Opioids and Social Capital

Over the weekend, I read the first article about the opioid crisis that made any sense to me. It was published in Scientific American last week and explained why so many of the strategies that we are using to combat the rising rates of opioid overdose have been ineffective in curbing the rate of overdose to any great degree.

The article summarizes the research that suggests that the best ways to address the abuse and dependence on opioids is to help communities strengthen the social ties between people. The author opines that the emotional reasons that we become dependent on any substance are factors that communities should seek to address in to reduce the morbidity and mortality related to opioids.

In one study published in the Journal of Health Economics, researchers looked at the impact of macroeconomic changes on opioid use in specific counties and states in the United States. For the region studied, researchers found that, when the county unemployment rate rose 1%, the opioid death rate per 100,000 rose by 3.6% and the opioid overdose Emergency Department visit rate rose by 7%. These statistics held throughout the state.

The article summarizes the science related to the body’s naturally occurring opioids – endorphins and enkephalins – these help us to moderate both physical and emotional pain. The science is outlined concisely and briefly and reminds the reader of those factors which increase the levels of these naturally occurring opioids. It also reminds us how this hormonal system insulates us from emotional pain in our lives.
I have never prescribed opioid medication myself, and most of the doctors I know are similar in practice to me so I have been bewildered about who all the doctors prescribing them could possibly be. I’ve seen the numbers, however, and I certainly know of physicians who have gotten into difficulties because of the way they prescribe opioids. I understand that physician regulatory bodies have sought to address the increasing rate of opioid abuse and overdose by offering courses on prescribing these medications.

To address this dangerously increasing use of opioids, communities have been distributing naloxone kits, setting up safe injection sites and running health prevention campaigns. I support these measures as urgent action must be taken in the moment to do what we can to prevent harm to those already at risk because of opioid use.
Having said this, it’s time to think about what can be done to address those social capital deficits. The OECD defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. These networks include such networks as family, friends, groups we belong to, or organizations that support us. According to the research, the loss of social capital is linked to increasing opioid use and all its attendant risks.

I’ve been thinking of social capital lately as I’ve worked to find supports in their communities for youth in my practice, supports such as groups where families might learn to cook or spend time with other families. As I did this research, I realized that some Ottawa communities are better at this work than others. It makes sense from this that communities might consider supporting community development as well as safe injection sites and naloxone kits.

Many reading this will believe that this is all about the social determinants of health but this is a reflection on the need for all of us to consider how we personally build communities. Do we go to groups? Do we initiate support activities? Do we go to community events? All things considered, cities can support communities but they can’t provide them the way they can buy naloxone kits or new services. They can’t make your neighbours neighbourly. That takes individual people getting out of their chairs, turning off the TV or their devices, and talking to people or working with people. While it does build a community to have skype meetings or online chats, this research is telling us that, if we truly want to have communities, then we must have some that we can walk to when we’re caught in a snowstorm or hurricane, or the power goes out. Perhaps if we volunteered at the food bank, it wouldn’t be so hard to go there for food, or even just company, when the need arose. Having community meals or parties or street events, bringing disparate parts of communities together, can help you find out what services you can have or help in your neighbourhood.

Last weekend, the Wellington West Community held an event on Wellington Street. As I walked along running my errands, I stopped off at a few services. I learned that one agency, Ottawa West Community Support, has a range of services to help seniors continue to live in their own homes. They told me that volunteering with them has helped many older people make the transition to using their services. That is social capital. I learned that the library helps anyone learn how to navigate the internet safely, from kids to seniors to newcomers. The library has an English Conversation Group. These are examples of building social capital.

This research and consideration has me thinking about how I could invest in social capital in my hospital practice and so I have been thinking about the kinds of groups that could most help youth in my community. I have a few ideas but would be interested in others’ ideas also. Please tell me. It seems a long way from the opioid crisis to me, but the research suggests that I am wrong. How do you build social capital? How do you think we could help?

(This photo has been in multiple places on the internet. I found it in Lawrence Wall’s twitter feed.)

Normal and Bored

There are six million young Canadians starting school this week. From busy, excited little kindergartners to oh, so bored almost adults in their finally final year, yellow buses and slower streets will signal the end of summer as nothing else does.
At the psychiatric hospital where I work, we have four classrooms, all part of the M. F. McHugh Education Centre, and the young people who are receiving treatment for their mental health conditions will continue to have access to education, even though they are not all well enough to benefit from that educational experience as much as we would like or hope.
As a clinician, one of the elements I value most about the McHugh classrooms is that they are a constant reminder to my young patients that there is a normal life waiting for them once they are feeling well. The very presence of these classrooms and their teachers is a reminder that everyone working with these patients has every intention of helping them get back into an academic life, a normal life.
Whatever age you are, becoming mentally ill turns your life upside down as no other life circumstance can. Often you cannot manage the very basics of getting up in the morning, or washing your face, or putting breakfast into your mouth. The idea that, on top of this, you’re expected to read Hamlet or learn about cell structure or get from classroom to classroom can be overwhelming. Imagine a classroom that supports you to manage exactly those studies while, fifty yards away, in another part of the same building, on an inpatient psychiatry unit, you are learning to cope with the voices telling you to kill yourself. It’s a lot to put together.
For a young person who is struggling with mental illness, or other difficulties, school can often be the most stabilizing influence in their life. If your dad left home on Tuesday, on Wednesday your class will still be reading Hamlet. If your grandmother passes away on Friday, and you saw your grandfather crying for the first time in your life, it really can help that cell structure does not shift in one week. If, all of a sudden, your mind is just not making sense, it helps to have a classroom where the teacher knows that this has not always been the case and that you will not feel this way forever. I think it especially helps to have a person who can bridge you back to the world where Hamlet and cell structure are important, and you can be a normal person again.When I was younger, I had wanted to be a teacher. The normality of life is one of the things I most miss about my life as a doctor. Like every physician, even when I focus on the person with me, I am often still focused on how well they are. Can they concentrate? Are they enjoying soccer once again? Is their mother back to nagging them about their room being a mess?
When you see a psychiatrist, and you’re sixteen years old, you know you don’t have a normal life. But, if every weekday morning you can sit in Mrs. Scott’s English class, listen to Mary Jo Jones be Ophelia and Sam Smith try to be Polonius, you can feel as though your life is as blessedly normal as everyone else’s. You can go back to being bored and everyone who knows you will think it’s a good thing to be normal and bored.

(Note: As a new school year starts, I will be hoping for the best year for students and teachers and especially for those students and teachers in the McHugh classrooms around Ottawa.)

Game of Thrones Madness?

For the past few weeks, I have felt as though my husband and sons, not to mention many friends and acquaintances, have joined a cult. As a matter of fact, I often spend Sunday evening with my family, but tonight and for weeks to come everyone I know will spend Sunday evenings with characters from a fictional land.

Here are some of the comments I have heard in the past few weeks leading up to the 7th season of Game of Thrones which starts tonight on HBO:

Question: “What if we tape the whole series and binge watch them all at once for a kind of party?”

Answer: “You can’t do that because you’ll definitely have the plot spoiled by everyone talking about what has happened.”

Question: “If I go away for a week, do you think I should stop following the Twitter feeds and other social medial?”

Answer: “OMG I never thought of that.”

Question: “Do you think we can find out in advance who’s going to be live tweeting during the show and stop following them?”

Answer: “Good idea – and put up warnings for your followers not to post.”

Question: “Dr. Beck, will we be allowed to watch Game of Thrones on the unit?”

Answer: “Is there no escape?”

I know exactly why the series does not appeal to me. I find too much graphic violence disturbing. It’s perverse, but I am more fascinated by trying to understand why certain television series can develop cult-like followings. How does it happen that certain shows can become so popular that there’s no point in even inviting anyone over on a certain day around a certain time unless you’re holding an event related to a certain series. My gourmet dinner club held a Downton Abbey event. I know of people holding Game of Thrones parties as the new season starts.

The research on why certain cultural phenomena become popular indicates that the capacity to identify sympathetically with characters, especially when the story line allows us to struggle with concepts of good and evil, can be cathartic. It can help us to resolve our own conflicts safely, especially if, in discussing a show’s dilemmas with others, we can begin to understand how our friends or family members are themselves resolving conflicts.

The cultural phenomena that are television shows or movies have never been as cathartic for me as those I read and, of course, there is research on that as well. This research considers the reasons why some people are drawn to stories told via one medium over another. Again, this research shows that we are drawn to the medium that most engages our emotions, that allows us to enter the conflict of the story safely, so that we are not overwhelmed. I don’t mind imagining a bloody conflict, but I find it overwhelming to watch. I will also admit that I skip over parts of tv shows or movies that I find too difficult to tolerate, but I never have to do this when I’m reading a story.

Finally, whether you watch or read or listen to a story, stories show us how difficult it is for humans to live in the present, to “enjoy the moment”. We flip to the back of the book. We watch every episode. Do we not all want to know the end of the story, even when the story is good all the way along?

Not Just Any Village

In recent months, I have come to learn more and more about the difficulties indigenous youth have in obtaining mental health services. In part, this is because local, provincial and federal news reports are calling attention to these difficulties but I am also very much aware of the needs of these young people in my own community and practice.

It is especially distressing that, despite the goodwill of governments and their financial investment, all the measures that have been taken seem to have no impact. How can this be?

I have come to understand this only in the context of being a mother myself and it is only using this reference point that I can make sense of why our efforts have been so ineffective. Let me see if this helps you to understand what is missing.

Imagine that your child has serious mental health problems. She is twelve years old and started using substances like cannabis, or alcohol, or solvents. (I have seen indigenous youth who started using substances, especially solvents, as young as seven years old.) School is a struggle and because of this, the child feels hopeless about the future. Perhaps as a parent, you can understand this because you were in the same situation at her age. You are desperate for your child to get help and so you agree that she should travel hundreds of miles away from home to get that help. You agree to this even though you will miss her desperately, and worry about her all day, every day. You know she is anxious and will cry because she misses you and her family, but you know that you cannot travel with her because there are other children to care for, or your job, or even because you yourself do not have the emotional strength to support her. Who cannot relate to the desperation of this situation? Of this parent? Of this child?

The research evidence is overwhelming that children’s health depends on family support. It takes the first year of our life to be able to walk. It takes us until we are two to utter a few words. We begin to have the skills to read, and write, and do math around age five. The evidence says that our enormous brains can take until age 25 to fully develop. We clearly need personal support to grow and develop and every culture relies on families to provide that support. When we are unwell, we need that support even more.

How do we expect these children to heal when we send them away from their families? If we must do this, could we not at least set up those sophisticated telehealth networks and facetime for parents and children and grandparents and brothers and sisters to stay in touch? “It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that recognizes the universal truth that we need our families and kin – our village.

When I am having a hard day, I will often count my blessings and the blessings I remember first are the people of my personal village: my children and husband and family and friends.

Do we really believe that indigenous youth (or any youth) will become stronger mentally away from their families? Have we really learned nothing from the experience of those sent away to residential schools? Are we really not listening?

If those African philosophers will permit, I do have one slight modification to their proverb. I agree that it takes a village to raise a child, but not just any village will do. Each child deserves the support of their own village: their own family, their own friends, their own people.

(Photo credit: Family Ties sculpture by Kevin Barrett)

My Predictable Clinical Life

In the past week, I have started to work on an inpatient psychiatry unit for youth. It is not easy being a psychiatrist for an inpatient program, but it is interesting and more predictable than outpatient psychiatry. In an outpatient program, emergencies arrive with little notice, often disrupting one’s schedule on days when there is no room for disruption. On an inpatient unit, the emergencies are right there in front of you all the time. This is predictable unpredictability and I find this more manageable than the frenzied calls that can disrupt an entire afternoon’s clinic.

For the past week, I have arrived on the unit to calls of, “Can I speak with you now?” or “What time are you meeting with me? I have stuff to do.” With a much smaller overall caseload than outpatient psychiatry, and patients who need to be seen daily, there is an opportunity to get to know the youth I am working with so well that their needs can be more thoroughly addressed.

The most common reason for psychiatric hospitalization for youth is to stabilize acute symptoms of psychiatric illnesses but case formulation and diagnosis and treatment plan development are becoming even more critical in youth psychiatric care. The reasons for this are embedded in the shortage of Child Psychiatrists and of youth mental health resources in general. Outpatient child psychiatry programs everywhere are stretched to the limit, to the point where the World Health Organization found that many mental health needs of youth around the world were not being addressed directly but rather through programs addressing other concerns. For example, street-involved youth often get more mental health support through housing agencies than from mental health agencies or hospital or clinic mental health programs.

Inpatient psychiatry programs and their function and purpose are not always well-understood, mostly because evidence often supports community treatment for some patients who would prefer hospitalization and hospitalization for patients who find the restrictions of psychiatric units too difficult to tolerate. This concept was summarized best by a patient I saw many years who asked me, “Dr. Beck, how come the people who want to stay in hospital can’t but the people who want to leave aren’t allowed?” When I responded, “I don’t really have a good answer for that question,” I was met with, “You don’t have any good answers.” I wish I thought that wasn’t true.

The WHO report emphasizes the need for greater collaboration between inpatient programs and the community. The social advocate in me loves the idea of working with schools, shelters, food banks and public health to develop the partnerships that will improve collaboration. The best outcomes for the clinical conditions where psychiatric hospitalization is indicated can be predicted based on social conditions. This means that those of us in who work in youth mental health must work with community partners if we are to have any success at all.

It also means that I will be diagnosing and treating conditions that go well beyond mental health into personal and social well-being. Hence, on my first day back, it was predictable that I would find myself gowned and gloved, hair covered, combing through a young person’s hair looking for nits. I can answer most questions about lice, in case anyone is interested.

How to Legalize Marijuana

My interview on CBC’s The House had such a positive reception that I wanted to follow up with a short essay summarizing most physicians’ recommendations for legalizing marijuana. My own perspective is that of a psychiatrist whose patients are all adolescents and young adults. This means I am concerned about the short-term impact of marijuana intoxication in the young people that I see, but I am even more worried about the long-term impact of cannabis on the developing brain as well as the links between cannabis use and psychotic illnesses.

Most physicians hope that the federal government will approach the legalization of marijuana emphasizing public health concerns as the most important consideration in the drafting of legislation. There are also law enforcement and government revenue aspects of the legislation but in jurisdictions where these considerations were emphasized, health outcomes were affected. Doctors in Canada – and Canadians in general – will find that negative health outcomes will eliminate any possible benefits to legalizing and regulating marijuana.

The government’s vision is to have marijuana legally available for non-medicinal purposes by Canada Day 2018. For the implementation to fully consider the public health implications, the government can look to its experience with the legalization and regulation of tobacco and alcohol. There are lessons to be learned from this experience from a public health perspective and I hope Canadians can benefit from that experience. We can also learn from those countries and jurisdictions that have already legalized marijuana. Also, now is the time to set up an evaluation and research agenda to ensure that we continue to learn from our experience with legalizing marijuana.

Some of the main health concerns with marijuana are related to its impact on the developing brain. The brain continues to develop until age 25 and there is significant evidence that cannabis use interferes with brain development. While it would be ideal if the minimum age to purchase marijuana could be 25, Young Canadians are already using twice as much marijuana as any other age group in Canada. Young Canadians also have a higher rate of cannabis use than youth in any other G8 country. With use being this high (20% of Canadians aged 16-24), it is more realistic to focus on reducing cannabis use to the extent that is possible. The Canadian Medical Association recommends setting a national standard where minimum legal age for purchasing marijuana would be 21, but with restricted strength and purchasing limits until age 25.

As well as brain development, child psychiatrists have also noticed increased prevalence of psychotic symptoms in young people using marijuana. We notice that psychotic symptoms emerge at a younger age for those with a predisposition for these conditions who use marijuana. We also notice that cannabis use is associated with the more serious chronic symptoms of schizophrenia.

Many physicians are also concerned that that rigorous research has never been applied to whether marijuana has any medicinal value. Marijuana has been available for medicinal purposes in Canada for many years, but there are few, if any, studies confirming its efficacy. Given the health risks, is it not time to insist on research to determine whether medicinal marijuana is effective?

Finally, one of the most important public health impacts will be related to the consequences of driving while intoxicated.  One’s capacity to safely operate a motor vehicle after using marijuana can be affected for as long as 6 hours after use. There is no currently no adequate way to identify or evaluate whether a driver is under the influence of cannabis. A method to evaluate intoxication must be developed before legalization. In this regard, the experience of Colorado should inform Canadian legislators. This excellent review outlines the increase in traffic accidents and Emergency Room visits since marijuana was legalized. Traffic accidents are one concerns but there are others. Colorado legislation was focused primarily on the revenue generating aspects of marijuana legalization. The negative health outcomes should be a cautionary tale for Canadians.

I have focused on those aspects of marijuana legalization that are most important in my practice but the Canadian Medical Association prepared a detailed submission for the Government of Canada Task Force on Marijuana Legalization and Regulation. Canadian doctors and the Canadian Medical Association are extremely concerned about this legislation. Great effort has been taken to alert the federal government to the risks involved in legalizing marijuana. I mentioned earlier that I wished the legal age to purchase marijuana could be 25. I can see how unrealistic this is, given how much marijuana young Canadians use right now, when it is not legal. After the fact of negative health outcomes from legal tobacco and alcohol, Canadian governments have had to launch massive public health and education campaigns. It would be good to roll these out now, in the hope that we can avoid some of the negative health outcomes doctors know are coming.

Benjamin Franklin made what must be one of the first public health statements in America. We can remember this as marijuana legislation moves forward, even if Colorado didn’t:

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Does Ontario Have A Gun Problem?

Adolescents have been the focus of my practice in Psychiatry for more than twenty years.  Adolescent boys have a complicated relationship with violence and anger and it is not unusual to see that erupt, especially when they are struggling with symptoms of mental illness. It almost seems as though, at some point in adolescence, men must work through what their relationship with violence will be. As they do this work, the entire course of their lives can be affected by the lethality of the weapons they have at hand. A gun is never a helpful accessory for a young man struggling to understand and cope with violent urges toward himself or others.

Why am I thinking about guns? I have just returned from Boston and early in March I spent a week in New York City for the Commission on the Status of Women. As a Canadian, I am always more cautious when walking by myself, especially at night, in American cities. This is because, as a Canadian, I believe that there are many more guns in these American cities than in Canada. Public health research has shown that guns are a health risk.

Having said this, both Boston and New York are managing gun violence while Toronto, a city where I spend much more time, has seen spikes in gun violence in 2016 and increasing gun violence in 2017. Even in Ottawa, the capital city known for its general safety, had a higher than normal number of shootings in 2016 and 2017 is showing the same worrying trend.

Canadians often smugly think that gun control manages gun violence and, while all evidence supports this, these recent trends need to be considered. These increasing numbers mostly reflect violence involving the young men under 25 I mentioned at the outset. We know that young men’s brains continue to develop into their twenties and most parents of young men certainly notice this. This is true even though, by age 21, most young men have undertaken significant responsibilities related to education and work, and often families or relationships.

During the period of late adolescence and early adulthood, young men are at higher risk of being perpetrators and victims of violence. Over many years, there has been much speculation on why this is the case. Research cites adaptive advantages from our past to the economic disparity and racial tension that is believed to fuel violence around the world.

The one factor that has kept this violence from becoming lethal has been access to a weapon, usually firearms, that immediately make an attacker much more dangerous. In fact, countries that implemented gun control saw the number of multiple murders significantly decrease. This fact alone is the number one reason to implement gun control. Gun control is the perfect example of a public health measure based on the number of deaths and injuries it prevents. With this in mind, we need to ask, is there now increased access to firearms in Ontario to account for these spikes in gun violence?

There has not yet been an analysis that allows us to answer this question. In a country with gun control, a policy that has helped maintain public safety for so long, we need to be certain that we take this increase in gun violence seriously. Experience has taught us that gun control measures can make a difference in preventing injury and death.

Those of us who are the parents of young men, or who have been young men, or have been the caregivers of young men in distress know what can happen when frustration takes over from a youth’s better nature. A young man with a gun can do much more harm with a firearm than with his fists, or a knife. We know from the crime statistics that more and more guns are aimed at others, but many of these young men also aim at themselves.

The point is that there are more victims. We often decry that police are not attuned to the mental health problems of those they arrest. However, those of us who are concerned with health need to provide some support to the police and other agents of the law with respect to the increasing number of guns in Canada. The health impact is increasing along with the crime rate. Those of us who specialize in adolescent health must begin to understand the law as it relates to our patients.