Research Updates in Psychiatry: Anxiety, Autism, Depression, and Substance Abuse

Research Updates in Anxiety, Depression, Substance Abuse and AutismANXIETY

Pet Therapy for College Students

College can be a time of stress and loneliness for students. A new study shows that pet therapy may help ease the suffering.

In a pilot study aimed at assessing the effectiveness of an animal-assisted therapy (AAT) outreach program, researchers invited 55 undergraduate students at a small liberal arts college in the Southeast to participate. The students interacted with one of the college’s counseling staff, who is a registered Pet Partners therapy team member, and her therapy dog.

The sessions took place in a group setting at a residence hall lobby on the college campus twice a month for an academic quarter. Students were invited to drop-in and interact with the dog, the counselor, and other attendees for a period of two hours. The average attendance at each event was 10 to 15 students and participants spent anywhere from five minutes to two hours with the dog. Students were able to pet, hug, feed, brush, draw, photograph, sit near, and play fetch with the dog. The counselor provided information about the college’s counseling center, but did not provide counseling services or psychoeducation during the sessions.

The researchers found the program reduced symptoms of anxiety and loneliness in the students by 60%. Students (84%) said interaction with the dog was the most impactful aspect of the intervention. The other 16% said interaction with other students and staff members was most helpful. There was no comparator treatment, and certainly a double blind study would have been hard to pull off—maybe they could have used stuffed animals? Nonetheless, this intervention is easy to implement and inexpensive, and is probably worth trying. In fact, AAT outreach is gaining momentum on college campuses nationwide (Stewart LA et al, J Creativ Ment Health 20l4;9(3):332-345).

CCPR’s Take: Pet a dog, feel better.


Danish Study Explains Most of Autism’s Rise

It’s now estimated that about one in 68 children in the US have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a 123% increase since 2002, when a monitoring network funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began its reporting.

There is disagreement about the causes of this increased incidence of autism. Debate has focused on whether the rise in cases is an artifact caused by increased diagnosis and reporting, or if there is some unknown pathogenic factor in the environment that is causing an actual increase in new cases. A new study out of Denmark provides support for the artifact argument.

Researchers analyzed information from nearly 678,000 children born in Denmark from 1980 to 1991, who were followed until 2011. Of those children, 3,956 were diagnosed with autism, with a sharp increase after 1994. Researchers found that there were only 192 diagnoses reported from 1980 to 1993; 100 from 1994 to 1995; and an astonishing 3,665 (95% of the total) were reported from 1996 to 2011.

What happened in 1994? That was when the ICD-10 was introduced, in which the criteria for diagnosis were changed in ways that made it easier to diagnose. These changes included recognizing autism as a spectrum of disorders (rather than as a subgroup of schizophrenia in ICD-8, which was the previous version used in Denmark) and various changes in the diagnostic criteria. Then, in 1995, a change in reporting practices occurred. Previously, autism could be diagnosed only in inpatient settings; after 1995, outpatient diagnoses were allowed.

Using statistical techniques that predicted changes in diagnostic rates based on past trends, the researchers estimated that about 60% of the increase in autism prevalence in Denmark can be explained by changes in diagnostic criteria and in reporting practices. This means that 40% of the increase remained unexplained. Researchers suggested that generally growing awareness about autism might contribute, but that further studies are needed to explain those changes (Hansen SN et al, JAMA Pediatr 2014; Epub ahead of print).

CCPR’s Take: Here’s another piece of evidence arguing that the apparent epidemic in autism is just that: apparent.


To Prevent Depression in Teens, Teach about Change

Transitioning to high school can be a tough time, and studies have shown that teenagers are increasingly likely to have symptoms of depression over the course of their freshman year of school. Now an intriguing study seems to show that a simple intervention can ease these symptoms quite effectively.

Researchers recruited 599 ninth-grade freshman students from three different high schools in northern California. The students were randomly assigned to participate in one of two classroom exercises during the first few weeks of school. In one group, 379 students were taught the “incremental” theory of personality, which holds that individuals have the potential to change. The students took part in a brief self-administered reading and writing activity intended to convey two messages: a) if you are excluded or victimized, it is not due to a fixed, personal deficiency on your part and b) people who exclude or victimize you are not fixed, bad people, but instead have complicated motivations that are also subject to change. In other words, people’s personalities can change and social adversities need not be permanent.

Conditions for the control group were the same, except those students learned about the malleability of athletic abilities, not personality theory.

When students were asked to self-report depressive symptoms nine months later, at the end of the school year, the students assigned to the intervention group showed no increase in symptoms, whereas those in the control group showed a 39% increase in negative mood, feelings of ineffectiveness, and low esteem. Thus, although the intervention did not actually treat depression, it slowed the normal increase in depressive symptoms during that first year of high school (Miu SE and Yeager DS, Clinical Psychological Science 20l4;published online).

CCPR’s Take: While the intervention tested here was a didactic exercise taught to many students at once, you can teach the same basic messages to individual teens in the office, and it may help them gain a perspective that can ward off future depressive symptoms.


Daily Marijuana Use by Teens Creates Life Problems

A new study provides strong evidence that chronic marijuana use during adolescence can lead to significant social and psychiatric issues later in life.

Researchers performed a meta-analysis of three longitudinal studies (conduced in Australia or New Zealand) that measured the association of marijuana use with a variety of potential negative outcomes. The studies measured frequency of use before 17 years of age (never, less than monthly, monthly or more, weekly or more, or daily). The number of participants varied depending on the outcome being measured from 2,537 to 3,765 teens.

Seven potential outcomes were measured: completion of high school, receiving a university degree, dependence on marijuana, use of other illicit drugs, suicide attempts, development of depression, and dependence on welfare. The study by researchers in Australia and New Zealand found that teens who use marijuana daily before age 17 are 63% less likely to get a high school diploma than those who never used cannabis and are 18 times more likely to become dependent on the drug. In the United States, about 7% of high school seniors are daily or near-daily marijuana users, according to a 2013 survey.

There were clear and statistically significant associations between frequency of use and five of the adverse outcomes. Those who were daily users before age 17 were less likely than non-users to complete high school or to attain a university degree, and far more likely to become dependent on cannabis, use other illicit drugs, and attempt suicide.

These associations do not necessarily prove causality, because it’s possible that unidentified factors may lead to these negative outcomes. Nonetheless, the researchers controlled for many possible confounding factors, and found a dose response relationship (the heavier the marijuana use, the stronger the associations).

Given the growing movement to decriminalize or legalize marijuana use in several US states, as well as some Latin American countries, the researchers said those efforts should be carefully assessed to ensure they don’t increase adolescent marijuana use and the potentially adverse effects (Silins E et al, Lancet Psychiatry 2014:1(4):286-293).

CCPR’s Take: While not definitive, this is the most compelling evidence yet that daily pot smoking is bad for teens in the long-term.

Research Updates in Psychiatry: Anxiety, Autism, Depression, and Substance Abuse

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APA Reference
Psychiatry Report, T. (2016). Research Updates in Psychiatry: Anxiety, Autism, Depression, and Substance Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 10, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Feb 2016
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