Monday, December 19, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday Morning. The suicide last week of tWitch, a man who touched and brought joy to millions, focused new attention on rising suicide rates. At the same time, the myth that suicides rise during the holiday season just won’t go away – despite its falsity. A social justice organization led by indigenous women is providing vital support for LA-area immigrants from more than 30 indigenous communities. A Washington Post investigation details how a cascade of failures at multiple federal agencies let the fentanyl epidemic fester and explode. And more.


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Another beloved Black celebrity takes their own life: RIP Stephen “tWitch” Boss

The suicide last week of tWitch – the beloved dancing DJ on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and a former contestant on So You Think You Can Dance – triggered an outpouring of grief and appreciation and prompted many fans to wonder whether they had missed some sign. tWitch was often described as a “generous spirit,” and his death revealed what some described as a disconnect in how we knew him. This powerful post on Twitter spoke to many of us.

@averi_woodley’s video post on Twitter about the death of tWitch. Click here to watch.

tWitch’s death also sparked a renewed conversation about mental health and suicide awareness in the Black community. People magazine interviewed Rheeda Walker, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health, who said stigma remains a significant barrier. “Stigma is a powerful drug,” she said. “If individuals felt that they could get the help they needed and without judgment, I do feel that more people would get help.”


She migrated from Oaxaca to California at 10. Now she helps others make the transition

Many immigrants bring trauma with them. Some escaped persistent violence in their home country and endured a long and terrifying trip to and across the border. But this experience often is far harder for indigenous people from Latin America, who may not speak Spanish, let alone English. There are 68 indigenous languages in Mexico alone.

Odilia Romero, second from right, got a tribute from Lizzo for her work. Via Twitter

Odilia Romero was 10 years old when she came to California from the foggy highlands of Oaxaca, the state in southern Mexico that is home to her indigenous Zapotec people. She had to learn a new culture and language ─ not many Americans speak Zapotec ─ as well as a sense of belonging. She did all that and she thrived, reports the good-news website, Good Good Good. Eventually she and her daughter, Janet Martinez, founded CIELO, (Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo or Indigenous Communities in Leadership), a social justice organization that helps other immigrants from 30 indigenous communities who now live in and around Los Angeles.

One of CIELO’s key services is translation. Its advocates and interpreters help immigrants in their struggles to understand and deal with bureaucratic demands for documentation – problems that are especially vexing when no official speaks your language. The organization also serves as a liaison with the legal system, and works to address social, economic and cultural needs ─ even hosting concerts with artists that integrate Indigenous language into their music. Research shows that cultural understanding is critical to supporting the mental health and well-being of indigenous people.


The holiday-suicide myth that refuses to die

Almost every year at the time of the winter holidays, stories circulate in the media about the holiday blues and the risk of suicide and depression. Two days before Thanksgiving last year, for example, the Spencer (Ind.) Evening World ran a column about holiday stress. “Depression and suicide increase dramatically during the ‘jolly’ season,” it said. 

In fact, suicide deaths do not go up during the holiday season. They go down. For 23 years, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has been working to debunk this myth. The good news is that the number of articles perpetuating this false assertion has declined substantially since the 1999-2000 holiday season, a millennial transition rife with predictions of catastrophe (remember Y2K?). During that year’s holiday season (which Annenberg defines as Nov. 15 through Jan. 31), 77% of media stories on the subject supported the belief and 23% said it was wrong.

Nevertheless, the myth stubbornly persists: 56% of stories last season used language that would spread it while just 44% that tried to correct it, according to Annenberg. The idea that more suicides occur during the holidays may seem like common sense. But Dan Romer, Annenberg’s research director, told MindSite News that while the holiday blues, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and losses of family members during the year can all affect people’s emotional health, that doesn’t translate to more people taking their lives.

Federal mortality data drawn from death certificates nationwide consistently shows that the month of December has the lowest average number of suicide deaths (122 per day last year); November (129 per day) and January (125) were also below average. Suicide deaths rise in the warmer months, peaking in August (140 per day last year). The nation’s overall suicide rate has been increasing for many years – up by a third in two decades – and it’s rising faster among Black people, especially youth, than the general population.


Policy failures allowed the fentanyl crisis to explode, Washington Post investigation finds

Strategic blunders by successive U.S. administrations allowed the deadliest drug crisis in American history to worsen significantly as soaring quantities of fentanyl flooded into the United States over the past seven years, according to an extensive investigation by the Washington Post. Presidents from both parties failed to take effective action in the face of one of the most urgent threats to the nation’s security.

Fentanyl, 50 times more potent than heroin, is now the No.1 cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, according to a Post analysis. “In Washington, they have been very slow to respond to this and now we are at the confluence of paralysis,” said David King, executive director of a federal drug task force in San Diego, ground zero for fentanyl trafficking into the United States.

Among the many issues identified by the Post is the government’s inability to track fatal overdoses in anything close to real time. The CDC’s published data is one year behind, obscuring the picture of what’s happening on the ground. “This is like tracking the epidemic by visiting cemeteries,” said John P. Walters, who served as the “drug czar” during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. The roots of the epidemic reach back to the Bush administration, which did little as countless Americans became addicted to oxycodone and other prescription opioids while U.S. drug manufacturers, distributors and chain pharmacies made billions in profits. The Obama administration failed to see the fentanyl as a uniquely different and dangerous drug. And Trump’s push to build a wall failed to stop fentanyl pouring over the Mexican border through the front door, at designated border crossings.

At first, the waves of fentanyl-related deaths primarily affected white people in rural areas and suburbs. Now the crisis is also devastating Black and Latino neighborhoods in cities like Milwaukee, as the New York Times shows us. A research letter just published in JAMA focuses on a group whose burden hasn’t been widely discussed: Black women. It reported that overdose deaths from all drugs increased 193% among Black females aged 15 to 64 over the last seven years. Years of Life Lost – a metric used by researchers to measure the average years a person would have lived had they not died prematurely – increased 207%.


In other news…

Immigrant communities have diverging view about mental illness. Congolese, Arabic-speaking and Mandarin-speaking communities think about mental illness quite differently, according to a BMC Public Health study that looked at immigrant communities in Sydney, Australia. Cultural beliefs were the main distinction: Congolese focus group participants perceived a link between mental illness and the supernatural. Mandarin-speaking people talked about other contributors to mental illness: a lack of inter and intrapersonal harmony as well as failure to adhere to values such as filial piety. And people from Arabic communities tended to see mental illness as a permanent condition that few people will ever recover from. Understanding these differing views is essential to creating successful interventions, the researchers said.

The influencers who spend their lives posting their thoughts and reflections on social media are finding that all that posting is…not so healthy. One told Women’sHealth she hasn’t been able to separate her mood from the highs and lows of her account’s performance: “Instagram really messes with my mental health,” she said. Can you say karma?

Within minutes of setting up a new TikTok account, teenage viewers may be served up potentially harmful content related to suicide and eating disorders, according to a study covered by CNN. Researchers for the Center for Countering Digital Hate set up new accounts as 13-year-olds, then paused briefly on videos about body image and mental health and liked them. Within 3 minutes, TikTok recommended suicide content. Within 8 minutes, it served content related to eating disorders. Videos about body image and mental health appeared every 39 seconds. “The results are every parent’s nightmare,” Imran Ahmed, the center’s CEO, said in the report. “Young people’s feeds are bombarded with harmful, harrowing content that can have a significant cumulative impact on their understanding of the world around them, and their physical and mental health.”


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...