Monday, October 2, 2023

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday morning. I write this Saturday evening, after Congress averted a government shutdown – at least for now – that would have harmed the most vulnerable Americans and interrupted critical mental health care at federally funded clinics.

A quick plug for “My 11-Year Relationship That Never Happened,” Teresa Riordan’s beautifully written story in the New York Times’s Modern Love section.

In today’s Daily: “Mattering” is an unappreciated concept that matters a great deal. Seven U.S. Surgeons General say the mental health crisis is a threat not just to individuals, but to our democracy. The Peace Corps draws a lawsuit for mental health-related discrimination. And a top UN top official says the Taliban’s treatment of women is driving some to suicide.

What’s a matter, you?

Mattering is the feeling of being valued: heard, appreciated, cared for, missed when you’re absent. Journalists like me have a leg up in this area, since lots of people read our work and even criticism means we had an effect. (Do you like this newsletter? Let us know how we could matter more: But that doesn’t mean we matter in other parts of our lives. Luckily, mattering – a key part of emotional well-being – is malleable and easy to change, experts on this overlooked concept told the New York Times

Gordon Flett recalled his rising panic as a graduate student as he struggled to find research subjects for his master’s thesis. His mother’s marriage was failing at the time, and she decided to help her son by riding a bike around their neighborhood recruiting people for his study.

“She got the boost she needed in terms of mattering by carving out a new meaningful role,” said Flett, now a professor at York University in Toronto and author of The Psychology of Mattering. “I also got a reminder of my value at a time I needed it.”

While you can’t change your history, which has a big impact on your sense of mattering, you can change how you perceive your value, Flett and others said. Identify your strengths and see how you might use them more, or in ways that affect more people. Consider what parts of your job you like best and seek more opportunities to focus on them. Adjust your relationships, starting with telling people why and how much you appreciate them. If they don’t engage and you don’t feel valued, maybe it’s time to walk away. Volunteering is a great way to not only help other people but feel that you matter as well.

U.S. surgeons general gather to warn about impact of failing to address mental health

Via Facebook

Back in 1999, President Bill Clinton’s surgeon general, David Satcher, published a report titled “Mental Health” that called for changes in the health care system to ensure access to treatment for mental as well as physical health, and for an end to stigma that kept people from seeking help. Current Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has issued advisories this year on loneliness and isolation and the impact of social media on young people’s mental health – and an alarming report two years ago about the crisis in youth mental health.

Last week, seven living U.S. surgeons general, appointed by presidents of both parties, gathered at Dartmouth College for a conversation about the mental health crisis and the inadequacies of the nation’s mental health system. (Satcher, the eighth, sent a video.) The problem is so large that it could undermine the foundation of our democracy, reported CNN, whose chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, moderated the panel.

The wide-ranging nearly two-hour discussion (view full video) touched on everything from caregiving to leadership and ways to do more, but there are no quick or easy solutions. The country cannot completely “treat our way out of the problem,” noted Jerome Adams, who served under President Donald Trump, since only 20% of health is actually addressed in a doctor’s office.

“The other 80% happens in communities that are connected, that are supportive of women and minorities, that have childcare, that have good educational opportunities, that have a good paying job, or both. And I think we need to really focus on building those stronger communities,” Adams said.

Peace Corps sued over mental health rejections

For decades, the Peace Corps has attracted young people, often straight out of college, who want to serve their country and humanity by working in nations around the world. But the Peace Corps, which is run by the State Department, has also rescinded some of the offers it made to would-be volunteers, citing mental health histories that in many cases seem routine. Three of those rejected by the corps have now sued in a case that is seeking class-action status, the New York Times reported.

One of them, identified in the Times her by her middle name, Teresa, said she was accepted in January for a position in Mexico working on climate change awareness. Two months later, she received a letter saying she’d failed her medical clearance because of a history of depression, “active symptoms of anxiety, increased heart rate, inability to sit still, inability to say no” – all symptoms, she said, that were written down by her therapist in 2021 when she was an undergraduate struggling to cope with the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teresa, now 22, said she had attended therapy and took an antidepressant in 2020. “I do not know a single person throughout my whole college experience who didn’t struggle with their mental health,” she said. She spent the weeks before and after her college graduation explaining her change of fortune. “It’s really humiliating to tell people that you got in and were then rejected because of your mental health,” she said.

The lawsuit accuses the Corps of discriminating against applicants with disabilities in violation of federal law. A Peace Corps official told the Times he could not comment on pending litigation but said the program prioritizes volunteers’ “health, safety and security” and noted that many health conditions, including mental health, that are easily managed in the U.S. may not be so readily addressed in areas where the Peace Corps works.

In other news…

Rising temperatures are linked to increased hospital visits for alcohol- and substance-related disorders in a new study, Medscape reported. The findings, in Communications Medicine, were based on an analysis of records for 1.4 million visits to New York state hospitals, mostly to the emergency department, made between 1995 and 2014.

The researchers tracked local temperatures the day of the visit and the day before. Visits for alcohol-related disorders increased in a near-linear pattern as the mercury rose for the full range of temperatures studied. They did the same for several substance-related disorders, plateauing at the higher temperatures. MindSite News reported last year on similar national research that found mental health-related visits to ERs rose 8% on days of extreme heat.

“They are prisoners living in darkness, confined to their homes without hope or future,” Sima Bahous, the executive director of UN Women, said of Afghan women living under the Taliban. She urged the United Nations Security Council to declare the Taliban’s increasingly severe crackdown on Afghanistan’s women and girls an act of “gender apartheid,” the Associated Press reported. Bahous said that interviews with more than 500 Afghan women over the past year by several UN agencies found “the Taliban’s imposition of hyper-patriarchal gender norms,” along with increased poverty, child marriage and child labor has led to worsening mental health and increasing suicides. 

The Air Force will review discharges of service members with mental health conditions, the Air Force Times reported. Former airmen claim the service discriminated against them by ousting them with less-than-honorable discharges for behavior that was due to a mental health condition, sexual assaults or harassment. Those discharges keep veterans from receiving benefits like VA medical care, home loans and tuition assistance, and can hurt their chances of civilian employment. They are seeking upgrades to honorable discharges. The move is part of a proposed settlement of a class action lawsuit.

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 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...