October 17, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday morning, MindSite News readers. We begin today with a counterintuitive tidbit: Pot may cause you to lose weight, at least according to one new study. If you like listening to the songs of birds, you’re in luck – doing so may be good for your mental health. In other news: State insurance commissioners are having a hard time enforcing federal parity laws. Harm reduction advocates in Texas are forced to operate on the sly to try to keep drug users alive. And protesting students demand better mental health resources at Colorado College. 

Bird songs reduces anxiety and paranoia, while traffic sounds worsen depression: Study


Listening to birds singing can reduce anxiety and paranoia. That’s the pleasant finding from a randomized online experiment in which nearly 300 people listened to six minutes of either birdsongs or traffic sounds. The results were hardly surprising, since natural sounds are associated with mood recovery after stress. Still, this may be the first time that bird songs have been proven to reduce paranoia, according to Neuroscience News. And those traffic sounds – of course they worsened depressive states. 

The study, in Nature’s Scientific Reports, also noted an earlier, more surprising finding: that living amidst a greater diversity of bird species may boost your feelings of life-satisfaction much more than a rise in income. The research, published last year in Ecological Economics, involved more than 26,000 people across 26 European countries. It found that every 10% increase in species diversity within a region raised residents’ self-reported life-satisfaction 50% more than a 10% rise in income. 

The Nature authors suggested experimenting with such soundscapes in settings like psychiatric wards to test their impact on clinical symptoms of anxiety and paranoia. “Birdsong could also be applied to prevent mental disorders. Listening to an audio CD would be a simple, easily accessible intervention,” noted first author Emil Stobbe of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in a press release.

State laws make harm reduction risky in Texas, so advocates do it on the down-low

Kirby Jack spends Friday nights barhopping in downtown Dallas, leaving plastic baggies next to bathroom sinks. Jack hopes the kits, which contain fentanyl test strips, sterile water, cookers used to prepare drugs and foam filters, will be picked up by people who use drugs and help them stay safe. But Jack won’t stick around to find out. Carrying drug paraphernalia like fentanyl testing strips is illegal in Texas.

via Twitter

In Houston, Claudia Dambra gives away – openly and legally — opioid overdose reversal medications. She’s much more discreet about the clean syringes she also gives out to help prevent the spread of diseases among drug users. “I’m living in a world where organizations are operating very much underground,” Dambra, told the Texas Tribune. “It’s very, very dangerous to be a drug user here.” Or to help one.

Jack and Dambra work in the realm of harm reduction, a public health strategy that works to keep drug users alive and healthy. Providing clean needles reduces injection-related infections and minimizes the spread of disease. In the process, outreach workers make connections that may lead people to seek out treatment. One study found that users taking part in syringe-exchange programs were five times as likely as non-participants to start treatment

Though most states now allow syringe-exchange programs, Texas is one of 12 states that do not. Governor Greg Abbot, who has long promoted stricter border enforcement to slow drug traffic, asked the heads of state agencies last month to propose initiatives to reduce overdose deaths in the state. But advocates like Dambra aren’t waiting for Texas law or policy to change. The former user overdosed 10 times before she discovered the Houston Harm Reduction Alliance’s needle exchange and then sought treatment. Now she’s part of a semi-covert movement working in the shadows and risking hefty fines. “You can’t always play by the law’s rules when it comes to saving people’s lives,” Casey Malish, outreach director for the nonprofit alliance, told the Tribune.

You can read a new MindSite News review of a book on harm reduction, Undoing Drugs, here.

State regulators struggle to enforce behavioral health parity

Despite a 2008 federal law requiring health insurers to cover behavioral health care on par with medical and surgical care, millions of Americans seeking treatment for mental illness or substance use disorders keep getting those dreaded “notice of denial of benefits” messages from their health insurers. The law has helped equalize copayment amounts and the number of allowable office visits, but it has largely failed to alter some of the most consequential practices: Many insurers continue to require prior authorization for treatment and to pay clinicians at levels so low that many are unwilling to join or remain in the network, as MindSite News noted in a story last January.
Related story: A Family’s Struggle to Care for Son’s Autism Reveals Gaps in Mental Health Parity Laws ______________________________________________

Enforcement of the law is largely up to state regulators, and according to a new report  from the Georgetown Center on Health Insurance Reforms, they simply don’t have the resources or expertise needed. The report looked at the regulatory efforts of five states and found that while each operated a bit differently, pretty much all of them faced the same impediments.

Related story: A Timeline of Parity Laws and Enforcement ___________________________________________________

Key among them: States don’t have the staff or resources to contend with the blizzard of documents and the armies of attorneys, consultants and third-party vendors deployed by insurers. The report calls for the federal government to provide more financial support and technical expertise to states. In June, the House voted 402-20 for a bill that would do that and sent it on to the Senate.

In other news … 

Students concerned about mental health at Colorado College, a liberal arts institution with 2,300 students, took up posts around the campus during homecoming weekend to demand more resources and policy changes, according to The Catalyst, a student newspaper. The issue, simmering for a year and a half, gained momentum after three student deaths in less than six months. A petition from “Unwell CC Students” was presented to the administration last spring but hasn’t gotten a satisfactory response, organizers say. 

via Twitter

Investigative headlines that say it all: Even with troubled histories, psych hospitals face few sanctions (part 2 of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution series that we wrote about in this space last week) … These foster kids need mental health care. New Mexico is putting them in homeless shelters. (ProPublica) … Police Need Warrants to Search Homes. Child Welfare Agents Almost Never Get One. (also ProPublica).

Nearly 75% of high school students surveyed reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as emotional abuse or food insecurity, during the first half of 2021, USA Today reports. ACEs are “preventable, potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood,” such as “neglect, experiencing or witnessing violence, and having a family member attempt or die by suicide,” according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the survey findings. Without buffering from trusted, loving adults, kids with ACEs are at higher risk of developing chronic health conditions, including heart disease and depression. Students who reported these experiences in the survey were twice as likely to say they had poor mental health and up to six times as likely to recall suicidal thoughts or attempts in the previous year compared to students who didn’t report recent ACEs.

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...