Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Why I believe there should be mental health education in schools

by NeuroGirl Rebecca

Recently, I was asked to give a talk at a University of Sheffield summer conference on public engagement as part of my work as a Sheffield NeuroGirl.  

I began my talk by asking everyone to get to their feet. With some muttered confusion, everyone did as they were asked (I still love how that works!). I then asked anyone who either had, or knew someone with a mental illness to sit back down again. Amazingly, only two people were left standing.  This is by no means an unusual state of affairs. We know that one in four people will experience some kind ofmental health problem in this year alone including 10% of all children. A breakdown in a healthy brain is also indiscriminate in who it targets too, mental health problems can affect rich and poor, all races and both sexes. The sad case of the recent suicide of Robin Williams shows that even celebrities, who have tangible proof of how their lives touch so many and give much joy, can take their own life when struggling with ill mental health. 

Why then, is there still so little education on the brain and how it works in schools? Why are there not lessons that teach children what our brains do and why they might go wrong? Surely, if mental health is going to be an issue that will touch us all at some point throughout our lives it behoves the government to educate the future generations that will have to deal with this on this problem? That way, they will have the best chance and the best tools for being able to cope with the issues they will almost certainly face.  As a neuroscientist, I’m only too aware of all the problems a brain can face throughout its lifetime, but along with that awareness comes a sense of normality about mental ill health. I know that depression could be caused by a deficit in a neurotransmitter called serotonin. I know that problems with an area of the brain called the caudate putamen can cause OCD. I also know that these failures are biological failures that can be caused by a wide variety of factors, psychological and physical. But the main point is, many people and many children do not know. Believe it or not, some people still believe that ill mental health is a punishment from God. Or that if ‘they’ just tried hard enough, ‘they’ could snap out of it. And ignorance about mental health can lead to bullying, prejudice, fear and heartache. It can lead to resistance in those suffering to seek the help that can be given and to those around the sufferer feeling scared and worried about talking about the problems that they see.
A simple program of education in schools could help to bring about a real change in society. It could help to provide a long term solution to the problem of ignorance about mental health. I will continue to go into local schools and talk to children about the brain and mental health but unless I can crack time travel once and for all, a better national solution is required.  It’s time for the brain itself to go on the curriculum.

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Friday, 22 August 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge: Just The Cold Water Therapy We Needed

What is it about this charity stunt that has gotten everyone from billionaires to pop stars and even a former president wanting to get drenched by a bucket of freezing water? This blog discusses the challenge, the charity, and how it can be good for your brain.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

What could possibly be the link between George W Bush, Justin Bieber, David Beckham and Oprah Winfrey? These are just some of the high profile faces that have gotten their cameras at the ready and taken time out of their busy schedules to take on the ice bucket challenge. This daring feat was pioneered by the late Corey Griffin who created this innovative way to raise money after discovering his friend had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). What started off as an ordinary fund raising idea has taken social media by storm. Now hundreds, if not thousands, have been inspired to dump a bucket of cold water over their heads and donate some of their hard earned cash to this charitable cause. So far the trend has resulted in £25.2 million ($41.8m) being raised: proof of the power and influence of social media and celebrity. 

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
What is it about this charity that has inspired so many people to subject themselves to an ice cold drenching? ALS (also referred to as motor neuron or Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Approximately one person per 50,000 people have been diagnosed with ALS, meaning 30,000 people living in America alone may have the disease at any given time. ALS affects a type of neuron called the ‘motor neuron’, which connects the central nervous system to our muscles. Progressive degeneration of these motor neurons eventually leads to neuron death. Following this neuronal death, the ability for the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. The exact cause of ALS is still not completely known. ALS, like any other neurodegenerative disease, affects many people lives. Donating money to this cause helps to fund research which is crucial to exploring new treatment avenues. It is clear that this charity is a very worthy cause; however this trend has also left us wondering how such a simple idea can achieve such a high profile within such a short amount of time. What is it about following the latest fad that resonates with so many people?

Why do we follow the latest trends?
Perhaps it’s because we would like to know that our celebrities are just like us. Celebrities are talented individuals who are accomplished in their particular field. Usually these accomplishments result in thousands of adoring fans who are able to follow their every move on social media outlets such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The growing popularity of social media means fans are now given an inside view into the previously mysterious private lives of their favourite star. What is it about our minds that fuel this desire to find out what your favourite celebrity has had for breakfast every morning? Why do we gain pleasure from knowing these peculiar tit-bits? And what do we really gain from having this knowledge? Maybe by emulating our favourite celeb we can feel closer to them and we might inherit some of their good fortune. The latest trend in celeb land: the ice bucket challenge! 

Humans are social beings who enjoy interaction at many different levels and in many different ways; whether that be by sending a text, meeting up for a coffee, or by reading about David Beckham in a magazine. The reason humans gain such pleasure from social interaction is because of the reward pathway set up in our brains. Social interaction has been linked to an area of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is located in the brain stem. This area is where dopamine is created. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter linked with natural reward and feeling happy. This means that whenever we experience a positive social interaction our brain is flushed with dopamine.

So remember if you do decide to take on the ice bucket challenge, know that you’ll be activating your VTA and getting that vital dopamine hit! Get closer to your favourite celeb, donate to a great cause, and get those buckets out.

Read more about ALS by following this link: