January 25, 2022

Good morning, MindSite News readers! Today, we’re out with some breaking news: For the first time, the federal government is taking aggressive steps to enforce mental health parity laws and ensure that health insurers cover mental health needs in the same ways they cover medical needs. We’re previewing an announcement that Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will make later today, and will continue covering the story this week.

We also have news from around the media landscape: A good diet translates to better mental health. Advocates are pushing for federal legislation to protect youth in the country’s “troubled teen” industry. Plus, two years of juggling parenting with work and the pandemic pushed 20 Boston moms to gather for a primal scream. 


Biden Administration Taking Aggressive Steps to Enforce 25-Year-Old Mental Health Parity Law

The Biden administration is expected to announce this morning stepped-up enforcement of so-called mental health parity laws requiring health insurers to cover mental illness on the same basis as medical and surgical needs, the most aggressive intervention yet by the federal government.

Secretary of Labor and former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh at 2017 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Photo: Keith J Finks/Shutterstock

Federal regulators missed a December deadline for a highly anticipated report, but Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, whose department oversees insurance plans covering 137 million Americans, has made his priorities clear. “We’re enforcing parity for mental health and substance use treatment. We all know what that is in our communities,” he said Friday in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting.

The first parity law passed in 1996 at a time of high medical inflation that led to cost-cutting and especially affected mental health. It requires health insurance plans that include mental health treatment to ensure that they pay for those services in ways that are comparable to what they provide for medical and surgical treatment. The law was broadened in 2008 to include addiction services.

Despite the law, neither the federal government nor the states did much to enforce it, especially for practices that are hard to measure, like determinations of “medically necessary” treatment and whether an insurer contracts with sufficient numbers of mental health providers in insurance networks to meet members’ needs.

A research report by Milliman, a health care consultancy, found that patients went out of network for behavioral health treatment more than five times as often as they did for medical and surgical care in 2017. Patients usually do that when they can’t find an in-network provider. Insurers generally pay far less for out-of-network providers, and that leaves patients to pay more.

Mediterranean diet good for your mental health too, researchers say

Photo: Shutterstock

While the Mediterranean diet –  think vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and some lean protein – is good for overall health, research suggests that the diet may also help boost mood, according to a story in The New York Times. A four-year study of more than 10,000 Spanish university students who followed the diet were less likely to become depressed. An Australian study that followed the eating habits of more than 12,000 adults through their food journals found that the more veggies and fruit they consumed, the happier they were. One possible reason: Minerals found in food such as zinc, magnesium and selenium facilitate the synthesis of neurotransmitters that directly affect mood. 

“Our brains evolved to eat almost anything to survive, but increasingly we know there’s a way to fuel it to improve overall mental health,” said Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University in New York and author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety. “We know if you eat a bunch of garbage, you feel like garbage, but the idea that it extends into our mental health risk is a connection we haven’t made in psychiatry until recently.” Still, much is unknown, as seen in a year-long trial published in JAMA in 2019 that found a Mediterranean diet reduced anxiety but didn’t ward off depression in those at high risk.  

A law meant to provide more oversight to Utah’s ‘troubled teen’ industry is falling short

A law signed by Utah Governor Spencer Cox last March banned sedation and the use of mechanical restraints – such as a straitjacket – on youth in one of Utah’s many residential treatment facilities, unless approved by the state’s Office of Licensing. The law also requires facilities to notify Licensing if they put youths into seclusion or physically restrain them, and allows youth to freely communicate with their family. But just days after the law was signed, a 12-year-old boy – in seclusion and on antipsychotic medication without his family’s permission – was denied permission to talk to his family, according to an article by Kaiser Health News done in partnership with USA Today. Trish Leon, the 12-year-old’s aunt, complained all the way to the governor’s office, but said her complaints were essentially dismissed. “If we’re still doing the same thing, there’s never going to be a change,” Leon said. 

Utah has about 100 programs that promise to help youth with behavioral or substance use problems, including boot camps, residential treatment and “wilderness therapy” programs, the latter of which came under fire in the 1990s when three teens died of dehydration, heatstroke and neglect. It is one of several states to sign laws requiring accountability and enforcement, with mixed results. A 2019 Montana law led to the shutdown of several programs, and a 2016 California law prohibited for-profit companies from operating residential treatment programs for youth. Advocates are now developing new federal legislation. “We’ve seen facilities in many different states that have been cited again and again and again for noncompliance for dangerous practices, for children dying at their facilities, but if the state doesn’t revoke their license or shut them down, then it’s pointless,” said Caroline Lorson, an advocate helping draft the federal legislation.

Don’t expand jails, expand alternatives, California official says in commentary

Alameda County, population 1.7 million, and home to Oakland and Berkeley, has poured more than $100 million into programs to help people coming out of incarceration including employment, peer support, mental health care and housing. But an enduring problem, says Keith Carson, president of the county Board of Supervisors, is the lack of treatment facilities for people with serious mental illness. In a commentary for Calmatters, he calls for an expansion of funding to community-based supportive services instead of an expansion of jails. “When we allow people with serious mental health conditions to languish in jails because we haven’t funded treatment facilities, we are funding failure,” he writes. 

Cash help to poor families results in developmental improvements for infants

Photo: Shutterstock

New research suggests that giving poor families extra cash might improve the cognitive development of their infants in the first year of life, The New York Times reports. Babies whose families were given $333 monthly for their first year showed alterations in brain activity suggestive of stronger cognitive development. “This is a big scientific finding,” said Martha J. Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a review of the study for the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, where it was published on Monday. “It’s proof that just giving the families more money, even a modest amount of more money, leads to better brain development.” Will increased brain activity translate to long-term boosts in cognitive development? Time and further testing of the children will tell, a project consultant said. 

In other news:

Photo: Shutterstock

Are youth optimistic? A global survey of youth by the United Nations Children’s Fund shows that youth might be anxious from the pandemic, but they’re still  looking on the bright side, according to an article in US News & World Report. “There’s this sense of doom and gloom – we find that they’re quite optimistic,” said Laurence Chandy, director at the Office of Global Insight and Policy at UNICEF. Fifty-seven percent of the youth agreed that the world was becoming better “with each successive generation” – a sentiment shared by far fewer older respondents. Youth in poorer countries felt less anxiety about the future, with the U.S., Spain and France reporting the most and youth in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya the least.

Mental health and Olympic athletes: As athletes prepare to head for Beijing for the winter Olympics, many will work with sports psychologists to prepare them for pandemic-induced guidelines that prevent in-person support from family. Cross-country skier Jessie Diggins says that part of her preparation for the Olympics is working with a sports psychologist on an action plan to keep her emotions in high gear. “It’s really important to be able to focus on the team and focus on that happy bubble,” she said in an article in The Seattle TImes. 

Primal scream Rx: Many moms are exhausted, stressed out and exasperated by their non-stop parenting duties while trying to keep their jobs going and their households running, With the encouragement of a mom who is also a therapist, a group of 20 moms assembled on the 50-yard line of a football field in Boston to scream it all out of their system in unison, according to a story in The New York Times. Said one participant after engaging in several primal screams, ““It’s just amazing how light you can feel after you do that.”

Please check out all of our stories at mindsitenews.org. And did we mention you should share this newsletter with your friends and colleagues? Thanks for reading and see you next time

—The MindSite News Team

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