October 19, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, Mindsite News Readers! In today’s parenting newsletter, learn more about how Harvard University has recruited social media influencers to quell misinformation in mental health. Also in this edition: bike rides prove beneficial to troubled middle school students, colleges are hiring undergrads to work as peer mental health support around campus,

and the federal governments has handed out awards to four school districts to help stop human trafficking. Plus, some ways to protect your and your children’s mental health while following the appalling catastrophe in the Middle East. 

Harvard school of public health enlists TikTok influencers to combat mental health misinformation across social media

Back in February, Harvard University emailed dozens of social media influencers, inviting them to participate in a social study with the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They all have large followings that tune in to their informal posts on mental health, but an invitation to collaborate with one of the nation’s most prestigious research institutions wasn’t on their radar. A couple of months later, however, 25 of them traveled to Cambridge to participate in a field experiment in which social scientists helped them introduce evidence-based content into their feeds. The goal, researchers told the New York Times, is to reach American youth who are battling a mental health crisis that the surgeon general calls one of the defining crises of our time. 

“People are looking for information, and the things that they are watching are TikTok and Instagram and YouTube,” said Amanda Yarnell, senior director of the Chan School’s Center for Health Communication. “Who are the media gatekeepers in those areas? Those are these creators. So we were looking at, how do we map onto that new reality?”

The strategy from Harvard isn’t their first attempt at using pop culture to spread awareness around an important social issue. In 1988, researchers asked writers for hit TV shows like Cheers and LA Law to add references into their scripts about “designated drivers” if people are drinking. The goal was to prevent alcohol-related traffic deaths by introducing the public to a largely unfamiliar but helpful safety concept. The effort proved so successful that “designated drivers” was added to Webster’s dictionary just three years later. 

Researchers hope to see a similar impact this time, too. So far, results are promising. Of the 42 influencers Harvard imbued with their evidence-based talking points, 3 percent were more likely to add content from the core themes researchers taught them. It’s no small measure, said Matt Motta, a Boston University professor and co-investigator of the project. Due to the influencers’ large audience, the new content was viewed 800,000 times.

Bike riding in middle school proves good for kidsmental health

How’s your middle schooler’s mood? If it needs a boost, encourage them to consider a classic activity: bike riding. Researchers at California’s Loma Linda University found that 11 to 14 year olds who participated in a program called Ride for Focus showed increased well-being, reported NPR

“We know from the huge body of research that physical activities like cycling can benefit the body. But there’s also a huge amount of growing research showing how it benefits the mind and social relationships as well,” said Esther Walker, senior research program manager for Outride, a nonprofit that conducts research on the ways cycling can affect human brains and runs Ride for Focus, a school-based cycling education program for middle school students. “Having that positive perception of riding and experiencing it with their peers in this really safe setting is really important,” she added.

The study, led by Sean Wilson of Loma Linda, involved more than 1,200 middle school students from across the US, ages 11 to 14, who participated in Ride for Focus. They attended cycling class at least 3 days per week, for a minimum of 6 weeks. All students learned how to ride safely and complete fun outdoor maneuvering skills. They also completed screening questionnaires before and after the program to measure their well-being. Results showed a general increase in social well-being across students, in addition to an increase in the well-being of non-white female students with an individualized education program who also met screen time recommendations and engaged in school programs.

The study confirms that exercise is “the most evidence-based, cheapest form of prevention and intervention that human beings can do for their mental health,” said child and adolescent psychiatrist Allan Reiss. However, the Loma Linda study did show some limitations. Students who slept less than 8.5 hours per night or engaged with screens more than 2 hours per day didn’t show as much improvement in their well-being. Further, since adolescent girls are at a higher risk of depression and anxiety than boys, the study found that girls who reported better well-being in the study may have only reached the baseline reported by male students. 

Colleges hire undergrads to combat the mental health crisis on campus

Cal State Fullerton student peer educator/via Twitter

It’s atypical, but as colleges struggle to meet the demands of on-campus mental health needs, they’ve turned to undergraduate students for support. The current trend differs from the longstanding assistance students have historically provided through college chapters of Active Minds or the National Alliance on Mental Illness (see Holly Korbey’s MindSite News story on college advocates’ suicide prevention campaigns for more). These days, universities are also formally hiring undergrads to provide their peers mental health education and peer counseling and coaching, reports Inside Higher Education

To be clear, students are not being unleashed to provide unlicensed therapy to their fellow students. But at places like California State University–Fullerton, they are conducting mental health workshops that used to be led by clinical staff only. The office of Counseling and Psychological Services there has hired students since 2021 to train fellow undergraduates on subjects like stress, sleep, and mood. Content is centered around practical strategies students can apply to manage common mental health challenges.  “It’s really important to us that any intervention we offer is accessible—it’s quick and it’s free,” said Jessica Leone-Aldrich, professional counselor and prevention education coordinator at Cal State Fullerton. “When it comes to wellness, there’s a negative belief that you have to have money in order to take care of yourself,” she said.

Besides increasing capacity for professional counselors, universities report overall student participation in mental health workshops has grown exponentially since peer educators began teaching them. Leone-Aldrich said participation has leapt 385% since 2021. Though the school doesn’t have official data to confirm that student peer educators are responsible for a sizable portion of the change, she says students feel more comfortable talking with peers about their mental health.

Kelsey Compton, who oversees the peer program at the University of Denver, agrees that students are more eager to talk with peers.  “Because we [professional counselors] talk about some of these topics that have a lot of stigma attached to them … students don’t always feel comfortable approaching us to talk,” she said. “They don’t necessarily know off the bat that they’re allowed to talk to us about those things or that we’re safe people to talk to about those things.”

In other news…

Last week, shortly after we reported on sex trafficking on college campuses, the federal government announced awards of $1.9 million to combat human trafficking in schools. The funding went to four school districts and agencies that will partner with nonprofits to identify and reduce students’ risk for human trafficking in their communities.The funding is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s national plan to combat human trafficking. “We must do whatever we can, for as long as necessary, to end the scourge of human trafficking,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. The resources, he added, “will help schools empower more people to come forward and help stop… this horrific practice.”The awards are part of a government program that last year trained 9,000 teachers and 16,000 students, as well as identifying and helping 50 victims of human trafficking. This year’s awards went to the Oakland School District in Oakland, CA; Milwaukee Public Schools in Wisconsin; Education Service Center Region 9 in El Paso, Texas, and Denver’s School District 1 in Colorado.

Strategies to protect your mental health while following or speaking out on the globe’s latest humanitarian catastrophe: Our distress in following coverage of the atrocities in southern Israel and Gaza in no way compares to what people are suffering there. Still, the American Psychological Association issued a public warning to encourage people to protect their minds while following the conflict. “Psychological science tells us that fear, anxiety and traumatic stress have long-term effects on health and well-being. These impacts are also being felt by people around the world who have families and friends in the region, as well as those concerned about the effects of war everywhere,” it says. But how can one do that? There are six steps to help ease your despair and feeling of horror, reports CNN, including starting a media diet and being attuned to your–and your children’s feelings.

“Irth,” the app making it easier to report medical bias in giving birth: Kimberly Seals Allers is notable in the parenting arena; she’s authored several books directed at Black mothers on pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Now, she’s turned her attention toward making birthing safer for Black women. Irth is a new mobile app she’s developed—named so to reference birth, but without the ‘b’ for bias, she told NPR. The tool collects reviews from Black parents on their birthing experiences at hospitals and birthing centers. Specifically, users indicate whether their needs and requests were met, and whether they encountered discrimination or bias. Seals Allers’ ultimate goal is to improve the standard of practice in hospitals, particularly for Black and Brown women. Adverse outcomes, such as internal bleeding, hysterectomy, and death are far more frequent for Black women than their White counterparts. Seals Allers says doctors often say their increased risk is due to not receiving prenatal care and chronic medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. But, as she says, “White women have these diseases too, yet these women can still survive childbirth at rates that we are not able to.”

Parenting dread—What to do when your kid insists on a “sexy” Halloween costume: Some things are an inevitability. Your kid hits puberty, hormones go into overdrive, and their bodies change in ways they want to explore. But, what should you do when you’d rather the physical changes stay relatively covered up? Parents magazine offers some advice on how to approach the subject in a way that respects your teen’s autonomy, doesn’t shame their desires, and keeps the focus on the costume rather than their body.

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...