June 24, 2022

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers. Yesterday, the Senate passed a bipartisan package aimed at reducing gun violence. Though there’s little demonstrable connection between mental illness and gun violence, the package includes a record amount of mental health spending and has been widely praised by mental health advocates. MindSite News covered the package (here) and the reaction (here).

In today’s newsletter, stories on a Philly psychiatrist who works with the zero-to-5 set, a study on the harmful impact of poverty and violence on children’s brain development – and the community factors that can act as buffers. Plus, summer camp can be therapeutic, and more.

A child psychiatrist helps the youngest Philadephians 

Photo: Shutterstock

As medical director and the only infant psychiatrist at the Young Child Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Wanjiku F.M. Njoroge serves patients ages zero to 5 who are navigating depression, anxiety or trauma. Behavioral challenges are often the clue that children so young are dealing with mental health issues, and addressing them quickly is vital to their future. Since 90% of the brain is developed by age 5, waiting longer to help young patients whose bodies and nervous systems are under excessive stress, means “you’re literally killing brain cells that are developing,” Njoroge told The Philadelphia Inquirer

Young kids can’t generally articulate their thoughts and feelings through speech or exposition, but they can express themselves through play. “What you will see in every early childhood person’s office is a doll house and a whole host of dolls so that the child can create whatever their family looks like,” Njoroge said. She also keeps other toys on hand, like dinosaurs, to let children act out their aggression. 

Njoroge sees her work as increasingly urgent, especially for Black children. “We talk about suicidality increasing in Black children as young as 5,” she said. “It’s frightening.” A study she and her colleagues published last month that found Black preteens experienced higher rates of racism and attempted suicide at greater rates than their white peers. Research shows that racism can even affect the development of a baby in utero, she said. “Racism,” she said, “is like the air we breathe.”

Poor neighborhoods may negatively impact brain development – but supportive adults can offset it

Living in neighborhoods challenged by poverty and violence can negatively impact the development of children’s brains. But can this effect be mitigated when children are surrounded by neighbors who look out for each other? That was the question that Gabriela Suarez, a PhD candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Michigan, set out to study. 

She and her team recruited families from neighborhoods in Southeast Michigan and measured brain activity in their teenagers’ amygdalas, the region of the brain responsible for detecting threats and processing emotions. They randomly selected neighbors of each family to respond to a survey about social norms within the communities, especially as it pertained to beliefs about crime and violence prevention. In their study, published in April, they found that youth in disadvantaged communities responded more strongly to fearful and angry faces – but the impact was reduced when the adults around them, at home and in the neighborhood, shared a belief in the need to be mutually supportive and to prevent violence.

“Neighbors who shared strong social norms, such as believing that adults should do something if children are fighting, seemed to offset this effect,” Suarez wrote in an article in The Conversation

Medical misogyny harms autistic women

Tatum Spears had long suspected she had undiagnosed autism, but her male psychiatrist refused to take her requests for evaluation seriously because she “didn’t talk in a monotone voice.” When she told him her strong communication skills were a result of extensive therapy, performing arts experience, and advanced reading ability, he suggested she had narcissistic personality disorder. She vented online in a post that went viral, she told Glamour magazine for an article about medical misogyny. “I was tired of being verbally beaten down by a man who had spent a cumulative hour speaking with me over the last ten months.”

Spears’ experience isn’t rare. According to the National Autistic Society, 50% of autistic boys will be diagnosed by age 11, but only 20% of girls. Girls also get support much later and often are not seen as “autistic enough.” Some researchers even describe autistic people as having “extremely male brains,” the article says.  Emma Taylor wasn’t diagnosed with autism until adulthood – after similarities between her behaviors and those of her autistic child were noticed during a routine pediatric visit. “I spent literal decades feeling extremely unhappy, not understanding myself, and not having the help and support I needed,” she said.

Autistic people already face health inequalities, and they’re worse for women, said Dr. Sarah Lister Brook, clinical director of the National Autistic Society.  “Without the right support, many women and girls are misdiagnosed or go on to develop co-existing mental health difficulties like anxiety, eating disorders or depression, and become acutely unwell,” she told Glamour. “This is unacceptable.”

Therapy summer camp? Yep. 

Camp Therapyology, a week-long day camp offered at locations in Michigan and California, serves teens and tweens of all genders experiencing high rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. “Camp is a safe space, and it’s a place to have fun, it’s a place to connect with others, and also to connect with yourself,” Brooke Bendix told WDIV-Detroit. “So we call it camp because that’s the feeling that we want you to get. And it’s also, you know, a place where you can feel safe and discuss mental health topics.”

In other news…

There’s little evidence that people with mental illness are more likely than others to use a gun to harm or kill someone. Yet Americans tend to connect our uniquely American problem of mass shootings with mental health. What’s up with that? NPR spoke with mental health and violence experts to gain insight. Listen in on their 33-minute conversation.

In a timely Electric Lit listicle for pride month, Jules Ohman shared a list of books anyone can read about coming into queerhood. “Most queer adults I know didn’t have an adolescence or coming of age that allowed them open desire or the ability to name themselves or their experiences,” she wrote. “There is something searching, something clear-eyed in reflecting on a queer adolescence and young adulthood. There is pain. There is a hell of a lot of longing. But there’s also beauty and a sense of having reached somewhere, at last.”

Depression can sometimes present as forgetfulness in older adults, causing it to be overlooked or misdiagnosed. “You can end up with older adults who are being treated for memory loss, when memory loss is not really the problem,” said Dr. Emily Bloesch, an associate professor of psychology at Central Michigan University told the Pioneer. 

Correction: In yesterday’s newsletter, a story on Cerebral misstated that MindSite News Cofounder Tom Insel is a member of Cerebral’s board of directors. In fact, Insel is an advisor to CEO David Mou. Although the company announced May 18 that he had agreed to join the board, he has not yet done so. 

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889. Services are free and available 24/7.

Recent MindSite News Stories

Mental Health Advocates on Gun Violence Package

Advocates cheer mental health funding in bipartisan deal.

Mental Health Dollars in Gun Violence Package

A quick look at the $15 billion in mental health funds in the gun violence prevention package.

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Type of work:

Courtney WiseReporter

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...