Wednesday, February 8, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite News readers! In today’s roundup, we look at President Biden’s focus on mental health in last night’s State of the Union. We examine the limitations of using AI to improve mental health. And our immuno-compromised friends remind us that they still risk great harm from COVID as well as isolation and loneliness. 

Plus, the New York Times talks to experts on how to stop ruminating, a pair of management scholars suggest the commute to and from work is beneficial to mental health, and a doctor argues it’s not overwork but rather devastation from a broken medical system that is demoralizing American physicians.

Biden Puts Mental Health, Suicide and Police Violence at Center of State of Union Speech

President Joe Biden delivers State of Union address. Feb. 7, 2023 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

For the second year in a row, mental health played a leading role in a State of the Union message from President Joe Biden. He highlighted his administration’s achievements in getting legislation through Congress that provides what he called “historic investments” in mental health. He vowed to continue working to reduce suicides among both active-duty military and veterans.

And in a country still reeling from the savage killing of Tyre Nichols, the 27-year-old Black man beaten to death last month by Memphis police, he devoted the most emotional and personal lines of his speech to the historic and continuing trauma experienced by so many people of color at the hands of police.

“Imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” he said, speaking directly to Nichols’ parents, seated at his invitation in the second-floor gallery of the chamber.

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ChatGPT wasn’t designed for mental health, but could you use it that way?

via Twitter

Would you use a chatbot for therapy? Freddie Chipres found his engagement with the artificial intelligence of ChatGPT surprisingly helpful. Though it was developed to aid language processing and help produce well-written text, Chipres told Mashable, he turned to the chatbot “to get a little feedback about his mental health.” 

Chipres had felt lonely and down for a while and wondered if he was depressed. Professional therapy seemed like a good option, but it would also take time to pick a therapist and secure an appointment. So he opted for ChatGPT, after hearing on YouTube that the chatbot might be able to provide him some support.

“It’s like I’m having a conversation with someone. We’re going back and forth,” Chipres said. “This thing is listening; it’s paying attention to what I’m saying…and giving me answers based off of that.”

But experts warn the chatbox wasn’t created to be an ad hoc therapist. It’s got some information about mental health and may respond with surprising empathy, but it’s ill-equipped to help users with actual mental health conditions. In fact, mental health experts worry that people expecting meaningful support from ChatGPT may encounter disappointment or harm — not to mention a privacy risk.

“We kind of have to be realistic in our expectations. Where these are amazingly powerful and impressive language machines, they’re still software programs that are imperfect, and trained on data that is not going to be appropriate for every situation,” clinical psychologist Adam Miner said. “That’s especially true for sensitive conversations around mental health or experiences of distress.”

People who use digital resources for mental health should view them only as one piece of a “spectrum of care,” said Elizabeth Carpenter-Song, a professor at Dartmouth College. Though chatbots like Woebot and Wysa were designed for mental health, she said they’re only effective when paired with other practical supports like well-rounded mental health care, housing, and employment.

The low down on positive thinking

Focusing on the bright side has its benefits. Optimists tend to have better outcomes than pessimists because positive expectations prompt them to be proactive decision makers. Moreover, optimism is associated with better health, resilience, flexibility, and problem-solving when times get tough.

A positive mindset is especially beneficial for Black women, Lauren Michelle Jackson, a Chicago-based clinical counselor, told Essence magazine. “The better response to Black women creating a positive mindset is to ensure we have emotionally safe communities that allow us to grow this mindset in a healthy and natural state. This includes creating and receiving authentic sisterhoods with others that allow our feelings and experiences to be seen and validated daily.” Such a practice in conjunction with community can shore up confidence and self-esteem. 

But, says therapist Meghan Watson, optimists have to beware not to fall into delusion. Though positive thinking can help propel resilience in the face of difficulty, too much optimism can blind one to risks and consequences in certain situations, or even encourage people to ignore difficult circumstances that may cause discomfort but require attention.

Ultimately, “balance is key,” said Watson. “The solution is to face our truths and practice mindful self-awareness that doesn’t swing too far in negative or positive directions. We need to allow ourselves to grieve, to have moments of vulnerability, anger, or sadness. That way, we can genuinely lean into joy and positivity when it comes up without it feeling fake, fraudulent, or toxic.” (See MindSite News’ absorbing review of a recent book on toxic positivity.)

For immunocompromised, it’s still a lonely world

I haven’t quite readjusted to being among large crowds, but for the most part, my day-to-day experiences look like they did before the COVID-19 shutdowns of 2020. Given that option, I often find myself moving about public spaces mask-free, despite an active Twitter timeline reminding me that others can’t take the same risk. Those who are immunocompromised are barred from a “return to normal, and this week’s Group Therapy in the Los Angeles Times reminded me that my actions aren’t very considerate or protective of my neighbors, family, and friends. 

People with diminished immune systems are actually at heightened risk as increasing numbers of people stop taking precautions such as masking and getting COVID boosters. “All these communities I was a big part of, I’ve had to make choices for my health to not be part of them,” said Una Aya Osato, a performer, sex educator, and disability justice advocate. “I feel like we’re all living in different worlds, parallel universes…It’s so lonely to know that our most vulnerable don’t feel safe going outside, and that’s not a priority for other people,” she said.

Loneliness is a painful condition, described by one New York Times writer as the “gap between the level of connectedness that you want and what you have.” Reported rates of loneliness have risen dramatically among American adults since the 1970s, reaching as high as 61 percent in 2019, according to the LA Times. Extended loneliness increases the risk of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders, as well as various chronic illnesses.

There are some things we can do to help one another, says LA Times writer Laura Newberry. These include checking on people that you know to be vulnerable, minimizing the spread of COVID by masking in public – and, at the very least, staying home if you feel sick. Finally, listen to disability justice advocates. They intimately understand what it means to navigate life with chronic illness. 

The real reason that healthcare workers are leaving

via Twitter

Eric Reinhart, a physician and political anthropologist at Northwestern University believes that healthcare workers are burned out – but not because of medicine’s grueling conditions. Instead, he wrote in a guest column for the New York Times, a growing number of American doctors are suffering from “demoralization syndrome,” a condition more often associated with terminally ill patients devoid of hope and purpose.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted an “underinvestment in public health and uneven distribution of medical infrastructure,” he says. But even worse, as COVID deaths have tapered off, the faith that many doctors once had in their ability to effect change and make the system better has waned too.

“The United States is the only large high-income nation that doesn’t provide universal health care‌ to its citizens,” he says.”During the Covid-19 pandemic, the consequences of this policy choice have intensified. One study estimates at least 338,000 Covid deaths in the United States could have been prevented by universal health care. In the wake of this generational catastrophe, many health care workers have been left shaken” and demoralized. This can only change, he says, by a complete overhaul of our healthcare system.

In other news…

Strategies to stop excessive worry or rumination: Everyone is susceptible to overthinking from time to time, but rumination is when a loop of thoughts becomes so persistent, they’re like a “car without brakes,” said clinical psychologist Michael Greenberg. If rumination is your issue, Greenberg and other experts gave the New York Times a few strategies to help curb negative thoughts from overtaking your life. At the top of the list is one of the toughest things to actually do – put your attention on something else. “Listening to music and focusing intently on the words or tune” can help break your thoughts – even briefly, psychiatrist Tracy Marks said. Other options include calling a friend, playing a game or exercising.

The psychological benefits of…commuting?!? I worked a job for seven years that required a two-hour-plus daily commute. On good days, it felt like an extension of my work day, but on the bad ones, it was an absolute grind. So imagine my shock to come across this article in The Conversation, from management scholars Matthew Piszczek and Kristie McAlpine. In a conceptual study published last October, they argue that “commutes are a source of “liminal space” – a time free of both home and work roles that provides an opportunity to recover from work and mentally switch gears to home.” The elimination of such space as remote work exploded made it difficult for people to recover and transition from work to home life at the end of the day. For some, they say, this loss may have encouraged role-blurring, stress, and burnout. (For some of us, such role-blurring preceded remote work – and the commute from home desk to sofa is just fine.)

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney WiseReporter

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...