November 17, 2021

Hello, MindSite News Daily Readers. In today’s newsletter, you’ll read about a Navy veteran who filmed a transformative voyage to South America in his sailboat to heal PTSD among his peers and a doctor teaching meditation at med school so students and peers won’t suffer the burnout she did. You’ll also read commentary from the editors of Scientific American, who argue for parity in mental health access.

A Navy veteran films sailing journey to help fellow vets deal with PTSD 

Left to right: Taylor Grieger, first mate Stephen O’Shea, and Navy veteran John Rose (Credit: Freshfly)

In 2017, Navy veteran Taylor Grieger left Florida in a 36-foot sloop to sail with friends around Cape Horn, some of the most treacherous waters in the world. They planned to document their journey of 10,000 nautical miles to give hope to veterans who, like Grieger, struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. Grieger had worked as a Navy rescue diver, pulling dead bodies out of the water, and tried to kill himself when he got out. Sailing has given him a second chance at life and healing, but “if we were going to make something to reach veterans, it would have to be no-holds-barred,” said Grieger, 29, in an article for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

After Grieger and his friends took a break to raise money and generate interest in the documentary, a Philadelphia film team took on the project. The resulting 90-minute documentary, “Hell or High Seas,” directed by Glen Holsten, puts stunning scenery and stormy seas as the backdrop for frank conversations about trauma. The film is making inroads. “At some screenings, even Vietnam and World War II vets come up and say they’ve lived with this kind of pain for decades and never told anybody,” Grieger said. “I’m glad this film lets them know they’re not alone.”

Colleges deploy evidence-based approaches to preventing suicides

When Ethan Phillips was in middle school in Fairfax County, Virginia, more than a dozen local teens and pre-teens committed suicide and he first heard the term “suicide contagion.” Recently, in his third year as a student University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was confronted with the suicides of two students within 48 hours. Phillips, who heads the student government’s wellness and safety division, told Kaiser Health News’s Aneri Pattani that he brought to the topic “an unfortunate level of experience.” He’s not alone. A recent national survey by the American College Health Association found that one in four students had experienced suicidal thoughts.

Phillips put his experience with suicide contagion into action implementing a “postvention” strategy. Since one suicide in a community can put others at risk, he talked with the student body about the suicides, using social media and sharing mental health resources to give students a place to process their grief. To ease their burden, he drew up an email template for them to use if they needed to request time off to deal with the loss of a friend. “Getting that postvention plan in place before a tragedy occurs is really critical,” says John Dunkle, former director of counseling services at Northwestern University and a senior director with the nonprofit Jed Foundation, which works to prevent youth suicide. A booklet outlining such a plan, put together by the Jed Foundation with the involvement of education and mental health associations, is available for download here.

Doctors once skeptical of meditation are turning to it to relieve burnout

A decade ago, the Mayo Clinic began asking doctors each year if they were experiencing emotional exhaustion, depersonalizing their patients or having other symptoms of physician burnout. In that first survey, approximately 45% of doctors reported at least one symptom. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout has increased, according to 64% of doctors who participated in a Medscape survey of 5,000 doctors. 

Jan Wener was a poster child of burnout, according to a Medscape story. Back in 2011, she was working as an internist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and felt the world was crashing down on her. A friend suggested she try Vedic meditation, a practice she admits was outside her comfort zone. But she enrolled and learned the methodology, which involves repeating a sound or mantra to focus on the present and calm the mind. After three weeks of meditating twice daily for 20 minutes, Wener noticed that her inclination towards road rage and bouts of crying went away. “I felt like I was on the cusp of something life-changing, I just didn’t understand it,” says Wener, who now works at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, where she has created CME-accredited courses on meditation. “But I knew I was never going to give it up.”

Meditation helps get rid of the noise in the mind that takes us out of the present, meditation teacher Donna Rockwell told Medscape. “We’re either bemoaning something that happened earlier or we’re catastrophizing the future,” she said. The stress from burnout, she says, also activates the threat response in the amygdala and short circuits the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning part of the brain. 

NAMI poll reveals broad opposition to police responding to mental health crisis calls

The majority of Americans are opposed to police responding to mental health calls, according to poll results published in The Hill, a political news site. The poll, conducted by Ipsos for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), found that 72% of respondents had positive views of police. Even so, 80% of respondents thought that mental health professionals – not law enforcement – should respond to calls involving mental health problems, including suicide. 

When probed, 60% of Americans said they’d be concerned that police officers might hurt a loved one having a mental health crisis – with people of color especially likely to fear calling law enforcement. The poll comes as states prepare to launch the 988 National Suicide Prevention Crisis line next July for mental health calls. “It’s really on all of us, the public policymakers, to act to make sure that when somebody calls for help, there’s actually care available on the other end of the line,” said Hannah Wesolowski, NAMI’s interim director of government relations. The Ipsos-NAMI poll of 2,049 people was conducted from October 22 to 25.

Don’t go back to the pre-pandemic status quo: Scientific American editorial board

In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress responded to the looming mental health crisis by temporarily funding services. Now Congress needs to permanently expand mental health services not just in response to the pandemic, but to address the long-term shortage of mental health providers, according to a commentary by the editors of Scientific American. The view reflects that of the American Psychological Association, which asked Congress to mandate increases in the number of mental health providers. 

The editors also point out the need to level the play field. The pandemic “offers a critical opportunity to invest in and strengthen mental health care systems to achieve a ‘parity of esteem,’ meaning that someone who is mentally ill should have equal access to evidence-based treatment as someone who is physically ill,” they wrote, citing the Lancet COVID-19 Commission Task Force on Mental Health. “Fostering resilience in a world of accelerating uncertainty depends on it.” 

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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