Empathy for Patients Takes Toll on Nurses

According to Jenny Watts, a positive psychologist at the University of Leicester, “nurses who identify with the patient and experience empathy appear to be most vulnerable to distress,” developing symptoms like flashbacks, sleeping problems, and emotional detachment.
Of particular note: Watts found that nurses who cared for patients with age-related illnesses, such as dementia, “have shown anxiety and depression following patient deterioration and death.” As baby boomers age and the number of older patients grows, she says, it will be important to take steps to ensure that nurses’ morale, compassion, and quality of care remain high. —Heather Wax

Does Personality Influence Longevity?

Studying the children of those who have lived to 100 or older, scientists believe they’ve found certain personality traits that are associated with healthy aging and a longer life. (Longevity and personality traits have been shown to run in families.) As part of the New England Centenarian Study, researchers gave personality tests to nearly 250 children of centenarians. The results showed that both males and females scored low in neuroticism and high for extroversion—which might affect their health, says Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the study. “Interestingly, whereas men and women generally differ substantially in their personality characteristics, the male and female offspring tended to be similar, which speaks to the importance of these traits, irrespective of gender, for health aging and longevity,” he says. “For example, people who are lower in neuroticism are able to manage or regulate stressful situations more effectively than those with higher neuroticism levels. Similarly, high extroversion levels have been associated with establishing friendships and looking after yourself.”
The findings appear in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society online. —Heather Wax

Spirituality May Help Teens Cope With Illness

Spirituality—defined as a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a connectedness with the divine—can help teens cope with chronic illness, according to new research led by Dr. Michael Yi, a professor of medicine, and Sian Cotton, a clinical psychologist and research scientist, at the University of Cincinnati. In two studies, they looked at how adolescents deal with inflammatory bowel disease, which causes chronic inflammation of the intestines and can lead to poorer quality of life with regard to health. “On average, when compared to their healthy peers, patients with IBD were willing to trade more years of their life expectancy or risk a greater chance of death in order to achieve a better state of health,” Yi says. One of the strongest predictors of poorer overall quality of life, the researchers found, is a lower level of spiritual well-being.
It also seems that spirituality might play a significant role in teens with IBD when it comes to emotional well-being—helping them to cope with their illness. While “both healthy adolescents and those with IBD had relatively high levels of spiritual well-being,” Cotton says, “the positive association between spiritual well-being and mental health outcomes was stronger in the adolescents with IBD as compared to their healthy peers.”
Currently, researchers are studying spiritual coping in teens with IBD, asthma, and sickle cell disease, with plans to extend their investigations to other chronic illnesses. “While adolescents with IBD have specific issues that are unique to that group, we feel that these studies help to create a systematic approach to better understanding spirituality and religious coping in pediatric populations,” Cotton says. “We felt it was best to examine these issues first in a homogeneous population and then determine whether these findings can be generalized in adolescents with other chronic conditions or how they might be different across different illness groups.”
The studies appear in online editions of the Journal of Pediatrics and the Journal of Adolescent Health. —Heather Wax

Clergy Often Dismiss Mental Illness

Christians are often being told by their clergy that their previously diagnosed mental illnesses—like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia—aren’t real, according to a new study out of Baylor University in Texas. The researchers found that 32 percent of those who went to their local churches for help with their own or a family member’s serious mental illness were told that the cause of their problems was completely spiritual, the result of such things as personal sin, lack of faith, or demonic involvement.
“Those whose mental illness is dismissed by clergy are not only being told they don’t have a mental illness, they are also being told they need to stop taking their medication,” says Matthew Stanford, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, who led the study. “That can be a very dangerous thing.” The results take on even more weight when we’re reminded that research consistently shows that in time of psychological distress, people are more likely to seek help from clergy than from psychologists or other mental health experts.
Clergy were more likely to dismiss mental illness in women than in men, the researchers found, and overall, these denials occurred more often in conservative churches than liberal ones. The research also showed that church members who had their mental illness dismissed by their clergy were less likely to attend church afterward and the experience weakened their faith in God.
The results are published in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culture. —Heather Wax

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