April 11, 2022

Happy Monday Morning, MindSite News readers. Want to know what autistic doctors are saying about their profession? Or about the debate in Canada over whether people with “irremediable” mental illness should be eligible for medical aid in dying? Read on for those stories, plus reports about the high success rates of Michigan’s alternative courts and the tragic killing of a counselor at a California program for traumatized teens.

Autistic doctors voice the positives of their diagnosis

Mary Doherty, an anesthetist, and Sue McGowan, a psychiatrist, were diagnosed with autism in their mid-40s, years after entering practice. Sebastian Shaw, a medical researcher, found out at age 28. In a group interview published by Irish Medical Times, a newspaper for physicians, the three members of the U.K.-based support group Autistic Doctors International discussed their personal and professional experiences with autism.

One thing they have in common was positive experiences leading up to their diagnosis. “When[ever] someone suggested to me that my idiosyncrasies, my wonderful, eccentric oddities, might be related to autism – because they were suggested in such positive ways – it helped me to develop a really good view of autism that was never grounded in a negative stereotype,”  McGowan said.

Doherty, who founded the organization three years ago, said a key, long-term goal is to shift the way autism is taught in medical training away from the “pathology-based, deficit-based model” by “voicing the positives of neurodiversity.” The group now has 500 members and is expanding its mission to include more research. An estimated 1 percent of doctors in the U.K. – at least 3,000 – are autistic, according to a British Journal of Psychiatry editorial coauthored by the three doctors.

Doherty and McGowan were diagnosed only after their young sons were evaluated for autism. Autistic girls learn earlier than boys how to mask their traits, so their behavior may be attributed to other causes. Indeed, autistic producer and screenwriter Zhara Astra argues in a Scientific American opinion piece that standard diagnostic criteria are specific to the white male experience of autism and often miss women and girls. Also, there are no diagnostic criteria for adults, social psychologist Devon Price points out in a Los Angeles Times interview. In his radical new book for autistic adults, Unmasking Autism, Price describes the damaging ways people suppress their autistic behaviors in a desperate attempt to fit into society.

Brawl that killed a counselor spotlights problems in California’s youth homes

A brutal attack by teenage residents of a Los Angeles County youth home on a staff member had an extreme outcome: It killed 25-year-old counselor David McKnight-Hillman less than a month after he started working there. But it was not unusual. That’s the finding of a Los Angeles Times investigation, which reported that staff members of Wayfinder Family Services called the county Sheriff’s Department 1,427 times in the two years before McKnight-Hillman’s death in January 2021.

“I would actually say to myself … ‘Is it actually safe to come to work today?’” said C.J. Cormier Dunnick, who quit his job as a counselor two months before his coworker died. He said he didn’t receive adequate training to deescalate frequent violence between residents. Working there, he said, was like being “thrown to the wolves.”

California’s sweeping 2017 child-care reforms created short-term residential therapeutic programs like Wayfinder. They are used to treat larger numbers of traumatized children with severe mental, emotional and behavioral disorders than other group homes. Critics say it creates a combustible combination that endangers staff and fails to meet the needs of the kids they care for. The horrific death of McKnight-Hillman has spotlighted that issue.

‘Problem-Solving Courts’ are good at solving problems

Specialty courts that divert offenders to treatment for drug, alcohol and mental health disorders instead of sending them to prison have an impressive track record in Michigan, according to a Greenville Daily News story based on an annual report from the State Supreme Court.

Michigan has 203 “problem-solving courts,” and while only small numbers of offenders go through them every year, the outcomes measures for graduates are strong, according to the court’s report. Last year’s drug court graduates were, on average, four times less likely to be convicted of a new offense in the three years following their admission to a treatment program than offenders who went to traditional courts. Unemployment dropped by 82% for graduates of sobriety court, 68% to 78% for mental health court graduates and 83% for graduates of veterans’ treatment courts. Michigan has more courts for vets than any other state. Details about Michigan’s special courts (both adult and juvenile) are available here.

Canada to expand medical aid in dying for the mentally ill

Canada’s law allowing doctors to assist patients in ending their own lives will expand next year to include people with severe and irremediable mental illness, IFLScience reports. The move has provoked furious debate about how to determine that an individual’s mental illness can’t be eased, according to the National Post.

Around the world, assisted suicide, when permitted, is almost universally limited to terminally ill people. Canada’s 2016 law was amended in 2021 to include people with “grievous and irremediable” medical conditions and unbearable suffering whose deaths are not imminent. Those whose primary diagnosis is a mental illness were excluded until March 2023 to allow time to figure out how it would work for psychiatric conditions. Belgium and the Netherlands are the rare countries that currently allow physicians to  help mentally ill people who want to die. (In the U.S., 10 states plus the District of Columbia have authorized medical aid in dying for terminally ill people.)

A study published last week asked psychiatrists in the Netherlands, where eligibility criteria are similar to what Canada will implement next year, how they defined “irremediable psychiatric suffering.” Many said they struggled with uncertainty. Meanwhile, requests from Dutch psychiatric patients have increased markedly over the last decade, although 90 percent do not result in an assisted death after being rejected by psychiatrists or withdrawn.

In other news …

Long-stressed veterinarians are burning out in high numbers after millions of stuck-at-home Americans adopted pets during the pandemic or noticed symptoms they might previously have missed, NPR reports. And it’s not just pets that need treatment: A teenage gorilla is developing an addiction to zoo visitors’ smartphone screens in Chicago, according to Newsweek.

A New York Times film review praises As They Made Us, neuroscientist and sitcom star Mayim Bialik’s directorial debut, as a “smartly observed, well-cast” comedy-drama. Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen play aging parents whose undiagnosed mental illness in their child-raising years shape the adults that their kids become. It’s in theaters and available to rent or buy on Amazon, Google Play and other streaming platforms.

Physical warmth can reduce fear and anxiety, according to a  Psychology Today report on research that examined warmth as a primitive safety stimulus. So rub your hands together or drink some hot cocoa when you’re afraid.

A severe shortage of children’s mental health practitioners could be alleviated in future years by taking steps like aligning two-year and four-year college curriculums, offering creative incentives such as carefully tailored loan-repayment programs and adapting apprenticeship models, according to a commentary released by  the National Governors Association. It includes a map identifying states with “severe” shortages – basically everyplace except Hawaii and a few Northeastern states, where shortages are merely “high.”

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, press 1.

Revolution From the Inside Out  

A new generation of activists from the Young Women’s Freedom Center is working to change the system while struggling to heal from their own traumas.

We Interrupt This Program to Bring You #BlackJoy

We Black people—Black Americans in this case—know hard times, but our lives also sparkle with Black joy.

Librarians’ Mental Health Threatened By Book Bans, Abuse And Harassment

Some librarians used to make jokes about Fahrenheit 451 as they pushed back on threats. Not any longer.

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Type of work:

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...