August 24, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good morning, MindSite News readers! In this edition, you’ll learn how the American Psychiatric Association created a virtual world-based simulation that can estimate mental health needs for communities nationwide. Plus, PowerWash Simulator gamers and self-care research, the gender gap in youth mental health, and why mental health researchers taught rats to drive tiny cars. Enjoy!


Computer simulation estimates communities’ mental health needs

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In North Carolina, mentally ill patients in hospital emergency rooms wait an average 12 days for a bed to open at state psychiatric hospital, quadruple the wait in 2013. “If someone came in with cardiac needs, and we said wait 2,3,4 days, that wouldn’t be okay,” Micah Krempasky, chief medical officer for behavioral health at the WakeMed Health System, told WTVD in Raleigh. “But that’s what has become our reality with mental health care.”

Credit: Twitter

The numbers differ from state to state but the critical shortage of psychiatric beds —  and not just those run by states — afflicts most of the nation. After two years trying to understand the history (337 beds per 100,000 people nationwide in the 1950s vs. 11.7 today) and historical complexity of the issue, an American Psychiatric Association task force came up with a computer model to help communities estimate how many beds they may actually need, Medscape reports.

The simulation is based on a “virtual world” with multiple components of care such as mobile crisis teams, community-based crisis beds, psychiatric hospital beds and step-down programs. It factors in population size, estimates the rate of acute mental health crises, the intersection between mental health and criminal justice systems, estimated number of patients waiting in ERs, crisis centers and jails and average wait times. It considers how individuals enter the mental health system, how they are routed to appropriate services and how long they remain in the system — and can predict how changes in any type of mental health care in the community will affect other components as well as overall capacity to handle patients with mental illness.

A team led by the University of Michigan and two area hospitals is testing the APA model, described in a detailed APA report, by using it to calculate the number of psychiatric inpatient beds needed locally. “Because the model is focused on the continuum of care services, it allows communities to try to focus on what is the right mix of services needed to try to reduce the need for in-patient hospitalization,” said Gregory Dalack, psychiatry chair at the University of Michigan Health System.


The gender gap in youth mental health

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“How did your teen do during the pandemic?” That’s a question I often ask other parents, and their answer is almost always the same: Their sons were fine – they even flourished during Zoom school, getting more sleep and spending more time playing video games. Their daughters imploded. — Dr. Kristina Lerman

Why girls suffered more mental health problems during the pandemic than boys is the subject of Kristina Lerman’s provocative guest essay for MindSite News. Lerman, a scientist and research professor of computer science at USC, looks at how algorithms designed largely by men have made the internet a hostile environment for girls and female teenagers — one that presents them with — among other things– “a stream of viral content from influencers featuring unattainable ideals of beauty and power” that inevitably undermines their mental health.


Rat race: What rodents driving tiny cars tell us about (our) mental health

The latest iteration of a rat-operated vehicle (ROV) built by researchers who found a few years ago that the rodents gained emotional resilience from learning to drive. Touching a little lever controls the ROV. Froot Loops were used as rewards. Credit: Courtesy University of Richmond

Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, is interested in the biological underpinnings of depression and anxiety and how they can affect behavioral approaches to treatment and prevention. So the rodent researcher taught rats how to drive.

First, her lab built a tiny car from a modified kit marketed to robotics enthusiasts, according to an overview of her work in Medical XPress this month. Then, using Froot Loops as rewards, they trained laboratory rats how to maneuver their ROV (rat-operated vehicle) by touching and releasing a little bar. The researchers let some rats drive but placed other, non-driving rats in remote-controlled vehicles, akin to being a passenger in a self-driving car. Post-ride fecal samples found that the drivers had better ratios of stress hormones.

For their next study, the researchers compared two groups of driver trainees raised in different settings. Those from an “enriched” environment (an enclosure with multiple living levels, pieces of natural wood, plastic balls) were more motivated and became better drivers than rats living in a boring one-level, who showed a “surprising” lack of interest in learning how to drive, according to a 2019 paper in Behavioural Brain Research. Fecal samples taken before, during and after driving school showed continuously improving stress hormone ratios, leading the researchers to conclude that they gained a greater sense of control — “something like a rodent version of what we refer to as self-efficacy or agency in humans,” Lambert said in a university press release.

Another research article, published this month in the same journal, found that rats
caught in the wild had 31% heavier brains than similar-age rats bred in the lab (neither group drove). “If we have some type of engaging life, this is probably important and related to [protection against] depression,” Lambert told Medical Xpress.


In other news…

Siblings of children with chronic health conditions may be at higher risk of depression, according to Medscape’s coverage of a Journal of Pediatrics meta-analysis, whose authors recommended targeted interventions to support them. The findings support the often-overlooked emotional scars —  described in more detail in a recent newsletter — that family dynamics in households with sick children can leave on the “healthy” kids.

Twitter, Blacks and therapy: Licensed clinical social worker Nicole Lewis uses her Twitter timeline to introduce other Black people to mental health concepts, resources, and sometimes, a little mental health homework. In an interview with Word in Black published in the Sacramento Observer, Lewis spoke about going viral online, the purpose behind her therapy worksheets, and why she prefers the text hotline over the call hotline in a mental health crisis. (Spoiler alert: The text response is quicker.) — Courtney Wise

Gamers alert: Yahoo Finance reports that players of the “PowerWash Simulator” game can take part in a research project that looks at the links between the self-care game and mental health in a collaboration between game studio FuturLab [cq] and the Oxford Internet Institute.


MindSite News, WETA and Ken Burns present a FREE live back-to-school event:A Conversation About Youth Mental Health and the Making of Hiding in Plain Sight

THURSDAY, September 8th at 4:00pm PST | 7:00pm EST

As students return to school after 2-1/2 years of pandemic stress and setbacks, concerns about the mental health of young people have never been greater. We invite your to join us for a MindSite News Live Interview focused on youth mental health. Our guests will be some of the people behind the brilliant new Ken Burns Presents documentary, Hiding in Plain Sight, a four-hour documentary being shown on PBS stations and streaming free on PBS digital sites in September. 

We’ll talk to the editors of the film, Erik Ewers and Christopher Loren Ewers, and two of the young people interviewed in the documentary, Makalynn Powell and Billie Henderson. Please join us.

For more information regarding the film speakers and MindSite News interviewers for this special event, click HERE. Also, please check out our reviews of the documentary by writer Sarah Henry and YouthCast Media Group.

Watch the Hiding in Plain Sight: Youth Mental Illness Trailer

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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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Don Sapatkin

Don Sapatkin is an independent journalist who reports on science and health care. His primary focus for nearly two decades has been public health, especially policy, access to care, health disparities...