October 11, 2022

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers. For those of you who thought yoga was a serious business, we bring you…laughter yoga. It may elevate your mood. The military takes more steps to stem spiking rates of suicide – but some say too little, too late. More states are giving kids mental health days off from school. And – what? – study finds social media bad for mental health. Read on for more.

Laughter and downward dog: Rx for better mental health?

Photo: Ravi Shekhar Pandey/Shutterstock

Get this straight first: “Laughter yoga is not a comedy,” said its creator Madan Kataria. Rather, it is a laughing and breathing meditative exercise that begins for most people with “forced chuckles” and then morphs into genuine laughter with practice. Mattha Busby, a reporter from The Guardian, visited one of Kataria’s daily Zoom workshops to see how it works and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. 

“I’d read so much about the benefits of laughter, and how acting out emotions, especially through facial expressions, can create them,” Kataria told Busby. So he founded the practice in Mumbai, India, in 1995, combining breathing exercises and deliberate laughter. Initially, he said, people took him for a joke and questioned his sanity. But after joining in the practice, they discovered for themselves what Kataria had already learned – that “laughing for no reason at all was the simplest and least controversial method to trigger ecstasy.” As he developed the practice, adding basic stretches and pranayama breathing exercises to his laughter yoga, Kataria found that participants’ laughter duration, energy levels and lung capacity all grew.

Kataria isn’t the first person to recognize or even prescribe laughter as a form of mental health therapy. In the early 1960s, Stanford psychologist William Fry published a series of studies on laughter science. He tested the blood of people watching comedy films and found that laughter could boost the response of immune cells that kill infectious pathogens. Later studies have shown that it boosts mood-elevating endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. “During difficult times, laughter gives you a coping mechanism,” Kataria said. “It is a great exercise to elevate your mood, whatever the weather.” 

As military suicides soar, service members say relief can’t come fast enough

When Dionne Williamson, a Navy lieutenant commander, returned from a 2013 tour in Afghanistan, she felt emotionally numb, with symptoms of disorientation, depression, memory loss and chronic exhaustion. “It’s like I lost me somewhere,” she told the Associated Press. “I went to my captain and said, ‘Sir, I need help. Something’s wrong.’” Even as her symptoms increased over subsequent postings, Williamson had to fight for time off and therapy. It took years before she finally got some relief after a month-long hospitalization, followed by equine-assisted therapy. “It’s a wonder how I made it through,” she said.

Via Twitter

Many don’t. From 2015 to 2020, suicides among active duty service members jumped by more than 40 percent — with a 15 percent increase in 2020 alone. In places like Alaska, where isolation and harsh climates are characteristic of the environment, suicide rates have doubled. Since 9/11, more than four times as many service members and vets have died from suicide as from combat, according to a 2021 study by the Cost of War Project. In March, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the creation of an independent committee to review mental health and suicide prevention programs within the armed forces. But the stigma of seeking help remains a problem, and those who do can wait for weeks or months to get appointments with therapists. 

Sgt. Antonio Rivera, who has served for 18 years, including tours in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, says he needs professional help to cope with his PTSD, but prefers to get it outside the military. “Personally I’d feel more comfortable being able to talk to someone outside,” he said. “It would allow me to open up a lot more without having to be worried about how it’s going to affect my career.”

Psychedelics & Mental Health Live Conversation Series

MindSite News is excited to continue its series of conversations on psychedelic research and therapies with a live interview with David Bronner on October 13, 2022.

More states let kids take “mental health days” off

To ease growing concerns about the mental health of young people, a dozen states have moved forward with legislation to allow K-12 students to take excused “mental health days,” The Washington Post reported. Four others are debating similar bills. 

Support for these measures has been surprisingly bipartisan. “If nothing else, it makes a huge statement that mental health matters as much as physical health,” said Utah State Representative Mike Winder, a Republican. He sponsored his state’s law – which imposes no limit on the number of days a student can take off – after talking with his own daughter about her mental health struggles. “This policy is communicating from the highest levels that it’s okay to take care of your mental health,” Winder said. 

Some states are limiting the maximum number of excused time off to two non-consecutive days. In every state, parents have to sign an absence note confirming the reason for the absence and students are expected to complete any missed work.

“School policies that recognize mental health as an acceptable reason for absence can help students take the time they need to care for themselves and restore their health,” said Barb Solish, director of Youth and Young Adult Initiatives at NAMI. “Practically speaking, if you have a fever, you’re not paying attention in class, right? You’re not learning the lesson. If you’re feeling overwhelming anxiety, you’re not learning either.”

In other news…

Excessive social media use may contribute to depression. Fox 5 NY reported on a study by scientists at the University of Arkansas that examined how various personality characteristics impact social media use and depression. Researchers found that excessive social media use contributed to the development of depression across all personality traits – even people prone to agreeableness.

And “capitalism is bad for your mental health,” writes Bélen Fernández, contributing editor for the socialist magazine Jacobin, in a World Mental Health Day manifesto in Al Jazeera. “Neoliberalism breeds psychological distress by working to obliterate solidarity, the very essence of humanity, while converting the right to physical and mental health care into an exclusive and costly endeavour,” she writes. 

To embrace their trans identity, journalist Lil Kalish wrote in the LA Times about indulging the boyhood they missed as part of a healing process of “making a home within myself…pushing me away from the things that drained me while ushering me forward, toward desire, toward my own survival,” Kalish wrote. “My foray into boyhood had everything and nothing to do with being a boy. It was an exercise in seeking joy for myself and in spite of those who wish me harm.”

What can you do to support a loved one in a mental health crisis? The Detroit Free Press offered a handful of suggestions, including attempting a calm conversation filled with compassion and kindness toward anyone threatening self-harm – and also calling 988 for help.

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...