Tuesday, August 1, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Hello, MindSite Readers! In today’s Daily, we take a close look at Sen. John Fetterman’s journey through deep depression and back to the light. Plus: LA County returns $15 million in mental health funds to the state. New research shows the need for more attention to the mental health needs of patients with rheumatic disease. Having a spiritual life may be good for your mental health. And more.

John Fetterman shares his journey into depression – and the gospel of how treatment brought him back

We’ve come a long way since Sen. Thomas Eagleton was dropped from the Democratic presidential ticket as George McGovern’s running mate because he’d been hospitalized for depression. Fifty years later, another senator, John Fetterman, has had a very different experience. Last week, he graced the cover of Time magazine, telling the story of his battle with depression and the life-changing impact of good treatment. He says the six weeks of inpatient treatment he received in the neuropsychiatry unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center saved his life – and he wants to tell others that they, too, can be helped. 

Fetterman didn’t hold back as he shared the details of his battle with depression and the stroke that triggered it. It came last May, days before his victory in the Democratic primary for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Doctors told him then that a full recovery was possible – but the clock was not in his favor. He still had to complete his Senate race against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who followed a strategy of belittling his opponent. “If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke,” an Oz representative told the press. But for Fetterman, the low point was a debate in which he struggled to speak or make cogent points. In its aftermath, his depression deepened – but he nonetheless managed to defeat Oz and win the election. 

His victory offered neither relief nor joy. He took his seat but felt like a failure. He spent his first month in office in a fog, his depression worsening by the day. Finally, on the advice of Congress’s attending physician, he checked into Walter Reed, where he spent the next six weeks. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Fetterman’s story is how utterly transparent he has been – and how that transparency has inspired so many people. “I just wanted to thank you for your bravery,” read a note handed to him by a 28-year-old Black woman from Philadelphia. “I have lived with ­Bipolar II for years. You have opened a door that has profoundly changed the conversation in my household and community!”

Now Fetterman is using his experience to spread a vital message: “I don’t care if you’re a Trumper, MAGA, or hard leftist, or anyone in between. Depression comes across the spectrum, and get help with it,” Fetterman said. “It’s not a Democratic Senator from Pennsylvania saying this. No. I’m just a husband and a father, somebody that was suffering from depression and got help – before it was too late.”

Los Angeles County is giving back to the state $15 million meant to fund mental health crisis teams

Desperate families and mental health providers in Los Angeles say child and adult outreach triage teams operated by the county were life-savers that helped them weather serious crises. County mental health officials say the program was underwhelming and brought too few people into ongoing services. So now the county’s Department of Mental Health has decided to let the program die, the Los Angeles Times reported,

The time to use those funds expired in June, leaving $15 million unspent, all of which now must be returned to the state. LA County leaders declined to continue the triage program with their own funds, leaving local mental health advocates befuddled and dismayed.

“What human being would have [that much money] to serve suffering people and give it away? That’s unconscionable to me as a physician, as a public health professional, as a human being,” said Jonathan Goldfinger, a pediatrician who once co-chaired LA County’s alternative crisis response initiative. He added that the county has a “history of foot-dragging” inspired by staff-related internal politics. 

Alex Briscoe, former director of the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, offered a more mellow response, saying that counties are often hesitant to fund programs that weren’t previously in their budget due to the “boom-and-bust nature” of state funding. It’s a problem that some hope will be reduced under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent proposal to change how the state spends mental health dollars raised by the Mental Health Services Act, a voter-approved tax on millionaires. Newsom wants to reallocate how the funds are spent to prioritize homelessness and people struggling with substance abuse. But Briscoe fears that Newsom’s proposal “will almost certainly mean less money for prevention programs,” including the triage teams. 

The county now says it plans to provide similar services using its existing mobile crisis teams. 

Researchers urge intentional mental health support for people diagnosed with autoimmune diseases

More than half of people with autoimmune diseases suffer from depression or anxiety, but their physicians rarely or never ask about their mental health condition, according to a study published last week in Rheumatology. Researchers from the University of Cambridge and King’s College London added in a press release that the range of mental health and neurological symptoms of people with autoimmune diseases is also much greater than previously reported. 

The team surveyed 1,853 patients diagnosed with systemic auto-immune rheumatic diseases (SARDs) such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, as well as 289 doctors, and interviewed 113 patients and clinicians. They found that 55% of SARD patients experience depression, 57% experience anxiety, 89% have severe fatigue, and 70% navigate cognitive dysfunction – all numbers far greater than clinicians assumed. Doctors were shocked to learn, for instance, that 47% of lupus patients in the study experience suicidal thoughts, compared to the 15% that they estimated.

Some doctors simply believed that SARD symptoms don’t affect the brain and thereby focused on the joints. Others, though, were unaware of the mental health symptoms because they hadn’t asked about them. “Doctors don’t go looking for it [hallucinations], so if we don’t ask we don’t think it exists much,” said one rheumatology nurse interviewed in the study. But many patients reported that when they share their mental health concerns with physicians, they worry they’ll be stigmatized or not heard. “[I] feel guilty and useless as well as depressed and very unwell. I don’t really feel supported, understood, listened to, [or] hopeful,” one patient said. “It is awful living like this.”

The researchers urge an immediate shift in the attention paid to the mental health and neurological needs of SARD patients. “Mental health, fatigue and cognition can be life-changing, and sometimes life-threatening,” said study co-author Melanie Sloan of the University of Cambridge. “It’s only by fully engaging patients in their healthcare and by asking them for their views that we will be able to determine the extent of these often hidden symptoms, and help patients get the understanding, support and treatment they need.”

In other news…

Having a spiritual life is good for your mental health, says psychologist Lisa Miller. The author of The Awakened Brain delivered this message  in an interview with NPR’s Rachel Martin for the series Enlighten Me: “I oftentimes hear from people who consider themselves skeptics and very left-brained and when they see the peer-reviewed science that says we’re naturally spiritual beings, that when we cultivate our spirituality we’re 80% less likely to be addicted, 82% less likely to take our lives, it speaks to the left side of their brains long enough that it quiets down the skepticism.”

In a guest essay in the New York Times, writer Jillian Weinberger shared her fears about passing on disordered eating to her young daughter. “I started digging into the research on eating disorders and found that anorexia does run in families. One study found that women who have family members with anorexia are 11 times as likely to develop the disease as those without affected family…[But] my assumptions were [only] partly correct. Many describe the connection through a particular metaphor: Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger. So while there is a hereditary element, it doesn’t mean a person’s fate is sealed at birth.”

Family and friends mourn the death of Angus Cloud, co-star of HBO’s award-winning Euphoria. NBC News reports that his passing comes one week after the burial of his father. An official cause of death has not been given, but Cloud’s family says he “intensely struggled” with the loss of his father. “The only comfort we have is knowing Angus is now reunited with his dad, who was his best friend,” the family statement says. “Angus was open about his battle with mental health and we hope that his passing can be a reminder to others that they are not alone and should not fight this on their own in silence.” Cloud was 25 years old.

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...