Monday, May 8, 2023

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday Morning! Hat tip to Laurie Udesky, whose MindSite News story about former white supremacists working to pull extremists back from the brink was republished by USA Today.

In today’s Daily: Commentary from MindSite News and a New Yorker writer on the killing of Jordan Neely. Plus: Eating highly processed foods may make you anxious. Tips for Asian Americans trying to working across generations to address mental health issues. A look at New York City’s efforts to help homeless people with severe mental illness. And anti-poverty programs may expand children’s brains – literally.

The killing of a mentally ill subway rider provokes reflection and outrage

Expressions of moral outrage continue in the the wake of the killing of Jordan Neely, a mentally ill homeless man, by a former Marine on a New York City subway. At MindSite News, our editors published a commentary. It began like this:

Two ugly strains of American life came together with tragic consequences this week on a subway in New York City: the fear and hatred of people with mental illness – especially Black people – and the seemingly growing belief that vigilante action is justified against people who make others frightened or uncomfortable. Continue reading the commentary here.

New Yorker columnist Jay Caspian Kang has covered homelessness for several years. His column had a distressing take:

As long as homeless people are seen as an intrinsic and existential threat to public safety and a political nuisance, their lives will be devalued and mostly seen as collateral damage in the fight to clean up a city, whether New York, San Francisco, or anywhere poor people have lost the ability to afford rent. It is these conditions – the persistent refusal to see unhoused people as deserving of care and protection, whether from violence, hunger, or, yes, addiction and drug overdoses – that have made me profoundly pessimistic that politicians will find a solution to homelessness that does not start and end with the mass incarceration of everyone who lives on the streets. The problem, at its core, is a moral one. 

The New York Times offered some useful advice for people encountering other humans in crisis: How to Respond to a Stranger in Mental Distress.

New York City outreach teams help people grappling with mental illness on the streets

Chris Payton and Sonia Daley emerged from the subway into the brilliant sunshine to meet a client nesting on a pile of blankets near the Staten Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan.

It had taken their team almost five months just to track down the 43-year-old homeless woman, chasing leads from the police and other homeless people. On this afternoon last August, they were trying to help her find the holy grail: an apartment where someone with a severe mental illness could build a stable life…

M, who has schizoaffective disorder, immediately began chattering. She said she was doing great, thanks to Mr. Payton: ‘He gave me a million-dollar bill in cash, so I’m living off that.’ Her boyfriend sat beside her, rocking and weaving, one gloved hand in constant motion as if conducting an invisible orchestra.

So begins a richly detailed story, reported over seven months, in The New York Times. It covers the efforts of clinical outreach workers like Payton, a clinical social worker, and Daley, a peer support specialist, to help homeless people with serious mental illnesses get help and get off the street. They form one of 31 Intensive Mobile Treatment teams – a little-publicized part of Mayor Eric Adams’s initiative to tackle the related crises of mental illness and homelessness. The IMT teams, run by nonprofit groups that contract with the city, meet people in shelters, hospitals or train stations, go with them to court dates and housing interviews and even “inject them with antipsychotic drugs on street corners,” the Times reported.

Highly processed foods may be bad for your mental health

Highly processed foods – from snack bars to frozen meals, packaged sweets to soda sweetened by corn-syrup – make up about 60% of the average American diet. It’s well established that it’s bad for our health and now mounting evidence links consumption to mental health woes, the New York Times reports. A handful of studies have linked those foods to a higher risk of cognitive decline as well.

Nutritionists define UPFs as those with ingredients rarely found in homemade recipes: hydrogenated oils, protein isolates and chemical additives, high-fructose corn syrup. UPFs are found in 70% of packaged foods sold in the U.S. A recent study of more than 10,000 adults found that the more ultra-processed foods (UPFs) people ate, the more likely they were to report symptoms of anxiety or depression. Another 2022 study found a correlation between eating UPFs and worse cognitive function after following 11,000 Brazilian adults for a decade.

Such studies can’t show cause and effect, and why ultra-processed foods might affect the brain is unknown. Among the possibilities: Nutrient-rich diets are known to be beneficial for depression, and more UPFs mean less of that. Diets high in UPFs usually are low in fiber, which help the gut produce short-chain fatty acids that play an important role in brain function. Chemical additives in UPFs also have an impact on the gut microbiome, and poor diversity of microorganisms that live there, as well as diets high in sugar, may be a factor in chronic inflammation, which is linked to many mental problems. Test your ability to spot ultra-processed foods by taking the Times’s interactive quiz.

Spanning generations to address mental health in the Asian American community

Asian Americans are dealing with a lot: They were targeted in back-to-back mass shootings in January and face the sharpest increase in hate crimes of any group, according to FBI data. Anti-China rhetoric by political figures and media commentators has triggered suspicion, bias and scapegoating of Chinese Americans, which is generalized to other Asian communities.

There’s also an intergenerational divide, marriage and family therapist Jeanie Chang told CNN. Gen Z is open about mental health and wants to talk about it, she said. “They start butting heads with their grandparents or even their parents” because older generations are “the exact opposite.” The elders are proud of what they’ve accomplished, so “why would they talk about their emotions and then show any kind of weakness?” Gen Xers and older millennials are in the middle, she said, able to communicate with both. They play a crucial role in family decisions.

Chang, author of the best-selling memoir “A is for Authentic: Not for Anxieties or for Straight A’s,” had some advice for the younger folk: “Maybe you don’t ask [the elders] how they feel because they don’t know how to answer that” and may get defensive. But they “want to provide wisdom and leave a legacy,” Chang said. Her advice: Ask them to share a story, to join an activity like cooking or watching a movie, even if no words are spoken. “That shared space,” Chang said, “is still connecting.”

In other news…

Can anti-poverty programs boost children’s brain development and improve their mental health? Apparently so, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Previous research has suggested that growing up in poverty impedes the development of children’s brains and is linked to smaller brain structures and higher rates of physical and mental illness. A NIDA-supported study tracked 10,000 children in 17 states to see if cash assistance and support for low-income families could mitigate the difference. They found that in states that provide more generous benefits disparities in brain structure were reduced by a third  and mental health symptoms by 48%, according to a study in Nature Communications.

Mental Health at Work,” a new page on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, includes tools for employers to support their workers’ mental health, resources for employees and links to fact sheets about laws like the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and mental health components of the Family and Medical Leave Act.

After a one-year delay, the Pentagon said it is implementing the 2021 Brandon Act that requires a series of changes to military mental health care, reported. The act is supposed to allow service members to confidentially request a mental health evaluation for any reason. But it won’t go into effect for several more weeks while each branch of the armed services drafts its own guidance. The statute is named after Brandon Caserta, a sailor in the Navy who died by suicide in 2018. After his death, his parents became mental health advocates and fought for the law.

Indiana has passed legislation enabling police to refer someone in crisis to mental health treatment instead of putting them in jail, Fox59 in Indianapolis reported. House Bill 1006 also sets up a process for certain people currently in jail to be transferred to a mental health facility.

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.

Recent MindSite News Stories

Breaking Away From Hate

Trauma, abuse, and mental health problems can make people more vulnerable to violent extremism. Here’s how a movement founded in part by former white supremacists is helping extricate Americans from violent hate groups.

Continue reading…

Teen Expert Lisa Damour Wants Us All to Embrace Sadness

Damour wants us to realize that stress, irritability and unhappiness are as normal in teens as joy.

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Type of work:

Don Sapatkin is an independent journalist who reports on science and health care. His primary focus for nearly two decades has been public health, especially policy, access to care, health disparities...