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Frequent social media use influences depressive symptoms over time among LGBTQ youth

Social media use may foster a positive sense of self and a perception of being valued in a society or community, or it may do the opposite, which can affect adolescents’ psychological well-being. Youth with more negative emotional or psychological symptoms are at higher risk than their peers of developing problematic online engagement patterns in attempts to ease psychological distress, which can lead to problematic usage patterns for some.

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Frequent social media use can impact depressive symptoms over time for LGBTQ youth, according to research from a Washington State University communication professor.

Traci Gillig, an assistant professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, found that when LGBTQ adolescents attended a social media-free summer camp, they experienced a reduction in depressive symptoms, as outlined in her 2020 research “Longitudinal analysis of depressive symptoms among LGBTQ youth at a social media-free camp”.

According to Gillig, social media use may foster a positive sense of self and a perception of being valued in a society or community, or it may do the opposite, which can affect adolescents’ psychological well-being. Youth with more negative emotional or psychological symptoms are at higher risk than their peers of developing problematic online engagement patterns in attempts to ease psychological distress, which can lead to problematic usage patterns for some.

Previous research reveals that nearly half of youth (42%) report that social media has taken away from in-person, face-to-face time with friends in today’s digital age. Many also report feelings of social exclusion, which is popularly referred to today as the term FOMO (i.e., “fear of missing out”).

In Gillig’s study, LGBTQ youth ages 12-18 were surveyed before and after attending a social media-free summer leadership camp for LGBTQ youth. Survey questions examined the relationship between youth’s social media use prior to camp and changes in their depressive symptoms during the program.

Social media use may foster a positive sense of self and a perception of being valued in a society or community, or it may do the opposite, which can affect adolescents’ psychological well-being.

When examining the role of social media use in changes in depressive symptoms over time, significant findings emerged. Before attending the camp, the average number of hours participants spent using social media each day was about four hours and depressive symptoms among participants was moderate. By the end of the social media-free camp, depressive symptoms lowered by about half.

Youth with the highest levels of pre-camp social media use tended to experience a more “across the board” reduction in depressive symptoms. Gillig believes this can be attributed to the social, affirming camp setting that may have filled a critical need of social interaction for the high-volume social media users.

These findings highlight the positive influence of a “social media break” in a supportive environment on mental health, especially for LGBTQ youth. They also demonstrate the value of face-to-face interactions and how many youth may be unaware of the psychological benefits they could experience by trading social media time for face-to-face interactions in supportive contexts.

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Face-to-face interactions can be even more beneficial for marginalized groups, including LGBTQ adolescents, who may not have access to supportive contacts within their local community. Affirming programming that brings together LGBTQ youth for in-person relationship development, such as camps for LGBTQ individuals, shows promise to improve youth mental health trajectories.

Gillig hopes that other researchers continue to test for relationships between social media use and psychological distress, especially its impact on LGBTQ youth mental health over time. More research is needed to help practitioners make informed recommendations to distressed LGBTQ youth and their parents as to whether the youth may benefit from simply unplugging from social media or from unplugging in the context of LGBTQ-affirming programming.

Health & Wellness

Transgender and gender-diverse individuals more likely to be autistic

Transgender and gender-diverse adult individuals were between three and six times more likely to indicate that they were diagnosed as autistic compared to cisgender individuals. While the study used data from adults who indicated that they had received an autism diagnosis, it is likely that many individuals on the autistic spectrum may be undiagnosed.

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Transgender and gender-diverse adults are three to six times more likely as cisgender adults (individuals whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth) to be diagnosed as autistic, according to a new study by scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre.

This research – “Elevated rates of autism, other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses and autistic traits in transgender and gender-diverse individuals” – was conducted using data from over 600,000 adult individuals, and it confirms previous smaller scale studies from clinics. The results are published in Nature Communications.

A better understanding of gender diversity in autistic individuals will help provide better access to health care and post-diagnostic support for autistic transgender and gender-diverse individuals.

The team used five different datasets, including a dataset of over 500,000 individuals collected as a part of UK’s Channel 4 documentary “Are you autistic?”. In these datasets, participants had provided information about their gender identity, and if they received a diagnosis of autism or other psychiatric conditions such as depression or schizophrenia. Participants also completed a measure of autistic traits.

Strikingly, across all five datasets, the team found that transgender and gender-diverse adult individuals were between three and six times more likely to indicate that they were diagnosed as autistic compared to cisgender individuals. While the study used data from adults who indicated that they had received an autism diagnosis, it is likely that many individuals on the autistic spectrum may be undiagnosed.

Transgender and gender-diverse individuals were also more likely to indicate that they had received diagnoses of mental health conditions, particularly depression, which they were more than twice as likely as their cisgender counterparts to have experienced.

In the UK, around 1.1% of the population is estimated to be on the autistic spectrum, and this result would suggest that somewhere between 3.5% to 6.5% of transgender and gender-diverse adults is on the autistic spectrum.

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, a collaborator on the study at the University of Toronto, said: “We are beginning to learn more about how the presentation of autism differs in cisgender men and women. Understanding how autism manifests in transgender and gender-diverse people will enrich our knowledge about autism in relation to gender and sex. This enables clinicians to better recognize autism and provide personalised support and health care.”

Transgender and gender-diverse individuals were also more likely to indicate that they had received diagnoses of mental health conditions, particularly depression, which they were more than twice as likely as their cisgender counterparts to have experienced. Transgender and gender-diverse individuals also, on average, scored higher on measures of autistic traits compared to cisgender individuals, regardless of whether they had an autism diagnosis.

Dr Varun Warrier, who led the study, said: “This finding, using large datasets, confirms that the co-occurrence between being autistic and being transgender and gender-diverse is robust. We now need to understand the significance of this co-occurrence, and identify and address the factors that contribute to well-being of this group of people.”

The study investigates the co-occurrence between gender identity and autism. The team did not investigate if one causes the other.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, and a member of the team, said: “Both autistic individuals and transgender and gender-diverse individuals are marginalized and experience multiple vulnerabilities. It is important that we safe-guard the rights of these individuals to be themselves, receive the requisite support, and enjoy equality and celebration of their differences, free of societal stigma or discrimination.”

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Health & Wellness

Supportive communities and progressive politics can reduce suicide risk among LGBTQ girls

New research shows that supportive communities – and a progressive political climate – can help mitigate the effects of stigma on mental health.

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Many LGBTQ youth continue to experience stigma and discrimination despite progress made in protecting human rights. Now new research from Canada’s UBC’s school of nursing shows that supportive communities – and a progressive political climate – can help mitigate the effects of stigma on mental health.

The researchers combined data from the BC Adolescent Health Survey with an inventory of different LGBTQ events and youth supportive service in communities across B.C. They found that the greater the LGBTQ youth supports in a community, the less likely sexual minority youth, particularly lesbian and bisexual girls, were to have suicidal thoughts or attempts, or to self-harm, compared to their counterparts in communities with fewer supportive events, groups and services. The team also found that lesbian and bisexual girls in communities where more people voted BC NDP in the 2013 provincial general election were less likely to report suicidal thoughts or self-harm.

Where lesbian, gay and bisexual youth live – their community environment, and the kind of LGBTQ-inclusive supports that are or aren’t there – appears to play a role in their odds of suicidality and self-harm.

In their inventory, the researchers counted LGBTQ-youth drop-ins and LGBTQ-youth friendly health services, as well as positive events like Pride parades, anti-bullying days, and meetings for parents, families and friends of LGBTQ people. Community resources that show support for LGBTQ people more generally, such as rainbow crosswalks, supportive faith communities, and queer-friendly coffee houses, also made the list.

“The impact of stigma and discrimination continues to put the health of LGBTQ youth at risk, but this risk isn’t equal everywhere,” said lead researcher Elizabeth Saewyc, a UBC nursing professor and director of Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC). “Our research found that where lesbian, gay and bisexual youth live – their community environment, and the kind of LGBTQ-inclusive supports that are or aren’t there – appears to play a role in their odds of suicidality and self-harm.”

Saewyc says research shows that safe and inclusive schools, particularly those with gender and sexuality alliances, or GSAs, contribute to LGBTQ youth well-being, but this is among the first studies in Canada to look at the importance of the wider community at the same time.

“Even after accounting for school environments, our study found community supports and progressive political climates contribute to lesbian and bisexual girls’ health. It’s an important point for health care professionals and policymakers to consider – that LGBTQ visibility and support throughout communities can make a difference. We also need to recognize that the work is not yet done–we still have a long way to go to protect the health and well-being of all LGBTQ youth,” said Saewyc.

The research was published in Preventive Medicine.

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Health & Wellness

Hedonism can lead to happiness

Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure. That’s because new research shows that people’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

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Relaxing on the sofa or savoring a delicious meal: Enjoying short-term pleasurable activities that don’t lead to long-term goals contributes at least as much to a happy life as self-control, according to new research from the University of Zurich and Radboud University in the Netherlands. The researchers therefore argue for a greater appreciation of hedonism in psychology.

We all set ourselves long-term goals from time to time, such as finally getting into shape, eating less sugar or learning a foreign language. Research has devoted much time to finding out how we can reach these goals more effectively. The prevailing view is that self-control helps us prioritize long-term goals over momentary pleasure and that if you are good at self-control, this will usually result in a happier and more successful life.

“It’s time for a rethink,” says Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich. “Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.”

That’s because Bernecker’s new research shows that people’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

Distraction disrupts pleasure

Bernecker and her colleague Daniela Becker of Radboud University developed a questionnaire to measure respondents’ capacity for hedonism, i.e. their ability to focus on their immediate needs and indulge in and enjoy short-term pleasures. They used the questionnaire to find out whether people differ in their capacity to pursue hedonic goals in a variety of contexts, and whether this ability is related to well-being.

They found that certain people get distracted by intrusive thoughts in moments of relaxation or enjoyment by thinking about activities or tasks that they should be doing instead. “For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing,” says Becker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.” On the other hand, people who can fully enjoy themselves in those situations tend to have a higher sense of well-being in general, not only in the short term, and are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, among other things.

More isn’t always better

“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another,” says Bernecker. “Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health. It is important to find the right balance in everyday life.”

People’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

Unfortunately, simply sitting about more on the sofa, eating more good food and going to the pub with friends more often won’t automatically make for more happiness. “It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option,” says Bernecker. “But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”

Conscious planning of downtime

This is currently a topical issue with more people working from home, as the environment where they normally rest is suddenly associated with work. “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest,” says Bernecker.

So what can you do to enjoy your downtime more? More research is needed, but the researchers suspect that consciously planning and setting limits to periods of enjoyment could help to separate them more clearly from other activities, allowing pleasure to take place more undisturbed.

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Health & Wellness

Laughter acts as a stress buffer – and even smiling helps

People who laugh frequently in their everyday lives may be better equipped to deal with stressful events – although this does not seem to apply to the intensity of laughter.

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People who laugh frequently in their everyday lives may be better equipped to deal with stressful events – although this does not seem to apply to the intensity of laughter. These are the findings reported by a research team from the University of Basel in the journal PLOS ONE.

It is estimated that people typically laugh 18 times a day – generally during interactions with other people and depending on the degree of pleasure they experience. Researchers have also reported differences related to time of day, age, and gender – for example, it is known that women smile more than men on average.

Now, researchers from the Division of Clinical Psychology and Epidemiology of the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel have recently conducted a study on the relationship between stressful events and laughter in terms of perceived stress in everyday life.

Questions asked by app

In the intensive longitudinal study, an acoustic signal from a mobile phone app prompted participants to answer questions eight times a day at irregular intervals for a period of 14 days. The questions related to the frequency and intensity of laughter and the reason for laughing – as well as any stressful events or stress symptoms experienced – in the time since the last signal.

Using this method, the researchers working with the lead authors, Dr. Thea Zander-Schellenberg and Dr. Isabella Collins, were able to study the relationships between laughter, stressful events, and physical and psychological symptoms of stress (“I had a headache” or “I felt restless”) as part of everyday life. The published analysis was based on data from 41 psychology students, 33 of whom were women, with an average age of just under 22.

Intensity of laughter has less influence

The first result of the observational study was expected based on the specialist literature: in phases in which the subjects laughed frequently, stressful events were associated with more minor symptoms of subjective stress. However, the second finding was unexpected.

When it came to the interplay between stressful events and intensity of laughter (strong, medium or weak), there was no statistical correlation with stress symptoms. “This could be because people are better at estimating the frequency of their laughter, rather than its intensity, over the last few hours,” says the research team.

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Health & Wellness

Experiences of loneliness may differ by age

Some factors were found to be associated with loneliness across all age groups. These included living alone, frequency of neighbour contact, psychological distress, and psychological and emotional wellbeing. The strongest association with loneliness was found for those who felt excluded from society.

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Loneliness in adult life is experienced differently depending on age, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health. The research concludes that there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to reducing loneliness, as factors associated with it, such as contact with friends and family, perceived health or employment, may differ across the phases of the adult life span.

Thanée Franssen, the corresponding author, said: “The majority of studies focusing on loneliness have thus far been performed among specific age groups, such as the elderly or teenagers, or individuals with specific health conditions. To our knowledge, none of these studied the factors associated with loneliness among adults and how these change as people age.”

A team of researchers at Maastricht University and in the Public Health Service South-Limburg in the Netherlands used data collected in the Netherlands from September to December 2016 to examine associations between demographic, social and health-related factors and loneliness in 6,143 young (19-34 years), 8,418 early middle-aged (35-49 years) and 11,758 late middle-aged adults (50-65 years).

Overall, 10,309 (44.3%) individuals reported experiencing loneliness. Among young adults, 2,042 (39.7%) individuals reported feelings of loneliness, compared to 3,108 (43.3%) early-middle aged adults, and 5,159 late middle-aged adults (48.2%).

Some factors were found to be associated with loneliness across all age groups. These included living alone, frequency of neighbour contact, psychological distress, and psychological and emotional wellbeing. The strongest association with loneliness was found for those who felt excluded from society.

Some factors associated with loneliness were found to be present in specific age groups only. Young adults showed the strongest association between contact frequency with friends and loneliness. Educational level was associated with loneliness among young adults only, while an association between employment status and loneliness was found solely among early middle-aged adults. Frequency of family contact was associated with loneliness only among early and late middle-aged adults. For late middle-aged adults only, perceived health was associated with loneliness.

The authors suggest that people may feel lonely if what is the norm for their age group, such as completing school, being employed, having a partner or having children, deviates from their actual situation. As different factors are perceived to be the norm for different age groups, this may explain some of the difference in factors associated with loneliness between age groups.

Thanée Franssen said: “The identification of the factors associated with loneliness is necessary to be able to develop and target appropriate interventions. Unfortunately, most of the current interventions seem to be limited in their effect. A possible reason for this may be that most interventions for adults are universal. Results of this study showed that interventions should be developed for specific age groups.”

The authors caution that some factors that may affect people’s perception of loneliness, such as relationship quality, were not included in the current study, as they were not part of the original data collection. Due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, it was not possible to establish cause and effect.

Thanée Franssen said: “Our results also suggest that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of loneliness among adults may be impacted in different ways according to the important factors of their life phase. For example, young adults are not able to interact with their friends or classmates face to face anymore. This may need to be taken into account when considering the impact on loneliness of the current pandemic.”

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Health & Wellness

Text messaging as the next gen of therapy in mental health

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people’s schedules have been upended, which may prevent individuals with mental illness from having routine access to a therapist, such as parents who have children at home. Texting can bridge the gap.

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In the US alone, it is estimated that approximately 19 percent of all adults have a diagnosable mental illness. Clinic-based services for mental health may fall short of meeting patient needs for many reasons including limited hours, difficulty accessing care and cost.

In the first randomized controlled trial of its kind, a research team investigated the impact of a texting intervention as an add-on to a mental health treatment program versus one without texting. A text-messaging-based intervention can be a safe, clinically promising and feasible tool to augment care for people with serious mental illness, according to a new study published in Psychiatric Services.

Ninety-one percent of participants found the text-messaging acceptable, 94 percent indicated that it made them feel better and 87 percent said they would recommend it to a friend.

“This study is very exciting because we saw real improvement in those who utilized the text messaging-based intervention on top of normal care. This was true for individuals with some of the most serious forms of mental illness,” explained co-author, William J. Hudenko, a research assistant professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, and an adjunct assistant professor of clinical psychology in Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. “The results are promising, and we anticipate that people with less severe psychopathology may even do better with this type of mobile intervention.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many people’s schedules have been upended, which may prevent individuals with mental illness from having routine access to a therapist, such as parents who have children at home.

“Texting can help bridge this gap, by providing a means for mental health services to be continuously delivered. A text-messaging psychotherapy is an excellent match for the current environment, as it provides asynchronous contact with a mental health therapist while increasing the amount of contact that an individual can have,” explained Hudenko.

For the study, the research team examined the impact of text-messaging as an add-on to an assertive community treatment program versus the latter alone. Through an assertive community treatment program, those with serious mental illness have a designated team who helps them with life skills, such as finding a job and housing, managing medications, as well as providing daily, in-person clinic-based services. People with serious mental illness are likely though to experience symptoms each day for which they may need additional therapy.

The study was a three-month pilot, which was assessor blind. There were 49 participants: 62 percent had schizophrenia/schizoaffective disorder, 24 percent had bipolar disorder and 14 percent had depression. Assessments were conducted at baseline, post-trial (three months later) and during a follow-up six months later.

A text-messaging psychotherapy is an excellent match for the current environment, as it provides asynchronous contact with a mental health therapist while increasing the amount of contact that an individual can have.

Licensed mental health clinicians served as the mobile interventionists. They received a standard training program on how to engage effectively and in a personal way with participants. The mobile interventionists were monitored on a weekly basis to ensure that they were adhering to the treatment protocol. Throughout the trial, over 12,000 messages were sent, and every message was encoded, monitored and discussed with a clinician.

The results demonstrated that 95 percent initiated the intervention and texted 69 percent of possible days with an average of four texts per day. On average, participants sent roughly 165 or more text messages and received 158 or more messages. The intervention was found to be safe, as there were zero adverse events reported.

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