December 13, 2021

Monday morning greetings, MindSite News Readers. In today’s newsletter you’ll read about an exposé of a disturbing website that encourages suicide and a pastor providing mental health care in his Maryland neighborhood. Plus a federal court orders Mississippi to pay for a monitor to oversee its troubled public mental health system and an expert pushes back against excessively realistic live shooter drills in schools that are needlessly frightening children.

Bipartisan group pushes for grief counseling for children who lost caregivers to COVID

A startling 167,000 children lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19, according to a new report from the COVID Collaborative — a bipartisan group pushing for federal funding for grief counseling services for bereaved children. The report, Hidden Pain, revealed that Black and Hispanic children were 2.5 times and Native American children 4 times as likely to have lost a parent. Some 70% of these kids were under 13. Although Congress has allocated $100 million to mental health programs for children, the collaborative is calling for a separate fund for these bereaved children similar to that created for families of 9/11 victims, according to an article in The New York Times.

The report comes just days after the Surgeon General released an advisory on the pandemic-linked mental health crisis among young people. The COVID Collaborative, headed by former governors Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), and Deval Patrick (D-Massachusetts), envisions a $2 to $3 billion bereavement fund – perhaps supplemented by private philanthropy – that would provide up to $10,000 each for families in need. “There is an extraordinary responsibility to care for those children,” said  Dan Treglia, a social policy researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “So many of them were facing economic and other hardships even before the pandemic began, and certainly before they lost a caregiver. Now they are facing their darkest days.”

A faith-based approach to mental health serves African Americans

To Abraham Shanklin Jr., an eviction in his Hanover, Maryland neighborhood is a harbinger of deeper trouble. So are problems finding transportation to work. “The consistent thread in all of this is mental health,” he said in an American Heart Association News story about his largely African American community. “If your mind ain’t right, your life ain’t right.” In 2014, he created a faith-based organization, The Center of Transformation, which offered employment, education and health programs for families in need, and his church members formed a mental health counseling service. The center has also begun a two-year pilot of a mental health coaching program with the goal of funneling 70% more people into evidence-based health programs. 

The center is making inroads: The number of families served by the counseling service jumped from 30 to 100 and the organization received a grant from the American Heart Association’s EmPowered to Serve Faith-Based Accelerator to duplicate its model elsewhere. “Mental illness in the Black community has long been a touchy topic – the overriding belief is you don’t go to therapy, you don’t go to counseling, you don’t take medicine,” said Shanklin, who lost his brother to suicide. “We’re seeking to train mental health coaches in our local churches. They are not professionals, but they can help anyone who struggles to find a network of support and really deal with their challenges head-on…Our focus is really to position ourselves for this next pandemic: mental health.”

Active shooter drills that kids mistake for the real thing are unacceptable: Expert

In response to the disturbing frequency of school shootings – like the recent one that killed 4 and injured 7 in Oxford, Michigan – many states require lockdown drills in schools. While some instruct students to minimize their risk by closing blinds, barricading doors or huddling away from windows, others go further: They have actors pretend to be active shooters and use sound effects like the sound of bullets. Some schools don’t give advance notice about scheduled drills and children think they are real. “We’ve had children who have tried to reach their parents to say goodbye to them, thinking they might die,” said David Schoenfeld, the director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, in an interview on National Public Radio. 

High-intensity drills with actors, sound effects and visuals cross the line, says Schoenfeld. Make them more like routine fire drills, “where children exit schools safely and quietly,” he says. “There’s no attempt at smoke to make it feel like a fire. There’s no necessity to have people screaming in the hallways. What you want to do is help them learn how they should be moving safely in a crisis situation.”

A deeply disturbing site encourages suicide, evades legal crackdown in the U.S.

A website is drawing in vulnerable people who feel suicidal – many of them teenagers – and encouraging them to act on those feelings, according to a shocking exposé in The New York Times. The site has 4 times more page views than the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website, the Times reports. Many are 15 to 24 years old, the group with the most dramatic increase in suicides. Although site members are anonymous, Times reporters identified 45 who had posted on the site about their despair and later killed themselves. Another 500 have posted goodbye letters, the most visited part of the site. The site promotes poisoning as the suicide method of choice, encourages members to keep their suicide plan secret from loved ones, and offers chat rooms where members post about meeting in person to carry out joint suicides. 

Italy, Australia and Germany have cut off access to the website, using evidence from grieving parents as part of their prosecutions. But outraged parents who have lost children in the US have run up against federal shield laws and court rulings that protect website owners from accountability. The two shadowy figures who run the site, known only as Marquis and Serge, have moved its servers between countries and changed web hosts to evade detection. The pair claims the site “did not permit the assisting or encouraging of suicide.” But the Times account suggests otherwise, with multiple accounts of people who killed themselves soon after joining. A 30-year old man from Grapevine, Texas – in debt, going through a breakup, and jobless – joined the site in late September. “Three days later,” the Times reported, “he was gone.” 

A federal judge forces Mississippi to fund mental health watchdog position 

Mississippi has to begin paying an independent monitor to oversee its beleaguered mental health care for people with serious mental illness, according to the Miami Herald. The government watchdog will be responsible for tracking relevant data, including the number of people in jail put in jail while waiting for a bed in a mental health facility and the number of calls to mobile crisis teams. The rulings stem from a federal government letter in 2011 charging the state was not doing enough to care for people with serious mental health issues outside of hospitals. That  led to a federal lawsuit and a 2016 court ruling that found Mississippi was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

With new show, NFL player Brandon Marshall vows to erase stigma of mental health in sports

Brandon Marshall. Photo: Shutterstock

Brandon Marshall, an NFL star who played football for 13 years, will host a new program focusing on mental health among athletes. Known for his volatile behavior off the field early in his career, Marshall was later diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. Since then, he has gone public and speaks regularly about his mental health struggles. The new show, produced by Red Table Talk Productions, is called The Toughest Opponent. “I have vowed to make it my life’s purpose to remove the stigma of mental health in sports,” Marshall said in an article posted on Colorlines. “Mental health is part of the human condition, and athletes shouldn’t be expected to check their humanity at the door.”  

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, press 1.

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