For more than 10 years Julia Rucklidge has been battling society’s norms, highlighting the importance of nutrients on mental health.
Julia Rucklidge doesn’t hold back. She has had her fair share of blows and setbacks, yet continues to battle through, because she knows that she is onto something worthy of the fight.
New Zealand is currently in the middle of a mental health crisis, and I don’t use the word ‘crisis’ lightly. If you think this is something that doesn’t affect you, think again.
In a media release by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF), chief executive Shaun Robinson said, “Half the New Zealand population is living with mental health and wellbeing issues right now”.
Half the population.
This affects you. If not directly then through your family, your friends, your community or your business.
Something needs to change; the Mental Health Commissioner’s Monitoring and Advocacy Report 2018 noted that mental health and addiction services are under immense pressure and many needs are not being met.
“When you go into any field you go in with great optimism,” Julia says, “you believe the treatments that are available currently are working and that people are getting better. In the area of mental illness, I can’t confidently say that is the case.” We know nutrients are vital for brain health; 10 years ago that would have been an absurd suggestion and that is what Julia has been fighting, and she is winning – slowly.
Julia has a PhD in clinical psychology and is a professor at the University of Canterbury. She has encountered many a sleepless night and jumped through many a hoop to get the results she has seen with nutrients — but there is still a hard slog ahead.
How the connection was made
While Julia was amid her PhD at the University of Calgary, Bonnie Kaplan, Julia’s PhD supervisor, was approached by a group of families in Southern Alberta, Canada, who were treating themselves with nutrients. “Some of them had very serious psychiatric disorders and they were claiming they were getting well,” Julia reveals.
These families were not scientists but they knew if they were going to make controversial claims they had to be able to back them up.
“My supervisor was fairly sceptical but then they sent her data, she agreed to do a clinical trial back in the late 90s.”
This was enough to catch Julia’s attention, but although she was intrigued, she didn’t think that moving from experimental research to the effects of nutrition was her place. “I thought psychiatrists should be doing it, but none of them thought it was worthy of investigation.”
In the interim, after working in Toronto at The Hospital for Sick Children (aka SickKids) for two years, Julia and her husband moved to Christchurch after Julia nabbed the role of child psychologist at the University of Canterbury in 2000. By around 2005 Julia had become increasingly dissatisfied with, and aware of, the outcomes for people with mental illness.
Bonnie was publishing preliminary trials on nutrition, families were saying they were getting better and Julia caught wind of suggestions that micronutrients may be the way forward.
“As scientists we should be investigating other options no matter how crazy those ideas might be, no matter how controversial or how much they contravene our current way of thinking,” Julia says.
And with that in mind she thought “why don’t I just study it, it can’t be that difficult”.
Naivety, as it seems, was bliss.
“Little did I know that this was going to be an unbelievably interesting journey, but one filled with controversy and obstacles. I didn’t expect the level of criticism I received from professionals in the field who held the common belief that nutrition is irrelevant to mental health. I can assure you now, it is not.”
Julia’s approach is not like most, not just in her research but how she goes about it.
“I want to determine if it works and that upsets some researchers, because they believe you have to have a hypothesis and know why it might work before you start determining if it works or not, and I think well… you could do it that way,” she muses.
“It started with these families that claimed they were getting better; let’s first determine if they were right.”
This approach has meant nothing has come easily to her.
Julia’s first trial looking at mood stability in adolescence didn’t even make it past ‘go’.
After originally being turned down by the Canterbury Ethics Committee, Julia had to go to the National Board in Wellington to appeal the decision.
“A lot of scientists would have given up. I was constantly asking myself ‘Am I doing the right thing,’ ‘Am I being blinded by something that everyone else is seeing, that this is such a dumb idea’?”
Regardless, persistence was key and it was agreed the study could go ahead, but the beginning was also the end.
“We couldn’t recruit anyone into the study because no one would send us patients.”
Potential referrers thought there was absolutely no way micronutrients would be effective.
As such, Julia had to essentially abandon that study, but not willing to give up she moved on to the effects of nutrients on people with ADHD.
Julia was turned down for every grant she applied for, but the study on ADHD finally got underway. She did all the leg-work, collecting all the data, meeting with patients and doing so on no more than a few thousand dollars, all while in the face of scrutiny and scepticism.
She was asked, “Julia you’re handing out these nutrients, how do you know that they are not harmful?” Julia accepts that as a valid question, but when compared to other medications already on the market such as Ritalin LA, commonly used for ADHD, with side effects such as suicidal thoughts, new or worsening aggressive behaviour, seizures, blurred vision, restlessness — the list goes on – Julia says micronutrients have yet to present any unfavourable outcomes.
“In the short term, based on our data over 10 years, I feel confident that we won’t cause any detrimental effects with micronutrients. We take blood samples to ensure there are no adverse effects on people’s kidney functions and liver functions etcetera.
“We have never had a serious adverse event in our clinical trials and that will more typically happen when trialling medication.”
We consume nutrients every day in our diets and the micronutrient formula is ultimately a mixture of essential vitamins and nutrients needed for our brains to function optimally.
Regardless of the naysayers and the uncertainties, Julia stuck to her guns — and then the earthquakes struck.
“I just remember thinking ‘this is so unfair’, there had been so many battles and obstacles to get this research underway… it was just one thing after another, you can’t help but take it a little personally,” she laughs.
But her persistence paid off and perhaps Mother Nature was lending her a helping hand. “Not only did we finish our first randomised clinical trial, we started the earthquake trial and that by far is the trial I am most proud of.”
“You never forget patient zero”
Though breaking through mindsets hasn’t come easy, Julia has seen her fair share of golden moments, and it all began with patient zero.
“Patient zero is the first time where you’re absolutely terrified you’re going to kill someone with vitamins and minerals, but you have this faith,” Julia explains.
“It was a family with an adolescent with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who I had worked with using cognitive behavior therapy. Over the years I had worked with him, he had shown minimal progress, so we trialed micronutrients and within two weeks his symptoms were gone — you don’t forget that.
“Especially when you have invested everything in traditional approaches to no avail and then to have such a substantial change in such a short amount of time, it got my attention.”
And the success hasn’t stopped there. In Julia’s first open-label trial for people with ADHD, again yes she was nervous that she would cause harm, but person after person was coming in saying they felt so calm and focused, she knew then that she was on to something.
After the September earthquake, Julia was feeling pretty hard done by but it presented an opportunistic pilot study. Those who happened to be taking micronutrients at the time of the earthquake, recovered faster in terms of stress and anxiety, compared to those who were not taking micronutrients.
When the February earthquake struck Julia was about ready to give up. Her home was damaged, the psychology department was shut down and she was working off minimal resources in Canterbury University accommodation, intended for important guests. But after seeing so many people becoming well and the effects on those after the September earthquake, she had a will to continue fighting.
Not only did she complete a randomised control trial with stressed and anxious adults, her lab also investigated anxiety and stress in children following the Christchurch earthquakes with remarkable results.
“I shouldn’t have been surprised because I saw it after the September quake, but when you realise the extent of benefit that we provided to Cantabrians… at the end of the day it was a pretty cheap way to address the mental health needs of a population after a disaster.”
The push continues
“I can get excited by the results but I can also get unbelievably frustrated about how difficult it is to translate research into practice.”
Julia is a common face in media, she has presented at TEDXChristchurch which has seen more than 816,000 views on Youtube and she recently grabbed Jacinda Ardern’s attention when she saw the opportunity, and yet her voice continues to be somewhat unheard.
“It saddens me that we have a crisis on our hands with children in schools who are suffering from anxiety, when we have done research with children after the quakes showing robust improvements in their anxiety with the use of nutrients.”
Clearly there is still a steep mountain to climb, but Julia has a strength and determination like no other.
“It’s important for us to be investigating new approaches. There are so many people who have been completely let down by the mental health system and for the most part, their voices are ignored. What the Government continuously wants to do is more of the same.
More of the same only gets us more of the same.” Mental Health Commissioner Kevin Allan even said it himself in his key findings from his recent report, “More of the same will not deliver the well-being and recovery-oriented system that is required”.
That is why Julia is on this crusade; she knows, no matter the lack of support she receives, that what she is doing is helping hundreds of people.
If we can conquer mental health and well-being issues we could see thriving communities, families and businesses and micronutrients could be an integral part of the solution.
By Natalia Rietveld