Mental Health

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.

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

Life After Stress: The Biology of Trauma and Resilience

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Listen Here 

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After September 11th, social scientists really began to focus on the psychological impact

Photo by Mike Carroll for Harvard University.

of trauma, and the power of resilience. But long before that horrible event, and certainly since, there have been brutal wars, natural disasters, mass shootings, and bombings — not to mention the chronic stress of poverty, illness, or domestic abuse.

An emerging field of science is looking at ways trauma of all sorts gets embedded in the body and brain, and who weathers it best. Stay with us for the half-hour documentary — “Life After Stress: The Biology of Trauma and Resilience.”

First broadcast on New England Public Radio, November 13, 2014. Edited by Sam Hudzik. Original Music by John Townsend. Funding contributed by the Falcon Fund and the Knight Fellowship in Science Journalism at MIT.

To download audio, right-click here

Full transcript available at NEPR.net

For companion print article I wrote for NOVA Next (PBS Online), “What Makes a Resilient Mind,” click here.

 

Toning It Down for ‘Sensory-Friendly’ Mall Shopping

Friday, August 29th, 2014

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Hope Tremblay (left) and Sarah Hunter at the Holyoke Mall

One in 68 children are thought to have autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The disorder varies widely in severity. But one common trait is the tendency to get overstimulated by noise, lights, and other trappings of modern life. New England Public Radio’s Karen Brown reports on one recent effort to bring down the sensory stimulation — just in time for back-to-school shopping.

Lance and Nina: Recovery and Redemption Where You’d Least Expect It

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Lance Rice and Nina Rossi go through letters Lance sent from rehab. By Karen Brown.

 

Heroin abuse is on a steep rise throughout New England, including in small towns that haven’t seen serious drug use in decades. But what often gets lost in news about the epidemic is how hard some addicts are trying to get clean. Karen Brown of New England Public Radio has been following one young man as he seeks not only recovery — but redemption — with some unlikely help.

 

 

Listen here for (longer) version that aired on New England Public Radio, March 2014. 

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For the NPR version that ran on All Things Considered, April 19, 2014, visit the NPR site 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

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.