September 6, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good Tuesday morning, MindSite News readers! Today we offer news to re-energize your brain after a relaxing Labor Day weekend: A homeless woman whose life has been filled with loss gets comfort and cheer from her emotional support duck. If you think your kids are merely spending too much time online, ask how often they anonymously post mean comments about themselves. Canada will launch a 988 crisis line next year. Experts say warning labels on alcoholic beverages badly need an update. And drug cartels have found a new way to market fentanyl: candy-colored pills that attract kids and young people.

Surviving on the street with an emotional support duck

Los Angeles Times via Twitter

Autumn McWilliams’ life on the streets of L.A. is hard. Her emotional support duck makes it a little easier. 

She takes Cardi D everywhere — and was trailed everywhere by a reporter and photographer for the Los Angeles Times, which has done a phenomenal job covering homelessness. Adults spot the duck — hard to miss in the black-and-red vest of a registered support animal — in the stroller. Children delight as he comes into view, waddling after his keeper on the sidewalk. But for McWilliams, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression and anxiety and struggles with substance abuse, the duck is a comfort animal. She relies on him to keep her calm.

She has been homeless off and on for half her 33 years. Her mother, she said, abandoned her at the hospital so she could get high. She spent her first seven years with her father, who battled alcoholism, moving to an aunt’s place when his home became the back of his truck along a riverbed. He later died after being stabbed by a stranger in a laundromat.

In early July, McWilliams was living with her boyfriend, Jack; their gray kitten, Daddy; and Cardi D, then four months old (seen playing together in this video), beneath a downtown overpass in a blue tent with puppy pee pads and a mini-air cooler to protect the duck from heatstroke. In early August, a dog killed Daddy and a fire wiped out possessions while they were out. “Everyone in my life that I love goes away,” McWilliams says, watching her duck. “Hopefully she’s able to make it.”

MindSite News, WETA and Ken Burns present a FREE live back-to-school event: A Conversation About Youth Mental Health and the Making of Hiding in Plain Sight

THURSDAY, September 8th at 4:00pm PST | 7:00pm EST


Meet Ava, a young woman featured Hiding in Plain Sight. In the film, Ava shares her experience with bullying on social media that affected her mental health, causing symptoms of depression.
Watch Ava’s clip on Twitter HERE

For more information regarding the film speakers and MindSite News interviewers for this special event, click HERE

Lots of kids are bullying themselves online – and those who do are more likely to attempt suicide

Credit: Shutterstock

Grownups, at least, may be surprised to learn that 9% of adolescents say they have  anonymously posted something mean about themselves online and 5% have anonymously cyberbullied themselves, according to new research published in Child and Adolescent Health and covered by the nonprofit news site StudyFinds. Less surprising but more concerning: middle- and high school-age children who engaged in such digital self-harm were five to seven times as likely to have thought about suicide and nine to 15 times as likely to say they’d  attempted it.

There were no differences by race or gender, but non-heterosexual teens were twice as likely to say they’ve engaged in digital self-harm. They were also far more likely to have thought about or attempted suicide — especially if they have shared something mean about themselves online. This type of study cannot determine cause and effect, and the research, partly funded by Facebook, has notable limitations: Just 15% of the 12- to 17-year-olds who were invited to participate by email responded, and their self-reports were anonymous. Still, it’s the first paper to demonstrate an association between harming oneself online and suicidality.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has announced a $2 million annual grant for up to five years to the American Academy of Pediatrics to establish a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness to “develop and disseminate information, guidance, and training on the impact — including risks and benefits — that social media use has on children and young people.”

Our summer/fall fundraising campaign continues. As you read our newsletter, please consider making a gift to support it. The work you see here and in our original reporting requires skill and time, but it can help hold powerful institutions accountable and make the case for new approaches.

In other news…

Rainbow-colored fentanyl pills/Credit: Drug Enforcement Agency

Candy-colored fentanyl pills are being used to target young people, the Drug Enforcement Administration said in a public advisory highlighting what it called an alarming emerging trend. “Rainbow fentanyl — fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes, and sizes — is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.  

A large study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that during the pandemic, expanded use of telehealth was associated with higher use of medications that treat opioid addiction and lower odds of overdose. See tomorrow’s newsletter for more.

Canada will launch a 988 mental health crisis line next year, the Toronto Star reports, and its advocates up north were both pleased and worried about inadequate funding following the national telecommunications commission announcement

Warning labels on alcoholic drinks should be updated and made more prominent, public health researchers write in a New England Journal of Medicine commentary reported by WebMD. The 30-year-old label requires a warning about the dangers of using alcohol during pregnancy and while operating machinery, often with a vague caution about health problems. However, more recently documented risks for many cancers, liver disease, pancreatitis and some types of heart disease have been kept off, partly as a result of industry pressure, according to the  authors.

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:

Don SapatkinReporter

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...