February 17, 2022

Good morning MindSite News readers. In a time of loss and grief, employees are pushing companies to honor their need for time off to grieve the death of loved ones. Plus: Mental health stigma is alive and well, at least when it comes to basketball players. An orchestra composed of musicians with histories of mental illness. And a rural Colorado clinic that has gotten both good press and bad.

How the pandemic has changed conversations on bereavement leave

Illustration: Shutterstock

After Jess Mah’s boyfriend died by suicide last April, she wrote her team that she would be taking two days off. But overwhelmed with grief, the 31-year-old software executive soon realized her mistake. The Wall Street Journal told her story in an article about the need to give workers more time to grieve in an era of loss. 

“Faced with project roadblocks and squabbles between colleagues, (Mah) couldn’t summon patience or empathy – or really, the energy to care all that much,” the Journal wrote. “I was just so disenchanted with life,” she told the paper. She ended up taking three months off, and now, as executive chair of the same company, inDinero, she has implemented an unlimited paid bereavement leave. “Before it hit me directly, I didn’t think, ‘Ok, wow, this should be part of a larger conversation,’” Mah told the Journal. “Bereavement is really a part-time job in and of itself.”

Nearly one million more Americans died during the pandemic than would have otherwise, according to the WSJ, giving Americans what it calls “a crash course” in grief. Workers feel freer – and are often encouraged – to talk about their losses, and some are questioning policies that block paid leave for employees mourning the death of an extended family member such as a cousin, aunt or grandparent. Others are challenging policies that give grieving employees only a few days off, which makes it hard to attend memorials out of state or in other countries. A recently passed measure allows most federal workers two weeks’ paid leave to grieve the loss of a child, and proposed legislation would expand that leave — to a wider group of parents – for up to 12 weeks. 

An orchestra that combats the stigma of mental illness 

YouTube video

Ronald Braunstein, an award-winning musician whose work has taken him across the globe, founded the Me2/Orchestra, composed only of musicians living with mental illness. The story of the orchestra was told by the CBS Evening News. Its goal is to combat the stigma of mental illness and build community among like musicians. “We aren’t trying to be the greatest orchestra in the world. We are just trying to create a community,” said Braunstein, who’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The New England-based orchestra has recently been joined by ensembles across the country that share the same mental health focus.

NBA baller Ben Simmons should be taken seriously, not ridiculed

In separate columns, SB Nation’s James Dator and Sports Illustrated’s Julie Kliegman make the case for taking people’s claims about their mental health seriously, even when they’re top athletes on our favorite sports teams who decide to sit out the season. The most recent blow-up happened when Ben Simmons, who hasn’t played this season – and has given up millions of dollars in salary – was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Brooklyn Nets. Simmons has said he’s been struggling with mental health issues and has been pilloried by pundits and fans. The criticism, Dator writes, is ignorance at best, or at worst, “another coordinated effort to stigmatize mental health and caution athletes from sharing their struggles, lest they get eviscerated in the public forum.”

Kliegman notes how different the reaction is from the applause athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles were given just last summer for speaking out about their mental health. “Not everyone – in sports or not – can afford those opportunities [to take a break for mental health],” she writes, “but those who can should…Maybe the rest of us can eventually follow their lead and work to set boundaries for ourselves, too.”

And maybe we should also take Simmons at his word. “Mentally, I’m getting there, so it’s an ongoing thing to stay on top of that,” he said at a press conference after the trade announcement. “But I think I’m heading in the right direction.”

Hypochondria is more about worry than attentionseeking

Has this happened to you? Someone close to you gets diagnosed with COVID-19 – and then you start to feel a sore throat, body aches, and breathlessness? Or maybe, like the writer of this article from the BBC, you’ve discovered a hard lump under your arms, worried it was cancer, started to notice symptoms like rapid weight loss and excessive fatigue – and then diagnostic tests find the tumor is benign. This itself is a condition – chronic illness anxiety – and it can have a profound impact on the mind and body. 

Photo illustration: Shutterstock

Once called hypochondriasis, these kinds of symptoms were once seen as an attention-seeking strategy from people that shouldn’t be taken seriously. But since 2013, the American Psychiatric Association has acknowledged chronic illness anxiety as an actual disorder that causes some people to have overwhelming and debilitating concerns about their health. In fact, the mental anguish can be so severe that one 12-year study in Norway found chronic illness anxiety increased the risk of coronary heart disease by 70 percent. 

The good news is that there are effective treatments. Cognitive behavior therapy, or CBT, is shown to break negative thought cycles. One of the primary goals in treatment is to help people recognize their anxiety as the issue, “rather than a rational appraisal of the perceived risk.” A study by Helen and Peter Tyrer, researchers at Imperial College London, found that tailored CBT for chronic illness anxiety reduced symptoms over three months. Best of all, the improvement was still seen five years later. 

Rural communities benefit from holistic, integrated healthcare model 

Southwest Colorado-based Axis Health System is best known for its services in behavioral and mental health, crisis care, and substance abuse treatment. But the real goal of this health system is to meet the full range of health needs of its largely rural clientele, according to a report from The Durango Herald. As an “integrated health care provider,” it also offers primary care and dental care to residents of rural communities like Pagosa Springs, Durango, Cortez and Dove Creek.

The collaborative model involves communication between all members of a patient’s healthcare team, including doctors, nurses, psychologists, dentists, and others, the Herald reports. “We want to make sure that whatever the patient needs, that we can fit those,” Lincoln Pehrson, the health system’s chief integration officer, told the Herald. “We use all sorts of tools to ensure that we can help the patient in any way, even if the patient can’t necessarily articulate all of their needs.”

However, from the viewpoint of some clients and employees interviewed by the Colorado News Collaborative, Axis Health System may still have a way to go in meeting those needs. It is one of 17 mental health systems in Colorado singled out for harsh criticism in a December 2021 investigative report by the Colorado News Collaborative about non-compete clauses, lack of state oversight and inadequate client care.

In other news:

Recess is critical for child development and overall health: Now that children across the nation have mostly returned to school full time, recess is one of the key tools school leaders can use to help students navigate the stress and trauma of the pandemic. So says William Massey, assistant professor of public health and human sciences at Oregon State University, in a commentary for WFMZ-TW in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Massey found in his research that recess lowers students’ stress levels, helps them engage higher levels of executive function and yields better academic outcomes. It’s also a time when children practice social skills and develop meaningful relationships—both vital to success in school.

Postpartum depression? There’s an app for that. After her personal experiences navigating the dearth of mental health professionals equipped to support Black women struggling with postpartum depression, Jade Kearney developed her own app, Yahoo News reported. She Matters connects Black women to fully licensed and culturally competent therapists who have an expressed interest in helping other Black women. 

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.

Poor Marks for Kids’ Mental Health

A new report card rates every state on school mental health performance.

High school seniors struggle to catch up

High school seniors are behind in their race for college after losing much time to Covid-19.

A Parity Timeline

A rundown on the 60-year history of efforts to create and enforce mental health parity laws.

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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...