Category Archives: Mental Health

Year of calamities taking toll on mental health

Mental health professional: “In the past two weeks, my practice has exploded.”

San Francisco Chronicle, by Steve Rubenstein and Nora Mishanec, Sep. 11, 2020
Michael Waddell, a professional dog walker, out in Alamo Square Friday. He said the loss of dog-walking business has caused him more stress than the recent meteorological calamities.
Michael Waddell, a professional dog walker, out in Alamo Square Friday. He said the loss of dog-walking business has caused him more stress than the recent meteorological calamities. Photo: Nora Mishanec / The Chronicle

In a year of wondering what could possibly come next, the next things just keep on coming.

After eight months, they’re starting to add up, say mental health experts. And there’s lots of 2020 left, plenty of time for more next things.

“I’ve been hearing the word ‘apocalyptic’ a lot,” said San Francisco psychiatrist Scott Lauze. “I’m doing a tremendous amount of hand-holding these days. You can’t even rely on the color of the sky anymore.”

Lauze, in private practice for three decades, said he had never seen the call for his services take off like right now.

“In the past two months, there was a significant uptick in demand,” he said. “In the past two weeks, my practice has exploded.”

Pandemic, social unrest, heat waves. Wildfires. Smoke. Mass evacuations. Therapists call them stressors, and there has been no shortage of things to get stressed over.

And this just in: ash raining from the heavens, and darkness at noon.

“I couldn’t fall asleep,” said San Francisco nurse Valieree MacGlaun, who works the night shift and was walking home Friday on Divisadero Street from the VA hospital in her scrubs.

She said she feels overwhelmed, though her job is to help other people overcome feeling overwhelmed.

“This is my calling,” she said. “But you have to take care of yourself.”

Connie and Michael VonDohlen flew from their home in Tennessee to San Francisco on Wednesday to attend their daughter’s wedding, just in time for the dark orange daytime skies that made some locals say it felt like living on Mars. Streets were deserted. The VonDohlens, who don’t seem to shock easily, said they were shocked.

“We thought we had gone into the Twilight Zone,” Michael VonDohlen said. “I was expecting zombies to jump out from every doorway.”

“The fires, added to the pandemic, and the inability to escape — all that adds to the potential for hopelessness,” said emergency room psychiatrist Yener Balan, head of behavioral health services at Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

Calamity and malaise are part of the human condition, he said, and pondering the world wars endured by prior generations can put a virus or a wildfire in perspective.

Coronavirus live updates: SF urges people to stay inside due…
“As a species, we are resilient,” he said. “Many generations have seen this level of calamity.”

Taking care of oneself, living in the moment, checking in with family and friends, getting enough exercise and sleep — those are the keys to coping, Balan said. And turning off the TV and the computer when enough is enough — that helps, too. It also reduces exposure to the added stresses of a national election and its apocalyptic nuances.

“Just when you think you’re beginning to deal with one disaster, another one comes along,” said David Spiegel, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University. “Patients who have been stable are experiencing an exacerbation of depression and anxiety.”

The year 2020, he said, is turning out to be a “remarkable test of everyone’s ability to cope.”

Trying to cope in Alamo Square, while holding three dogs on a leash, was professional dog walker Michael Waddell. He used to wear a plain mask, for the virus. Now he wears a mask with an air filter, for the virus and the smoke. Different disaster, different mask.

Two in 5 U.S. adults say they are “struggling with mental health or substance abuse” since the pandemic hit, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the “prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder” were triple those of last year, the report added.

Even if psychiatrists are doing more business these days, Waddell said, dog walkers aren’t. Business has largely fallen off as people staying home can walk their own dogs.

Waddell’s usual complement of dogs is six. Losing half his income, Waddell said, “has added more to my immediate stress than the smoke or the wildfires.”

Dogs, who have no problem living in the moment, help. So do hobbies, said Melissa Smith, who was waiting for 5-McAllister bus. She said her therapy was to try “old lady hobbies.”

“This is the perfect excuse to take up knitting,” she said. “It’s a good outlet for the frustration. You need something to channel your energy.”

Smith was on her way home, where the knitting was waiting.

“What better place to practice peace than the middle of a storm?” she said. “I just think, after this, we are all going to be so resilient.”

Mental Health and School Shootings

Repost from Psychology Today

Mental Health and School Shootings

If the violence problem is due to mental health issues, the future is bleak.
By Glenn Geher Ph.D., Darwin’s Subterranean World, Feb 15, 2018

Is anyone else just emotionally exhausted from dealing with mass shootings in our nation? What happened yesterday, when a young man killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, is starting to seem like a typical news story. To my mind, it is unbelievable how normative this kind of incident is becoming.

In a tweet speaking to this horror, Donald Trump said this:

“So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!”

So the president seems to be primarily placing blame on the fact that the killer was “mentally disturbed.” The president does not mention gun control or much else in his preliminary statement on this incident.

As a professional behavioral scientist, I am disappointed by such a simple characterization of such a significant issue. As I have written about in detail before, nearly all human behaviors are the result of multiple factors (see: Multi-Factorial Causation and the Orlando Shootings). To say that mental instability is the only factor responsible for what happened yesterday in Parkland, Florida is an excessive oversimplification. As is the case with all of the mass shootings we are seeing in our nation these days, there are multiple causes at work.

Let’s Assume for a Second that the Mental Health Issue Is the Primary Issue

For a second, for argument’s sake, let’s think about the implications of the it is a mental health issue perspective on mass shootings. From where I stand, if this were the case, this would be enormously unsettling for various reasons.

Largely, this would be concerning because mental health problems have pretty much been skyrocketing in our nation across the past few decades (see Twenge, 2015). In fact, in a powerful Psychology Today post from 2015, my colleague Jean Twenge provides a mountain of data speaking to the facts that (a) a broad array of psychological disorders, including depressionand anxiety, have increased in frequency since the 1980s and (b) this observed pattern is not exclusively the result of over-diagnosis. In short, our nation is getting less and less mentally healthy with time. And yes, this is a problem.

While this pattern is problematic for many reasons, I’d like you to join me in thinking about the implications regarding the future of senseless violence in this country. A simple assessment of this situation is pretty grave. If mass shootings are the result of mental health problems, and if mental health problems are on the rise, then we can only expect the trend in such events as mass shootings to increase. Think about that.

What Can We Do About It?

To my mind, this constellation of facts is truly grim and gives me great concern regarding our future. Of course, action is ultimately what is needed here. And in a democracy like ours, action often takes the form of embracing the First Amendment and by engaging in the electoral process. We can do things such as writing letters to elected officials, writing letters to the local newspaper, meeting with elected officials and holding them to task, electing officials into office who have a record of taking action on the issues at hand to make a positive difference, and even running for office.

If the problem is all about increases in psychological disorders in our nation, then we need to support programs in the fields of psychology and mental health. And we need to particularly support programs that have been demonstrated, through rigorous empirical research, to actually work. And we need to support our colleges and universities with teams of researchers who are studying this topic with the most cutting-edge scientific methods.

However, given the fact that each mass shooting is likely caused by a broad array of factors, then if we are really serious about increasing the safety of our nation, we need to address each of these factors.

A great deal of research has shown a connection(link is external) between the unique gun laws in the U.S. and the excessively high rate of mass shootings in our nation. The connection is beyond what would be expected by chance. And, in statistical terminology, the effect size is enormous. So while it seems likely that the guy in Florida was mentally unstable, it is also clear that he legally purchased extremely dangerous firearms that ended up being used in the incident. There are at least two foundational causes as to why this event occurred. If we really care about our future, then we need to address both of these issues.

Bottom Line

When I hear about another case of needless violence and carnage, I get upset. I have always liked to believe that the U.S. is a great nation. It’s hard to see things that way when there’s a mass shooting nearly every day in this country and it seems that our hands are tied as to how to deal with it.

One cause of this problem that is often cited pertains to mental health problems. Sure, a lot of these killers have histories of being mentally unstable. But mental health problems are on the rise in this country. So if we really think that the issue of mental health is the primary issue at hand here, then we are in big trouble moving forward. Just saying “be vigilant” is not going to solve the problem.

Further, a landslide of evidence has shown that the unique gun culture and gun laws in the U.S. are very strongly connected with the high level of mass shootings in our nation. It seems, then, given all of these factors taken together, that substantially modified gun laws at this time in our history, while mental health issues are on the increase, would be a good idea. For our shared future.


Twenge, J. M. (2015). Time period and birth cohort differences in depressive symptoms in the U.S., 1982-2013. Social Indicators Research, 121, 437-454.