Dec. 20, 2021

Good morning, MindSite News readers! Today we have good news on the education front, with Oprah contributing a million dollars for social-emotional learning and a California school district that’s found creative ways to use federal and state COVID relief funds to support high-needs students undermined by the pandemic. Plus, a stunning survey of the pandemic’s impact on therapists and would-be mental health patients, along with the emotional fallout from a debunked QAnon theory involving sex trafficking and cabinets.

Doctor’s mental illness disclosure triggers debate about stigma in profession

When Jake Goodman, a doctor and psychiatric resident, posted about his own mental illness on social media recently, he was hammered with hostile replies as well as heart-felt support. Goodman had posted a photo of himself with a blue pill on his tongue, along with a message about supporting mental health, the need for treatment and this disclosure: ”My name is Dr. Jake. I’m a physician who treats mental illness and I take medication for my mental health. And by the way, I’m proud of it,” according to an article in Inverse. Mental health challenges among health care workers have exploded during the pandemic, but the stigma of disclosure within medicine often keeps them from seeking help, according to Goodman. Doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession, and despite prohibitions enshrined in the  Americans with Disabilities Act, many state licensing applications still include general questions about mental health history. Those questions run against recommendations by the Federation of State Medical Boards, which stated that such a history “does not predict future risk to the public.”  

Such questions have a chilling effect on doctors who are less likely to seek help under such circumstances. Goodman explains that he started his social media accounts  “with the goal of making videos, advocating for mental health, and letting other people know they’re not alone. Not only am I a doctor treating patients, I’m also a human being.” 

Oprah gives $1 million to Teach for America to build social-emotional learning

To help children deal with the emotional fallout from the pandemic, Oprah Winfrey donated $1 million to Teach For America, which deploys “equity-oriented” teachers to 350 public schools around the country. Oprah’s donation is earmarked for teaching skills that help students deal with their emotions, better understand themselves and build healthy relationships, according to an article on Oprah Daily.

 “With rates of trauma rising to crisis levels as a result of the pandemic, the deep connection between students’ academic growth and social-emotional development has never been more important,” said Elisa Villanueva Beard, chief executive officer of Teach For America. “By supporting educators to foster social-emotional learning for their students and for themselves, we create safe and inclusive learning environments and help build stronger communities.”

Schools using relief money – and a little theater and chess – to help kids cope 

Lodi Unified School District in California’s Central Valley is making creative use of state and federal Covid relief funds to help an expanding population of high-needs students, according to a story in EdSource. At Lodi Unfied, 71% of kids are homeless, from low-income families, in foster care or in migrant families or have other significant needs – a full 9% higher than the state average. All told, the district is investing $131 million into mental health counselors, tutors to help students catch up and new equipment for classes. At McNair High School in Stockton, the school purchased sewing machines and ingredients for a cooking class as well as hiring mental health, substance use and suicide prevention counselors.

Theater classes and a chess club have helped kids rebound from the stress, isolation and losses they’ve experienced. They’ve learned lighting and stage design and enjoyed  the collaborative spirit of theater, which helps build empathy and social skills. It’s been a lifeline for two siblings who had to take on extra responsibilities while their mother was sick with Covid. “This is just such a close-knit, accepting class. It’s had a big positive impact on me,” said Koro Ly, a senior. “With stage production, you can build an entire world.” 

Elkhorn School is using chess to help students build much-needed social connections. In a real-life version of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, school janitor Shawn Montemayor, an avid chess player, got permission to start an after-school chess club,  which regularly pulls in 40 students. “The pandemic was tough on kids…but chess can help,” Montemayor told EdSource. “There’s a lot of life lessons in chess — patience, how to plan ahead, discipline, focus, how to win, how to lose. And it’s fun.”

Nation’s therapists describe patients’ desperation, three month-waits for therapy

Mental health providers in the US are so inundated with therapy requests they are turning people away despite their desperate need, according to an article in The New York Times. A survey of 1,320 therapists in rural and urban areas found that one in three therapists reported wait times for new patients of at least three months. Kristin Mathes, a clinical social worker in Bend, Oregon, said it took three months for a depressed, suicidal client to get in to see a psychiatrist for medications. Many therapists said they were working with health care workers traumatized by caring for patients with Covid-19. A quarter reported working with clients who were suicidal. 

The pandemic has also disrupted therapists’ home and professional lives, according to the survey, conducted by Psychology Today on behalf of the Times. Ten percent said they were on the verge of burnout and one in five had to reduce their hours.“We’re holding other people’s emotions, their sadness, their sorrow and their stress,” said Claudia Coenen, a certified grief counselor in Hudson, New York. “I’m on the edge of burnout, and I have to step back and trust that my clients will be OK.”

Need more anxiety? Fake QAnon report of teen sex trafficking

Weeks after a Detroit teenager ran away and then returned home in the summer of 2020, her photo went viral and her parents were suddenly inundated with frantic Facebook messages and calls from strangers. The teen, Samara DuPlessis, was no longer missing but there her face was, plastered on overheated social media posts identifying her as the victim of sex trafficking, according to an exposé in The Washington Post. The same false statements were made about other kids, too — and the posts originated with QAnon, the Post found.

QAnon proponents linked the names of formerly missing teens with exorbitantly priced cabinets for sale on the Wayfair website. Although Homeland Security investigated the allegations and found no evidence of sex trafficking, hundreds of thousands of people were pulled in by the viral hoax. The National Human Trafficking hotline was bombarded with calls, delaying its response to calls about actual trafficking victims.The conspiracy gained traction among QAnon and some members of the public because Wayfair didn’t explain why an ordinary cabinet with a female name was listed as costing $9,999 to $12,000 or more. “Our goal was really to try to minimize adding anything else to the story, and try to do whatever we could to not add fuel to the fire,” Jane Carpenter, Wayfair’s global head of communications, told the Post. In fact, the high prices posted for some items were just placeholders for actual prices not included when the products were listed on the site by manufacturers. 

Wayfair hired security guards after receiving threats from distraught people threatening to show up with guns to free the children. Meanwhile, all the social media attention upended Samara DuPlessis’ life and she started fearing that someone might actually kidnap her. “I started getting real bad anxiety,” she recalled. “When I get in my head, like real, real deep in my head, I start hyperventilating.” 

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Laurie Udesky

Laurie Udesky reports on mental health, social welfare, health equity and public policy issues from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.