With exams approaching and the dark days of winter just around the corner, more people can begin to feel the effects of episodic mental health troubles such as anxiety and depression.
An episodic mental illness is when a person experiences high stress, extreme sadness or another form of mental illness for a shorter period of time than that of a clinical diagnosis of a mental illness or disorder.
Practicing psychologist and Dalhousie University professor, Dr. Alissa Pencer, says she sees a lot of students face episodic mental illness during stressful periods of the school year, and there are a wide range of ways to ease the effects of mental illness – whether short or long-term.
One of the most common treatments for clinical diagnoses of mental illness is psychotherapy. Psychotherapy involves a trained professional – like psychologists or psychiatrists – in a face-to-face therapy setting.
“Not every traditional psychotherapy is created equal as well. There’s many different approaches to psychotherapy,” says Pencer. “I think the effectiveness and importance of those different therapies depends on the presenting problem.”
Traditional psychotherapies, like cognitive behavioural therapy, according to Pencer are about “empowering the person to have their own coping strategies” and educating them enough that eventually they won’t need a therapist.
There are some barriers to receiving traditional psychotherapy in the province of Nova Scotia as the average waitlist time to see a psychiatrist across the province is 112 days, and the shortage of family doctors can be a problem with triaging people with more serious mental illness to the right support.
“Not all mental health issues are the same, so not everything is going to work the same,” she says.
Online Mental Health Services
Recently, numerous online mental health services have been popping up in mainstream media. Everything from apps, to websites, and even texting programs are now available. But how do these services compare to the more traditional route?
“I think it’s a great alternative, particularly for sort of milder issues,” says Pencer. “There’s certainly a lot of research that supports that for that milder range and particularly for anxiety and depression that it can be just as effective as face-to-face. So, I definitely think there’s a place for it.”
Youth Mental Health Canada executive director, Sheryl Boswell says that online services could be beneficial to the young male population as they have higher rates in suicide attempts and are prone to face large amounts of stigma.
“If it’s online and they can do it in a way that meets their needs and is safe for them then fantastic,” says Boswell.
Pencer mentions that there is one problem that could make online services less effective. She says that research shows that people are less likely to complete online programs because they don’t have someone like a therapist keeping them on track, but that the people who do complete the online programs have great results.
Hypnotherapy is considered a complementary therapy to traditional psychotherapy. Indirect hypnotherapy – the type Verity Vale, a local hypnotherapist uses at her office – is used to calm the conscious mind and allow the subconscious to hear a positive message an individual should focus on.
Vale recently started a hypnotherapy practice on Spring Garden Road. She initially started practicing hypnotherapy in the United Kingdom as a side job. When her husband had to move to Halifax for his job, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to continue. Luckily, immigration approved her to work as a hypnotherapist in Nova Scotia.
She says the amount of people wanting hypnotherapy is increasing as more discussion on wellness occurs.
“My role is what you would call a clinical hypnotherapist. I’m not a hypnotist,” she says. “It’s not like what you would see on a stage, it’s not like I can make anybody do anything silly, or anything like that. We use it purely in a therapeutic way in order to help people.”
The hypnosis involves an altered state of consciousness achieved through conversation with Vale. During this process the conscious mind is occupied and the subconscious can then start working towards finding what you want to achieve.
Vale compares the experience to daydreaming, which she says is useful for relaxation and working toward “light bulb moments.”
Therapeutic riding, horse therapy, or equine therapy is commonly used for people with autism, anxiety or physical disability.
According to an article on Psychology Today, horses are in-tune with people and other animals’ emotions; they have a similar reaction or response to humans when faced with a problem such as shying away from an angry person.
Halifax Junior Bengals Lancers offer a therapeutic riding program for people with mental and physical disabilities twice a year – one in the fall, the other in the spring. According to certified riding instructor, Charlotte Grace, the program’s existed since the 1960s and has grown in popularity ever since.
The program lasts eight weeks and riders do an hour-long session on horseback with up to three volunteers helping each pairing of horse and rider, depending on the rider’s abilities. Some of the riders in the program have returned for multiple years.
Participants do multiple exercises on horseback to strengthen them physically and cognitively. For example, the riders do certain patterns and weaving during sessions.
Grace recommends the program for “anyone who thinks that they would benefit from therapeutic riding or equestrian assisted learning.”
“It’s a pretty open demographic but we are working a bit more on a kind of criteria,” she says. “You have to have some goals you want to work on, you have to be able to see that we’re improving and working towards those goals through the program and see the benefits.”
Mindfulness, according to Pencer has become a sort of “buzzword” that people use for a lot of different wellness programs.
Traditionally a Buddhist principle, mindfulness has been integrated into a lot of other types of therapies including traditional psychotherapy.
“Lots of different therapies and non-therapies use mindfulness,” she says. “There can be mindful meditation, brief mindful exercises, and mindfulness has been integrated into some traditional [cognitive behavioural therapies] and integrated into the online stuff. It’s something some people just do to manage their stress. It’s used in a variety of ways.”
She says that it’s useful as an add-on to other forms of mental health supports or for basic stress management – such as exam stress.
“In terms of stress management – coping with stress – you don’t need to see a psychologist or need to do traditional therapy necessarily,” she says.
What’s right for me?
There’s no one size fits all solution to mental health whether it’s episodic or clinical.
In terms of figuring out what will work for each individual, Pencer says the people seeking help should educate themselves on what’s out there, and ask questions to find the right fit.