had lost their families during the ethnic cleansing 12 years earlier. Many had witnessed their parents being slaughtered, and they were still having severe symptoms of PTSD, including flashbacks, nightmares, bedwetting, withdrawal, or aggression. The study focused on the 50 teenagers identified by the caregivers as having the greatest difficulties. All 50 were rated on a standardized symptom inventory for caregivers and scored above the PTSD cutoff. Each then received a single acupoint-tapping session lasting 20 to 60 minutes, combined with approximately 6 minutes spent learning two simple relaxation techniques. Not only did the scores of 47 of the 50 adolescents fall below the PTSD range following this brief intervention, these improvements in serious conditions that had persisted for more than a decade held at a one-year follow-up.
In the end Feinstein, an initial skeptic, is convinced:
I can’t fully express how surprised I am to find myself standing here telling you that the key to successful treatment, even with extremely tough cases, can be a mechanical, superficial, ridiculously speedy physical technique that doesn’t require a sustained therapeutic relationship, the acquisition of deep insight, or even a serious commitment to personal transformation. Yet, strange as it looks to be tapping on your skin while humming “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” it works!
Source: Psychotherapy Networker
Image by allegra_, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, October 18, 2010 4:50 PM
Are our institutions of higher learning becoming dens of corporate complicity? That’s the thread running through a spate of recent stories that reveal how a trio of heavies—Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and Big Pharma—are pulling strings at U.S. universities. Each tale, on its own, is unsettling. Taken together, they paint a picture of collusion in which intellectual freedom and moral decency take a back seat to the mighty promise of profit:
• Oil giants spent $880 million over the last decade to support energy research at 10 large universities, according to a report covered by Kate Sheppard on the Mother Jones website. The report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, “Big Oil Goes to College,” concludes that these ties constitute a threat to academic independence and good science.
• Mother Jones details in its Sept.-Oct. issue how a young man having psychotic episodes was coerced into a pharmaceutical industry study at the University of Minnesota—and ended up dead. The tragic tale, based on a great piece of newspaper reporting by Paul Tosto and Jeremy Olson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press, is a vivid glimpse into the dark side of market-driven drug trials.
• The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on “The Secret Lives of Big Pharma’s ‘Thought Leaders,’” also known as key opinion leaders, or KOLs: the influential academic physician-researchers who are paid by drug companies to basically shill for their brands—but not overtly, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they deftly blend their conflicting roles and realize substantial payouts for their credibility-lending efforts. “The KOL is a combination of celebrity spokesperson, neighborhood gossip, and the popular kid in high school,” writes Carl Elliott for The Chronicle. The piece makes me want to read Elliot’s new book, White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine (Beacon Press).
• The Chronicle of Higher Education also recently reported on an incident in which Big Ag seemed to be calling shots at the University of Iowa: A shoo-in candidate for a sustainability program position was brushed off after he suggested that cows eat grass—not a message that sits well with the factory-farm titans who are entwined with the university.
• Finally, a recent blowup at the University of Minnesota carried another strong whiff of Big Ag influence. An environmental documentary film, Troubled Waters, that ascribed water pollution in part to farming practices was pulled from a public television broadcast amid criticism from a university dean that it “vilified agriculture.” Ultimately, the film was reinstated after a public backlash to the move—and the university vice president who canceled it publicly apologized. Paula Crossfield covered the controversy at the blog Civil Eats (later reposted at Grist and Huffington Post), although Twin Cities Daily Planet reporter Molly Priesmeyer broke the story and stayed on it.
It’s not lost on me that several of these conflicts of interest occurred at my alma mater, the University of Minnesota. If I were the type of person who displayed my degrees on the wall, my B.A. from the university would be losing a bit of its luster right now. University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said after the film imbroglio that academic freedom is the “cornerstone of all great American universities.” I see signs of that cornerstone crumbling—and I hope that hard-working journalists keep drawing attention to it before there’s a complete structural failure.
Sources: Mother Jones, Chronicle of Higher Education, Civil Eats, Grist, Huffington Post, Twin Cities Daily Planet
Image by minnemom, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010 3:03 PM
At the beginning of June, I wrote a bit about omega-3s and our developing understanding of the complex role these essential fatty acids play in our bodies, especially with respect to brain chemistry. Since then I also spotted a nice piece in the Colorado Springs Independent on the subject, about a doctor who says omega-3 deficiency (that is, eating too little fish) could be the cause of rising rates of mental illness.
At any rate, I know the preponderance of stories in the media has made me extra-diligent about taking my fish oil capsules, which is why I wanted to point to an unnerving piece in the July-August issue of Spirituality & Health about health risks and the choosing the best fish oil supplements.
As Matt Sutherland writes:
If you’re unnerved by the idea that a typical package of hamburger might contain flesh from hundreds, if not thousands, of cows, you may be surprised to know the oil in your fish oil capsule may be derived from several different species, including sardines, herring, anchovies, tuna, cod, krill (a shrimp-like planktonic crustacean, and even farm-raised salmon. Furthermore, these fish, which get their omega-3 from eating microalgae, may come from shallow waters near heavily populated shores, where heavy metals, toxins, PCBs, and other pollutants concentrate….
Delightful. If you’re looking to reap the health benefits of fish oil, Sutherland advises doing your own research. “Terms like ‘ultra-refined,’ ‘high-potency,’ ‘pharmaceutical-grade,’ etc., are marketing hyperbole,” he writes. “The industry as a whole, has not agreed on definitions of purity or quality.”
Look for pills that have been tested for heavy metals other pollutants. A bottling date is also a plus, as is cold-press extraction. And definitely pay attention to what kind of fish a company is using to produce its pills.
Spectrum Organics, for example, uses “non-threatened salt water species of wild-caught, small, plankton-feeding fish (anchovies, mackerel and sardines) that are low on the food chain,” according to the company’s website. It made Sutherland’s list of recommended producers to check out, along with Nordic Naturals, Carlson, and Barlean’s, based on a survey of independent natural food stores.
Sources: Colorado Springs Independent, Spirituality & Health (article not yet online)
Spirituality & Health was our 2010 Utne Independent Press Award winner for best health/wellness coverage.
Friday, May 07, 2010 4:48 PM
The sight of open, untrashed green space while exercising is a balm for our minds and bodies, a group of U.K. researchers has concluded. In a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research (pdf), five groups of 20 subjects exercised on a treadmill while watching a series of scenes projected on a wall.
Four types of scenes were tested—“rural pleasant,” “rural unpleasant,” “urban pleasant” and “urban unpleasant.” The subjects’ blood pressure and two psychological measures—self-esteem and mood—were measured before and after the treadmill sessions. The researchers write:
There was a clear effect of both exercise and different scenes on blood pressure, self-esteem and mood. Exercise alone significantly reduced blood pressure, increased self-esteem, and had a positive significant effect on 4 of 6 mood measures. Both rural and urban pleasant scenes produced a significantly greater positive effect on self-esteem than the exercise-only control. This shows the synergistic effect of green exercise in both rural and urban environments. By contrast, both rural and urban unpleasant scenes reduced the positive effects of exercise on self-esteem. The rural unpleasant scenes had the most dramatic effect, depressing the beneficial effects of exercise on three different measures of mood. It appears that threats to the countryside depicted in rural unpleasant scenes have a greater negative effect on mood than already urban unpleasant scenes.
So: Exercise in itself is a good thing. Exercise in pleasant surroundings is an even better thing. The researchers muse on the societal implications of this:
We conclude that green exercise has important implications for public and environmental health. A fitter and emotionally more content population would clearly cost the economy less as well as reducing individual human suffering. … Thus increasing support for and access to a wide range of green exercise activities for all sectors of society should produce substantial economic and public health benefits. Such support could include the provision and promotion of healthy walks projects, exercise on prescription, healthy school environments, healthy travel to school projects, green views in hospitals, city farms and community gardens, urban green space, and outdoor leisure activities in the countryside.
The interesting thing to me is that none of the subjects actually went outdoors—they simply looked at images of the outdoors. If the mere sight of green space makes us feel better, just imagine what it does when you incorporate all the sensory intangibles of the physical experience: a fresh breeze, fragrant wildflowers, wildlife sightings, clouds rolling past, perhaps a beautiful sunrise or sunset. Maybe for their next study, the researchers will get people off their treadmills and onto their feet or bicycles.
In the meantime, I’m going to bicycle home past a mixture of “urban pleasant” and “urban unpleasant” scenes and on my weekend seek out a nice long, uninterrupted stretch of “rural pleasant.”
Source: International Journal of Environmental Health Research
Image by besighyawn, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, February 19, 2010 5:08 PM
Care farms are places where some of society’s most vulnerable people join farmers in working the land, reaping a connection to social support, meaningful work, and the natural world, Lorna Howarth writes in Resurgence. The farms, which already play a significant role in the Dutch health- and social-care system, are gaining popularity in the United Kingdom as options for people with mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and difficulty in traditional schools.
While some farms are day-work oriented, others offer extended residential stays. One UK couple, for example, runs a care farm that offers a nine-month program for former drug offenders. Fourteen men, age 20 to 50, live on the farm and learn the forestry and livestock business. “But what they really love is being part of family life,” the couple told The Times. The UK farms, numbering around 100, have been so successful there’s talk of establishing a national farm care plan and accreditation system.
It’s a scheme in which all benefit, too: Farmers, many of whom convert from traditional operations, receive a daily stipend for each “farm helper” which helps cover staffing costs. The money comes from social or legal services or pupil referrals. Howarth also points out that the traditional farm life can be an isolated one, characterized by “intense lone working.”
“Feedback from farmers who have moved into care farming has been fantastic,” she writes. “The enjoyment and enhanced meaning brought to their lives through delivering care on their own farms taps into the huge passion they have for sharing their skills and cultivating both the growth of plants and animals, and that of fellow human beings.”
Sources: Resurgence, The Times
Wednesday, August 12, 2009 9:28 AM
Therapist Jason Rowley has an unusual clientele: the patrons of Regent Park Community Health Centre, in a rough, run-down Toronto neighborhood. Unusual only because “well-educated, relatively wealthy females are by far the most likely Canadians to be referred to mental health specialists,” reports The Walrus. “The implication is that they are thought to have the time and verbal acuity to engage in talk therapy.”
Rowley respectfully disagrees with the referential bias, which is why he’s intent on practicing cognitive-behavioral therapy in Regent Park. The brand of therapy focuses on identifying and then questioning assumptions that people hold about themselves (i.e., “I always screw up relationships”). From there, the work is figuring out how to “loosen their grip.”
It’s an approach that Rowley thinks is particularly valuable for his clients. “These neighborhoods are like crab buckets,” he tells The Walrus. “As soon as you start climbing out, there are five situations, or five social determinants, pulling you back.” Instead of prescribing medication or plumbing childhood trauma, cognitive-behavioral therapy considers clients’ circumstances and is ultimately goal oriented—focusing on making everyday life more productive.
Source: The Walrus
Monday, January 12, 2009 2:33 PM
Cuba’s renowned health care system has a blind spot: It is failing people with mental illness. The island nation has the highest rates of suicide and depression in the Americas. Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, Lygia Navarro skillfully weaves the stories of individual Cubans with a broader perspective on the government’s refusal to acknowledge the dramatic suicide rates and the prevalent prescription drug abuse. She exposes secretive lives without exploitation and pays homage to the setting with telling descriptions.
After days of talking about mental health and black-market meds, one afternoon Mirta stops me midconversation. She can tell from my questioning that Cuba’s passion for sedatives is something of an anomaly. Do Americans take sleeping pills? she asks. I do not want to offend her, and say carefully that it isn’t as common there, and is stigmatized by the stereotype of unhappy housewives downing bottles of Valium. Mirta laughs. The possibility of falling over the precipice is all around her—almost everyone she knows takes sedatives. “Because people know that they have to get up and start all over again. This has been going on for so long here in Cuba that if someone doesn’t take sleeping pills, that’s abnormal.” Both she and Alejandro are uneasy about their underground pharmacist’s corruption in profiting off people like them. But they keep buying.
The more I talk with health workers and Cubans hooked on sedatives, the more I am convinced that the government has strategic reasons for making meprobamate available primarily on the black market. With no aboveground market or statistics, who knows how many tablets are produced or how many Cubans consume them? If meprobamate were conveniently available in pharmacies—and more affordable than on the black market—how many more Cubans would rush to drug themselves? And, the question ultimately is, how afraid is Havana of its citizens unsedated?
(Thanks, Untold Stories.)
Thursday, April 03, 2008 11:47 AM
In 1991, the de facto republic of Somaliland declared independence from Somalia, after a brutal four-year conflict during which tens of thousands died and even more became refugees. As the displaced return to their homeland, “the scope of the war’s psychological toll is just beginning to register,” writes Tyler Stiem in the Walrus. Stiem offers a brief glimpse into the only mental health facility in a country that has none of its own psychiatrists.
Aden Ismail is a Somali-Canadian doctor who has visited the hospital every year or so for the past decade, treating hundreds of patients during every visit. He estimates as much as two-thirds of the country experiences post-traumatic stress disorder. “Six or seven years ago, all of the patients suffered from acute mental illness,” Ismail tells Stiem. “Now I see more people like Mohamad. They’re hard to diagnose, because their symptoms are diffuse: anger, depression, malaise, insomnia. And it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
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