Wednesday, November 1, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite News Readers. In today’s Daily: An appreciation for Día de los Muertos and its ability to help us cope with grief. A new study suggests that while the 988 hotline may be vital it also needs improvement. And a biotech columnist calls – again – for the FDA to halt clinical trials of a scandal-tainted Alzheimer’s drug in late-stage clinical trials.

Plus, guests of Detroit’s homeless shelters stay longer than ever before according to new data, and a new way to reset your overstressed nervous system: floating in a dark saltwater tank.

Día de los Muertos teaches us to celebrate our deceased loved ones even as we grieve them

It’s November 1st, which in many households across the nation, is the official kickoff into “holiday season,” (read: Christmas cheer and marketing). But in my house, it’s when we engage in traditions acquired from our Mexican American neighbors and celebrate the lives of those we have loved and lost through Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. We’ll tuck our grief into a warm embrace as we bask in the comfort of good memories. I’ll watch Earth Girls are Easy with a glass of fresh squeezed blueberry juice in hand, next to an ancestor altar honoring my best friend and cousin, Dorian, who died in her sleep earlier this year. Before that, I’ll let my daughter eat way more chocolate than is reasonable – before dinner, no less – followed by a game of hide-and-seek, because her Grandpa Ken always did. Tonight, we will welcome gladness alongside wistful tears.

“That’s the duality of Día de los Muertos,” said Mathew Sandoval, an Arizona State University professor whose current research focuses on the history, cultural significance, and growing popularity of the holiday. “That’s what makes some people hesitant about it or makes people feel like it might be morbid, because simultaneously, you have death and life situated right next to each other. You have grief situated right next to laughter; you have sadness situated right next to joy. We’re not used to those things being so close together – it’s either sad or it’s joyful,” he explained to the American Heart Association News. The traditions of Día de los Muertos emphasize the brilliant, omnipresent, ever-shifting color of grief, creating healthy avenues for grieving, rather than treating death like something we can be shielded from. 

Many adults avoid discussions about death, but cultural traditions like Día de los Muertos can help anyone process the inevitably of grief and death, regardless of ethnicity or race, said Michelle Saenz, a mental health clinician at Texas Tech University. “It’s just that part of life that we’re all going to have to go through, and the more we talk about it, the more we normalize it, the more we take that fear away from people.” It also offers an opportunity to introduce the concept of death to children in an accessible way. Adults should use the words “death” and “died” when referencing loved ones, Saenz said, and avoid euphemisms like, “they are no longer with us,” so as not to confuse them. “We want to make sure to reassure and comfort [children], identify their fears and misconceptions, and just really normalize the grieving process and the emotions that come with it,” she said. 

Besides that, there’s no right or wrong way to celebrate the holiday. Simply honor what you need in your healing process, Saenz said.

Lots of people are calling 988, but will they call again?

Since July 2022, the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline has fielded millions of calls, texts, and online chats with people in various states of mental distress. The hope is that it will become as a crucial part of the changing infrastructure that helps address our growing mental health crisis. But a new study published yesterday suggests it has work to do. According to the results of a nationally representative web-based survey of nearly 5,000 people conducted in June 2023, only 42% of people were aware of 988’s existence. And of those who had used it, only a quarter said they would be very likely to dial 988 again if they or a loved one experienced a mental health crisis, CNN reports. People with severe psychological distress were more likely to know about the hotline and have used it, but less than a third of such users said they were likely to turn to 988 again. 

“Launching the 988 hotline has been a critical step for addressing America’s expanding need for mental health services, but we have to get to the bottom of why so many users who were in serious distress wouldn’t use it again — whether that means better training is needed, more resources or other solutions,” said Michael A. Lindsey, a researcher at New York University and co-author of the study. Notably, the study also found that people in psychological distress are less likely to reach out for other mental health support, too, including friends, family, and clinicians, said Jonathan Purtle, its lead author. 

Staffers likely need more training to respond appropriately to the wide array of calls coming to 988, versus the Suicide Prevention Lifeline that ran previously, he said. “By no means do I think our data should indicate failure,” Purtle added. “We need this in this country and it’s a big deal. It’s very new and it’s reasonable that it’s going to take some time to get it really right.”

Purtle wants to see 988 hotline call-takers become better equipped to actively manage acute mental health crises on the phone, and then follow up later to connect people to additional mental health resources. “It’s active supportive listening, assessment and it’s a door to care. It’s a way into a system,” said Purtle. “In an ideal world, success looks like getting all that on the call, but also getting follow-up care in a good supportive system once off the phone or done texting.”

More bad news from Cassava Sciences and its scandal-plagued Alzheimer’s drug

In July 2022, Science magazine issued an investigative report by Charles Piller that revealed evidence of alleged fraud in research by a Texas biotech company, Cassava Sciences, into an Alzheimer’s drug it was developing.

The drug, Simufilam, was based on the notion, once widely accepted, that Alzheimer’s disease is primarily caused by the buildup of amyloid protein clumps in the brain. As noted in MindSite News’ coverage of Piller’s article, Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Matthew Schrag found that images meant to support Cassava’s conclusions had been altered or duplicated in dozens of published journal articles. Worse, Schrag’s digging uncovered signs that further undermine the amyloid hypothesis itself. 

The impact of Piller’s report has reverberated throughout neuroscience, the pharma industry and the National Institutes of Health. In 2022 alone, the NIH spent $1.6 billion – half of its Alzheimer’s budget – on research predicated on the amyloid hypothesis. Earlier this month, Piller was back, having obtained a leaked copy of  an investigation by City University of New York, which concluded that one of its scientists – who had partnered in Simufilam research with Cassava’s chief scientific officer – had committed “reckless” and “egregious misconduct.” In a written statement to Science, Cassava dismissed the CUNY report and said it “looks forward to continuing the development of simulfiam as a potential treatment for patients with Alzheimer’s.” 

STAT News columnist Adam Feuerstein says it’s now clear that Simufilam doesn’t work. “It’s an inert compound no more effective than a placebo,” he wrote in a column published Monday. Feuerstein notes that Cassava has now acknowledged that some people in the study may not even have had Alzheimer’s. Feuerstein, among others, has been scolding the company and the FDA, arguing that the agency should halt the ongoing clinical trials because “it’s the ethically correct thing to do.” He doubled down on that stance on Monday. Whether people who don’t have Alzheimer’s were enrolled “intentionally or unwittingly isn’t known,” he wrote, “but it’s certainly troubling and makes the case for immediate, regulatory intervention even stronger.”

In other news…

To address rising homelessness in Detroit, the city’s Housing and Revitalization Department commissioned a learn more about who’s out there. It found that most Detroiters now experiencing homelessness are doing so for the first time, and that those who access shelters or other housing programs are using them for twice as long as they did eight years ago. Shelter leaders told the Detroit Free Press they need more funding to provide more space and resources to help people. “When we go to the street to do street outreach and get people off the street, a lot of the homeless, they will tell us, I don’t want to go to the shelter because they’re afraid and they’re jamming them into one room,” said Chad Audi, president and CEO of the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, which operates three shelters in the city.

Want to reset your nervous system? Try a sensory-deprivation tank.

In this 26-minute episode of NPR’s Ted Radio Hour, reporters catch up with neuroscientist and psychiatrist Sahib Khalsa to discuss interoception – your neurological system’s way of sensing what’s going on in your body.

The constant stimulation of our brains with the internet, phones and social media can overwhelm our nervous systems to the point of needing a reset. Sometimes you notice when it’s happening, but most times you don’t, says Khalsa. Floating in a sensory deprivation tank – a pitch-dark tank of saltwater – might help. Can’t do that? Try 30 minutes of solo, silent meditation. “Silence is an increasingly endangered species,” Khalsa says. “How often can you say that in your day-to-day environment, you took the time to not be engaged in something?”

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 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...