‘Mental Illness Is Not a Normal Part of Aging’

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Sandra Swantek, MD

Sandra Swantek, MD​, has dedicated her career to ensuring quality mental care for older adults. She will be honored for her work when she receives the 2018 American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry Jackson-Siegal Clinician of the Year Award.

In this Q&A, the medical director of Rush’s geriatric psychiatry program tells us about herself and the honor, which she’ll receive in March in Honolulu.

Tell us about your background.

​I’m originally from Detroit. I received my undergraduate degree in communications from Michigan State University, East Lansing Michigan. I worked at a public radio station then a Detroit television station. I transitioned to communications work at a hospital on the east side of Detroit and created a community education program for a young hospice program. I recognized that I enjoyed working in a health care environment, and that I wanted to take on a different role in health care. I eventually realized that I wanted to be a psychiatrist.

I was 10 years out of school by then and not certain that I could do it. I started premed classes on my 30th birthday, all while working a day job. Medical school was both an exciting and terrifying challenge.

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Rush and the ‘Transformative’ SPARK Autism Study

aarts-spark-heerwagenBy Katy Heerwagen

At the Autism Assessment, Research, Treatment and Services (AARTS) Center, we see a wide range of individuals with autism spectrum disorder. As a lifespan center, we may see a 12-month-old for an evaluation and hours later provide therapy for a man in his 40s. In a given day, I can deliver play-based interventions to a nonverbal 2-year-old boy in the morning and provide career-focused counseling to a 27-year-old woman exploring technology jobs in the afternoon. We encounter individuals who have been able to develop a comprehensive program of services and those who continuously struggle to access often-costly resources.

In each of my experiences, I return to the same thought: How can a single disorder look so vastly different for every individual I see?

‘So much we do not know’

This question is at the center of a new research initiative led by members of various departments here at Rush. The SPARK study — Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge — is, at its core, an ambitious, first-of-its-kind autism genetics study aiming to involve 50,000 individuals with autism and their family members. The goal is simple: to advance our understanding of the genetic components of autism and speed up autism research. In adopting this mission, we acknowledge that there is still so much we do not know, and that we need the investment of tens of thousands of individuals to answer the many questions that remain.

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Promoting Suicide Awareness

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By Chris Spaletto, MAAT, ATR, and Kevin Pittman, RN, BSN 

If you are on the Rush campus this week, you may see us giving purple-and-teal-colored ribbons to passersby. As clinicians at the Rush Day Hospital — the outpatient adult program in the Department of Psychiatry — we and other psychiatry units at Rush are doing our part to promote awareness of National Suicide Prevention Week.

The Rush Day Hospital treats people 18 years and older diagnosed with affective disorders and other conditions that interfere with relationships and daily functioning. We work collaboratively as a team, which includes nursing, social work, art therapy and a psychiatrist who serves as our medical director.

Here are some important facts about suicide:

  • In the United States, 50 percent more people die by suicide each year than from homicide.
  • Experts believe that most suicidal individuals do not want to die. They just want to end the pain.
  • When suicide risk or intent is detected early, lives can be saved.

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Five Tips for Dealing With Stress

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Fred Brown is director of nursing psychiatry at Rush

By Fred Brown

Minor daily stressors can actually be good for us, keeping us on our toes, alert and even motivated. But as many of us know, stress can get away from us and feel out of control very quickly.

Excessive stress can have a negative effect on your health and lead to more severe issues such as anxiety, depression and even cardiac events.

Here are five ways you can celebrate national Stress Awareness Month and minimize stressors in your daily life:

Laugh and connect

We’ve all heard the phrase “laughter is the best medicine,” and you may have had the experience when a good belly laugh felt like you just took an emotional jog around the block. Many of us are together daily and have been together for years, knowing each other well. Connecting with each other on a daily basis is important. Take time each day to enjoy your relationships through laughing or having lunch together.

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Sex Ed and Autism

rachel-loftin-aartsBy Rachel Loftin, PhD

Although it is a crucial topic in health care, people are often reluctant to talk about the sex education needs of people with autism spectrum disorder.

While typically developing people learn a lot about sexuality and romantic relationships from their peers, teens with ASD are much less likely to have friends who talk about these topics. Many people with ASD do not pick up on unwritten rules for how to behave in social situations, and sexually charged interactions are particularly challenging to understand.

The social differences in ASD can limit the amount and quality of the sexuality information acquired and can make it challenging to understand the complex dynamics of intimate relationships.

When people with ASD unwittingly break social rules, they can put themselves at risk for victimization or may be misconstrued as sexually deviant or even predatory. Unfortunately, these situations sometimes result in legal action. Even when problem behaviors are not illegal, inappropriate sexual behaviors can limit employment and inclusion opportunities with individuals with ASD.

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Personal Path to Interest in Autism Care

Rachel LoftinBy Rachel Loftin, PhD

I am a psychologist and clinical director of an autism program here at Rush. Several of my closest friends are also clinicians who specialize in autism. We all took different paths to our careers. Johanna, a child psychologist, worked as a behavior therapist for years and discovered she had a knack for both behavioral psychology and for working with children with autism. Kara was a special education teacher whose practice slowly shifted over the years until she was completely specialized in autism. She now holds a doctorate in special education and does important work on transition and independence people with autism spectrum disorder.

My route was a little different. I grew up with a family member with autism. My cousin Wilson is a few years younger than I am. We were raised almost like siblings, seeing each other several times per week while growing up. Wilson’s autism is not conspicuous. As a child, his parents and teachers knew something was different because he was late to talk and had some quirks, but they did not know exactly why or how he was different.

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Beating the Holiday Blues

HolidayBlues_thinkstockBy Virginia Markvart, RN

For most people, the Christmas and Hanukkah seasons are wonderful and magical times of the year filled with joyful celebration and happiness. The bright-colored lights and splendid decorations of the season remind many of us that the holidays are a time for holding on to fantasies, with the wish of having our every dream fulfilled. Despite this image, for some people the holidays often can be a time of increased stress and loneliness.

Experts have categorized holiday stress in three general areas.

Socioeconomic stress may result from the added financial burdens of gift-giving and of purchasing additional food and drink for special holiday entertaining. Being physically or emotionally separated from one’s family adds to holiday tension. In some cases, the increased proximity to family may likewise cause additional stress as a result for unresolved family conflicts or differences.

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