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What Makes a Resilient Mind

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Published on NOVA Next (PBS online) 1/14/2015

By Karen D. Brown

Standing at a podium in a Philadelphia hotel, Amanda Lindhout—a poised, elegant woman in her early 30s—told a harrowing story.

She survived a violent childhood and adolescence in Canada with an alcoholic and abusive stepfather, relying on her own grit and imagination to get through. After high school, she worked as a cocktail waitress and pored wistfully over exotic photos in National Geographic magazines. She eventually tucked away enough money to travel and become a freelance foreign correspondent.

Then in 2008, she was kidnapped while reporting in Somalia and held captive for more than a year, subjected to torture, hunger, and rape.

“I had lost everything,” she told the rapt room. “I had lost even the things you thought couldn’t be taken away from you. My own name. The sky over my head. Laughter. Light. And I never knew if I could make it through the day. So I would break it down and ask myself, ‘Can I get through the next minute?’ ”

She was eventually released after family members scrounged their every resource to raise the ransom her captors demanded.

When something happens to you that extreme, you could begin to fray at the edges, descending into depression, perhaps substance abuse, or post-traumatic stress. Or you could emerge relatively intact, like Lindhout seems to have done, able to speak articulately in front of hundreds of academics and journalists at the 2013 conference of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, which had invited her as keynote speaker. The theme that year was “Resilience.”

“No matter how many times in captivity I suffered abuse, it never got easier, but to survive in there, I had to learn how to crawl out of this dark space in my own mind,” she said. “I began to nurture something inside myself, a tiny seed of compassion inside of me.”

Lindhout’s case is not scientifically unique. There are hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have gone through their own version of hell—some of them resilient, some not. But in this room of psychologists and neuroscientists, Lindhout was a warm-blooded reminder why the work they do matters.

Resilience as a branch of trauma studies has grown rapidly in the last few decades, as no shortage of mass traumas, from genocides to war to mass shootings, have raised questions about the psychological fortitude of individuals and populations. That’s in addition to the quieter trauma—domestic abuse, illness, sexual violence—that happens outside the public’s view.


To read the full story on NOVA Next, click here.

Motherlode: Whose Anxiety Is It Anyway?

Friday, March 21st, 2014

What does a parent — who happens to be a mental health reporter — do when she’s concerned about her son? Dives headfirst into the D.S.M., of course. He could have Social Anxiety Disorder. Or maybe Social Phobia. Perhaps Generalized Anxiety Disorder? Or he could just be shy.

Read my personal essay in the New York Times’ Motherlode blog here

When the writer becomes the patient …… Personal story on making medical decisions

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

[The Boston Globe, G-Cover Story, Health Section, January 20, 2014]

by Karen D. Brown

One afternoon last fall, I was pacing a high school parking lot in Wilbraham, straining to see my son running in his first cross-country meet, while absently listening to Muzak on my cellphone. My doctor had put me on hold as he looked for my pathology report on his fax machine.

Three weeks earlier, my annual mammogram had turned up some calcifications. Apparently, they can either be benign calcium deposits or signs of something worse. When I went in for a biopsy, the radiologist showed me the X-rays, and I could just make out a few tiny white dots scattered amid my veiny breast tissue. “We get a lot of false alarms,” a nurse assured me shortly before a thin needle was inserted into my left breast to take out the dubious cells and send them out for analysis.

I wasn’t actually very worried. I’d been overreacting to health scares for so long, I had gotten used to most news being better than I feared. Plus, I exercise regularly, eat well, and don’t smoke.

“Well, Karen . . . ” My doctor’s voice broke into the Muzak just as my son was running into view. “The report says ductal carcinoma in situ.”

I waited for the part where he added, “So everything’s fine. Don’t forget to get your thyroid levels checked and I’ll see you next year.”

But instead, he repeated what was starting to sound a lot like a real diagnosis. “It is cancer. But the good news is, we caught it early.”

Good news, apparently, is relative. As I pressed the phone closer to my ear, blocking out the cheering track parents, my doctor tried to end on a positive note: “It’s a good thing we didn’t follow those recent mammogram recommendations.”

[to continue reading in the Boston Globe online, click here]

[to read my reflections on writing this piece -- on the Association of Health Care Journalists blog-- click here]

From the Lab to the Couch: Personalized Psychiatry in the Genomic Era

Monday, December 9th, 2013

[NOVA Next, the online magazine of PBS' NOVA. Published Dec. 4, 2013.]

Psychiatry is a famously inexact science. Despite the last few decades of research into the biological basis of mental illness, even the best doctors have to rely on trial and error when it comes to treatment — prolonging the suffering of a great many people. “Personalized psychiatry” is an emerging field that aims to use the modern tools of genetics and brain imaging to narrow down treatment options for individual patients. But with personalized medicine controversial enough when it comes to physical health, are the proponents of personalized psychiatry promising more than they can deliver? This piece profiles the complex search for psychiatric biomarkers within a fast-moving research climate.


Taking a Shot at Childhood Vaccines – A Rise in Refusals Worries Medical Community

Friday, November 15th, 2013

[Boston Globe Health-Section Cover Story, November 11, 2013]

by Karen D. Brown

by Matthew Cavanaugh, Boston Globe

Ever since a British doctor published a study in 1998 suggesting that some vaccines may contribute to autism, the number of parents refusing vaccines for their children, or demanding an “alternative’’ immunization schedule, has steadily grown.

And even though that paper has since been discredited, and scores of peer-reviewed studies have failed to find any link between vaccines and autism, the suspicion that vaccines are dangerous has stuck.

“I never really liked how many vaccinations a baby was getting,” said Anna Popp, an Easthampton librarian who allowed her 5-year-old daughter to get some of the recommended vaccines, but not all, and delayed other vaccinations beyond the age that doctors say is safe. “I just felt, if I could put some of those off until later, I would rather not overburden my child’s system with a bunch of toxic organisms.”

Popp knows that following her own rules on immunization puts her — and many other vaccine skeptics — at odds with the medical establishment. Popp lives in Western Massachusetts, where the percentage of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children is well above the state average….

To read full story in Boston Globe, click here

To hear companion radio story on NPR’s Here and Now, click here

An Addiction Story: Two Lives Collide (Boston Globe)

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

[Cover Story in the G Section of the Boston Globe, July 1, 2013]

photo from Nina Rossi’s iPod

by Karen D. Brown

Lance Rice started his last day in Franklin County on a scarred, wooden bench in the Greenfield courthouse. He was waiting for his probation officer to call him in for his third drug screening of the week.

“At this point, I hate coming here. I’m here all the time,” said Rice. “But today will be the last time I’m here for a long time.”

A friend sitting nearby glared at him; Rice corrected himself.

“I plan to never be here again.”

Four months earlier, Rice, 23, was led down this hallway in handcuffs and shackles through a gauntlet of spectators from Turners Falls. The picturesque former milltown of 4,500 people, nestled in the Berkshire foothills, had been racked by a string of burglaries over the past year, and Rice was a prime suspect.

Rice is both a victim and perpetrator of what police are calling a heroin epidemic in rural Western Massachusetts. Narcotics investigators say that in the past three to five years they have watched the drug move from big cities to small towns, where their Main Streets have been hit by a wave of crime….

[to read entire story, please click here]