News round-up (22 March 2024)

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22nd March 2024 about a 6 minute read

This week sees the publication of some intriguing pieces of research. ADHD medications, it turns out, help alleviate co-morbid conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as the ADHD symptoms themselves. A study has identified a chemical imbalance in the brain that may explain the reason girls and young women experience anxiety, while there are concerns that symptoms of depression in boys are going unidentified. The work and pensions secretary, however, has hit the headlines by claiming that too many people are self-diagnosing normal levels of anxiety and stress as mental health conditions.

UK’s mental health culture has ‘gone too far’, says work and pensions secretary

Mel Stride, the work and pensions secretary, has argued that normal life anxieties are now being labelled as an illness.

As a result, Stride said, the benefits bill was being pushed up. He told the Daily Telegraph that an increased public focus on talking about mental health had led people to self-diagnose conditions.

The rise in welfare payments, set to reach £100bn this year, is being driven by a big increase in the number of people who are receiving long-term sickness payments. Many of these are, in part at least, for mental health conditions such as anxiety.

Stride said that some people were “convincing themselves they have some kind of serious mental health condition as opposed to the normal anxieties of life”.

ADHD medications deliver extra mental health benefits, study finds

ADHD medications not only alleviate ADHD symptoms, they alleviate the symptoms of coexisting psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression, a new study has found.

The study, published in Jama Network Open, was carried out by researchers in Finland and Sweden who examined nationwide data from 221,714 people aged 16 to 65 with a diagnosis of ADHD. Of these, 56.5% had some kind of psychiatric comorbidity, with anxiety or stress-related disorders (24%) and depression and/or bipolar disorder (19.5%) the most common.

The researchers analysed the association between specific medications and hospitalisation for psychiatric reasons and non-psychiatric reasons, as well as suicides and suicide attempts. They found that the use of ADHD medications was associated with a decreased risk of psychiatric hospitalisation, suicidal behaviour and non-psychiatric hospitalisations.

People with ‘woke’ attitudes more likely to be depressed, study finds

People with progressive attitudes on matters of social justice are more likely to report feelings of anxiety and depression, a Finnish study has found.

Oskari Lahtinen, a senior researcher from the University of Turku, developed a pilot scale for measuring social justice attitudes, which he tested on 851 participants, mostly university staff and students.

Having used the pilot to refine the scale, Lahtinen administered it to 5,000 participants via a nationwide survey distributed through a newspaper. The scale asked people if they agreed or disagreed with seven statements, such as “If white people have on average a higher level of income than black people, it is because of racism.”

He also used standard scales to measure depression, anxiety and happiness, and found a correlation between higher agreement with critical social justice attitudes and increased reports of anxiety and depression.

The associations were more strongly correlated, however, with participants’ political orientation than with critical social justice attitudes. Being on the political left was more predictive of lower mental well-being than high critical social justice scores alone.

Mental health apps are selling people’s private data

Mental health apps are selling people’s private data, research has found.

The Mozilla Foundation, a global nonprofit organisation, surveyed 32 leading mental health apps and found that 19 were failing to protect user privacy and security.

“We found that too often, your personal, private mental health struggles were being monetised,” says Jen Caltrider, director of the organisation’s consumer privacy advocacy work.

Caltrider said that tighter regulation and oversight of these many platforms, aimed at a particularly vulnerable segment of the population, is overdue. “The number of these apps exploded during the pandemic, and when we started doing our research, it was really sad because it seemed like many companies cared less about helping people and more about how they could capitalise on a gold rush of mental health issues,” she said.

In the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), have begun a three-year project to explore how best to regulate digital mental health tools.

‘Boys are disappearing’ from mental health care as signs of depression go undetected

Signs of depression in boys are often missed, psychiatrists have argued.

A recent study published in Pediatrics found that, while antidepressant prescriptions have risen sharply for teenage girls and women in their 20s, the rate of such prescriptions for young men declined suddenly in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, and did not recover.

Dr Kao-Ping Chua, a University of Michigan paediatrician who led the study, said the findings were “perplexing,” adding: “Given that everybody’s mental health got worse, I would have expected that boys’ antidepressant dispensing would have at least remained stable, not decrease.”

Chua said the most likely explanation was that boys stopped engaging with the health care system during the pandemic, leading to an under-detection and, consequently, an undertreatment of mental health problems in young men.

One reason for low rates of diagnosis, said Dr Mai Uchida, a paediatric psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, was that in boys, depression is manifested through irritation, frustration or aggression and, as a result, doctors don’t recognise their symptoms as being a sign of depression.

Brain chemical imbalance might be the cause of anxiety in young women

The reason girls and young women develop anxiety might be the result of an imbalance in brain chemicals, a study has found.

Researchers at the University of Surrey studied 81 participants: 49 girls aged 10-12 and 32 women aged 18-25.  They found that as young women mature, the levels of GABA (a calming brain chemical) increase, while those of glutamate, known for its role in boosting brain activity, decrease.

Dr Nicola Johnstone, a research fellow at the university and co-author of the study, said: “Our research indicates that the equilibrium between GABA and glutamate in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex serves as a vital indicator of anxiety levels. While glutamate propels brain activity, GABA acts as a brake. Our findings suggest that anxiety, often characterised by impaired rational thought, is intricately linked to the overactive braking system in the brain.”