October 12, 2021

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• Tom Insel’s Research Roundup, a weekly curated look at the most important mental health research from the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

This issue:

Housing crucial to addressing homelessness, substance use disorders in California 

“More than any of his recent predecessors as governor, Gavin Newsom has approached the state’s homelessness crisis with the seriousness it deserves.” So says Los Angeles Times editorial crediting Governor Newsom for putting millions into a program called Homekey which lets cities, counties and other government groups apply for funds to buy hotels, apartments and other places and turn them into interim or permanent housing for people dealing with homelessness. The program is part of a Housing First approach to treating substance use, which affects an estimated 8% of the population of California

Credit: Mikeke Dray/Shutterstock

With an eye on reducing homelessness, Newsom has set aside billions for acquiring and renovating board and care homes, creating residential mental health treatment beds, and providing Homeless Housing Assistance and Prevention grants. But even with California spending $4 billion a year on housing, the number of unhoused people in the state climbed by nearly 7% in 2020 – something that worries experts since homelessness itself is linked to a decline in physical and mental health. Last year, for example, the funds helped Los Angeles build 744 new housing units – but the city has a homeless population of 66,000. The governor needs to stand up against state health bureaucrats that are resisting funding Street Medicine programs and do a better job of coordinating the “disjointed” work of multiple agencies, the paper says. Finally, the editorial concludes, he needs to insist that local jurisdictions use the grants to house people rather than simply pointing them to social services. 


Afghanistan Coverage “Retriggering” Trauma Among Former Afghan Refugees

In this recent first-person story from the San Francisco Chronicle, Nahid Fattahi describes her harrowing 1995 flight from Afghanistan with her family at age 14 and the trauma that continues to haunt her. Now a mental health clinician, Fattahi recalls her anguish when she watched the televised scenes of fear and terror at the Kabul airport this August as thousands tried to flee the Taliban.

Credit: Trent Inness/Shutterstock

“I watched the scenes of chaos at Kabul’s airport and was jolted back to 1995…I cried and screamed. I felt my chest tighten up. My heart started racing rapidly as my body shivered. I was experiencing my first anxiety attack.” Her story explores what health agencies and ordinary Americans can do to ease the pain and torment of the Afghan community and incoming refugees. Fattahi quotes Human Rights Watch, which two years warned that “Decades of violence have left many Afghans experiencing deep psychological wounds, as well as physical ones…There is an urgent need for expanded psychosocial services to support [them].”


Anxiety and Depression Have Now Dropped, But May Rise with New Wave of Covid-19 

The sharp rise in anxiety and depression during the pandemic began to decrease during the first half of 2021, according to a New York Times report on newly released findings from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency’s analysis of a biweekly online survey with 1.5 million responses found that mood disorders were still much higher than they were before the coronavirus. The improvement in mental health leveled out in June and may rise again with the current surge of Delta variant infections, according to researchers. 


Mental Health Crisis Teams in Dallas and Portland Reduce Arrests, Hospitalizations 

More than 13,000 behavioral health emergency calls are fielded by the city of Dallas each year. Until recently the person in crisis was often arrested or taken to an ER; in some cases, he or she was shot and killed by responding police. But like some other major cities, Dallas created a mobile response team designed to reduce unnecessary incarceration and hospitalizations. The RIGHT Care program started sending social workers and clinicians – along with police – on 911 mental health calls 3 years ago. Since then, Next City reports, 20% fewer people have been taken to the ER and arrests have dropped by 60%. The police made the crisis team feel safer, and officers wore khaki shorts and polo shirts for “a more approachable appearance,” a RIGHT Care program manager told Next City.

But not everyone agrees with the approach. The program is sending the wrong message and contributing to stigma by involving police officers, according to Don Kamin, a clinical psychologist and crisis team trainer in New York. “If it is a mental health-related crisis, we ought to have a mental health response,” he told Next City. 

In a similar vein, AP reports that Portland, Oregon, researchers are urging the city to expand its pilot of a non-police crisis response team. Their report found that Portland Street Response – a team consisting of a therapist, firefighter paramedic and two community health workers – had reduced the police call burden by 5% and firefighter response by more than 11%. In addition, fewer than 4% of people assisted required a hospital visit, and none were arrested.


Women are taking on the bulk of emotional labor at work: Report

Addressing pandemic-induced stress and burnout among workers has put extra pressure on female managers, according to a recent Forbes article reviewing McKinsey & Company’s annual Women in the Workplace report. Counseling distressed workers, problem solving and providing extra mentoring is notably higher among women at work. Women’s emotional labor increased by 10% last year, with 31% of female managers providing support compared to 19% of male managers, according to the report. In fact, as the pandemic raged on and mental health problems surfaced at work, senior-level women leaders were twice as likely as their male counterparts to roll up their sleeves and take them on – “with no formal recognition for these efforts,” according to the Forbes piece. The failure to recognize and compensate such work is taking a toll on the workforce and exposing gaps in diversity and inclusion, according to Forbes. 



Is Coronavirus Stress Messing with Menstruation? 

If you or someone you know has been experiencing a wacky menstrual cycle since the pandemic began, you’re not alone. Forbes reported on a Northwestern University study of 200 women that found that 54% had noticed changes in their periods over the last 18 months. The more stress they reported, the more likely their periods had changed. But other factors may be at play too. “What we can say about COVID-19 and its effects on the menstrual cycle is comparable to what we can say about other viral infections and prolonged periods of stress — menstrual disruptions are likely to occur,” Tara Shirazian, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU told Everyday Health in a previous article. It’s also possible that women’s hormonal changes may be helpful. A study discussed in MedPage Today reported that women with COVID-19 have better outcomes than men and are investigating whether female sex hormones and menstruation may have a protective effect. 

(This newsletter was compiled by Marisa Arbona-Ruiz and Diana Hembree for MindSite News.)


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