January 17, 2022

Good morning, MindSite News Readers. Today we are celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day and remembering his words: “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman.In today’s newsletter: Can neurofeedback diminish anxiety and depression? The jury’s out. An app helps Canadians in Saskatchewan province get mental health support through texts. Plus, a federal investigation of South Carolina’s institutionalization of people with mental illness. 

Since we’re all on our phones anyway, can texts provide effective mental health support?

About 25% of Canadians report symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and 94% of Canadian youth in mental distress say the pandemic has had a negative impact on them. It also has left the country’s healthcare system so strained it’s unable to meet the growing need for mental health care. Enter SaskWell, a service that texts mental health and wellness prompts to folks in Saskatchewan province who sign up for it. Since many rural areas in the province have spotty internet, mobile phones are the only way some residents stay connected to their providers. Over 10 weeks, users receive evidence-based mental health tools and weekly wellness tips created by SaskWell with input from patients and community members. Tracie Risling and Gillian Strudwick, two researchers who helped develop the program, described its work in The Conversation. While not a crisis support intervention, Saskwell is “a point of connectivity and a reminder about the importance of investing time in personal wellness, especially as we face the challenges of this winter season”, they write. (Saskatchewan residents can sign up for SaskWell by texting “JOIN” to 759355.)

Report gives failing grades to California children’s mental health care

The pandemic, racial injustice, wildfires and family economic struggles have left California schoolchildren reeling, according to an EdSource article reporting on a survey and report card by the child advocacy group Children Now. The state got A’s for its health insurance and for expanding its transitional kindergarten program to 4-year-olds, but it received failing grades (Ds) in mental health care, early intervention, decriminalization of youth, and support for homeless youth who are on their own. The report also noted a disturbing rise in the rate of suicides among Black youth, which has doubled since 2014. Overall, the state is way behind others in the number of adults on school campuses to meet students’ mental health and other needs. “We’ve been sounding the alarm about this for a while,” said Children Now President Ted Lempert. “This is unacceptable. And the result is incredibly detrimental to kids. We’re behind other states in so many areas, and there is no excuse for that.”

Can neurofeedback improve mental health?

Is it possible to retrain your brain toward healthier patterns of activity if you suffer severe anxiety or depression? Perhaps. Neurofeedback monitors brain activity through electrodes placed on the head of a user and then displays it back to the user on a screen or via headphones. Users go through a series of exercises and are guided “to generate brain patterns correlated with a calmer state of mind,” according to an article in The New York Times. Proponents say it can help treat depression and anxiety, among other conditions. But the science supporting the benefits of neurofeedback is still thin, the Times reports: A 2020 meta-analysis of 17 neurofeedback studies found our brains could indeed reproduce patterns based on biofeedback, but the effect on mood disorders was minimal. 

Only a few studies have compared the effectiveness of neurofeedback with that of a phony neurofeedback machine, and “all but one concluded that fake neurofeedback works just as well as real neurofeedback,” Robert Thibault, a postdoctoral scholar at the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford University, told The Times.

Feds investigate South Carolina for institutionalizing people with mental illness

The Department of Justice is investigating whether South Carolina inappropriately institutionalizes people with mental illness, The Post and Courier reports. Although the U.S. Supreme Court, in its landmark Olmstead decision, found that people with disabilities were entitled to receive services in their communities and homes rather than institutions, South Carolina continues to house people with mental illness in hundreds of residential care homes. “Most of them, they’re horrible. It’s nowhere that you would ever want your family member to be,” said Kimberly Tissot, executive director of Able SC, an advocacy and service organization serving people with disabilities. “There’s abuse and neglect constantly. They’re treated more like prisoners than actual residents.”

In other news:

Using a dating app? Don’t diss on therapy. Some singles searching for a partner have now made being open to therapy a requirement – and a deal breaker if someone is thumbs down about it, USA Today reports

The new short film Tallahassee explores “the crushing solitude of lying” about a family member’s mental illness, Yasmine Al-Sayyad writes in The New Yorker. “The tenderness in [the] family is still heartbreaking to observe. Everyone is trying to protect one another from worry and distress, but they are ultimately not getting or giving the help that they need.” The screenwriter, psychologist Hala Alyan, tells Al-Sayyad she sees echoes of her own family in the film: “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is it an allergy to sadness? Or is it having experienced so much of it that this is survival—you put lipstick on because life is not going to get any easier?’”

Mental health professionals are worrying about yet another concerning trend on the social media platform TikTok: Youth posting videos in which they diagnose themselves with mental illness. “If you attempt to self-diagnose, you can misdiagnose yourself and therefore you seek the wrong treatment or you’re not seeking treatment at all because you don’t know what you have,” Dr. Robin Hawks, a professor of psychology and human services at Blue Ridge Community College, tells WHSV-TV in Virginia.

Some newly trained therapists in California are eager to help relieve the state’s shortage of mental health workers, but licensing delays are holding them back. The LAist reports that the average time to process a request for the licensed Marriage and Family Therapist exam in the period from July through September of 2021, for example, was roughly 6 months – about two and a half times longer than in 2018. “(There is) so much emotional pain in our country right now, I don’t care what side of the line you fall on politically, people are suffering and we’re unable to help them,” said one would-be therapist.

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.

Research Roundup: Nudges for Change, Screen Time for Kids

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