June 16, 2022

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers. A final reminder that later today (at 12 noon PT/3 pm ET), in honor of Juneteenth, MindSite News will host its first live event, an interview with authors of a new report, Voices of a Collective Experience: Vicarious Racism and its Effects on Black Mental Health. The MindSite News team will be interviewing two of the authors of the report. You can register for the event here.

In today’s newsletter, we look at the progress the city of Houston has made as it pursues its goal of ending chronic homelessness. We take a lesson from the musician Lizzo about the importance of words – and from her example in holding herself to account. And we learn, once again, about the power of poetry – this time from hospitalized kids who say reading and writing it eases their depression and anxiety. 

Houston: A Big-City Model for Ending Chronic Homelessness

Ten years ago, Houston had one of the highest per capita homeless counts in the country. As in many places, social service organizations worked against one another: duplicating services, not sharing information or goals, ultimately housing few people. Today though, Mayor Sylvester Turner has a real shot at reaching a goal unheard of in many major cities. “Before I leave office,” he told the New York Times, “I want Houston to be the first big city to end chronic homelessness.”

Credit: Twitter

“Chronic homelessness” refers to people who have been living on the streets for more than a year, are homeless repeatedly, or have a mental or physical disability. The goal in Houston, reports the Times, is to make homelessness rare and brief. Houston has made a massive dent in its chronically homeless population over the last decade, moving more than 25,000 people directly into apartments and houses – and most of them remain housed after two years. Result: the number of people deemed homeless in the Houston region is down by 63 percent since 2011, according to city officials. 

So, what’s Houston’s secret? Housing first…for real. “You can meet the letter of the law without embracing its true intent,” said Mandy Chapman-Semple, a supportive-housing expert who, a decade ago, helped design Houston’s housing-first program. She says other American cities claim to have housing-first philosophies but haven’t been successful in really changing things. San Diego, a “housing first” city, used a piecemeal approach and “ineffective” strategies, according to a 2020 city audit. Atlanta, on the other hand, has cut its number of unhoused residents by 40 percent since modeling its steps after Houston’s. 

The “housing first” practice – supported by mounds of social science research – calls for moving people directly from the streets into apartments, not shelters. They aren’t required to stop drinking or using drugs, to attend religious services, or even to get a job first. Among other things, Houston saved money by stopping the arrests of people for public intoxication, and they gave out free taxi vouchers to reduce ambulance rides. “The bottom line is that nearly everybody in Houston involved in homelessness got together around what works,” said former mayor Annise Parker, who got Houston on its path to housing. “That’s our secret sauce.”   

Words matters, Lizzo says, especially when it comes to mental health

Lizzo and Stacey Abrams, 2019 Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock

Earlier this week, singer Lizzo set a strong example for taking accountability for the use of offensive terms in art. After using an ableist slur in “Grrrls,” her latest release, she immediately issued an apology and released a new version of the song. In a statement quoted by USA Today, she wrote, “Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language. As a Black fat woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand (sic) the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally). This is the result of me listening and taking action.”

On the heels of Lizzo’s error and swift correction, mental health experts have weighed in, reminding others to take more care in their speech. Many terms are used informally today that oversimplify and make light of mental health conditions, including, “I’m being OCD,” “I’m so ADHD,” and even joking “I’m going to kill myself.” Not only can such phrases be seen as offensive, they say, it implies that the conditions aren’t as serious as they really are.

Finishing high school despite huge setbacks is well worth celebrating 

In an important reminder this graduation season, writer and parent Steve Majors penned a personal essay for Chalkbeat that highlights the efforts of teens who manage to finish high school while overcoming battles with mental health. “She’d spent the past year out of state at a therapeutic boarding school,” he wrote of his oldest daughter. “There, she’d worked hard on her emotional health. She’d also managed to recover more than two semesters of missing credits, lost before and during the pandemic. It was a monumental feat.” 

A feat that, to him, deserves the sort of celebration that other students receive for stellar grades and Ivy League admissions. “Staying in school and persisting is worthy of as much honor,” said Majors. That’s especially the case now, as preliminary data suggests national high school completion rates are sagging and fewer high school graduates are choosing to head straight to college, in part because of a youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. 

In other news…

Amid the rising mental health crisis among American youth, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy asserts one key to fixing it is to listen to kids. “[We have] to make sure that we’re hearing from kids so that their stories are our guiding light,” Murthy told ABC News. “Ultimately, we will know when we’ve reached the finish line when they’re doing well and they tell us they’re doing well and when data tells us that as well.” He’s kicking off the effort to hear from youth directly this week at Youth Mental Wellness Now!, an LA-based summit sponsored by his office and the California Endowment.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Photo: a.katz/Shutterstock

Poetry Rx. Maybe you’ve tried it before. Something awful happens, and in an attempt to quiet your mind or make sense of it, you put pen to paper. Now there’s now research to support the action, CNN reports. A 2021 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that hospitalized children who read and wrote poetry experienced less fear, sadness, anger, worry and fatigue. It confirmed what a pair of Harvard medical students discovered just a year earlier – that reading, writing and listening to poetry and creative nonfiction can help combat stress and depression, and even reduce physical pain. 

Eczema affects millions of Americans. Abby Tai has lived with the condition most of her life. Twenty years ago, emotional distress triggered a flare so severe that it covered most of her body and negatively impacted her self-esteem. Nothing helped to make it go away, except addressing her mental health. In Self magazine, she wrote about the incident, a painful breakup that started her mental health and self-care journeys.

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.

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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...