October 3, 2022
By Don Sapatkin
In this edition, life-size lanterns hand-crafted to honor individual people who’ve struggled with mental illness adorn the plaza next to Philadelphia City Hall. The New York Times continues its provocative series of essays on mental health. And on the last day of National Suicide Awareness Month, the federal government announced that the nation’s suicide rate spiked 4% last year, resuming a long-term upward trend after a mysterious two-year decline.
Also today: Tips to protect your mental health during a hurricane and a welcome to Mental Illness Awareness Week, which has just begun. And join us later today, October 3, for an online talk at 10 am PST with author and journalist Michael Pollan about the potential of psychedelics in the treatment of mental illness, end of life care, and more. There may still be registration slots open for our conversation with Pollan: If not, you can follow it on Facebook Live!
Lit from within, life-size lanterns spread mental health awareness through art
More than 100 paper lanterns came to life, dots of light glowing within their chests and illuminating the plaza next to Philadelphia City Hall with warmth and hope. Each was crafted by hand to honor someone who died by suicide or is struggling with mental illness. The gathering was surrounded that evening by people intent on normalizing conversation about mental illness, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Lights in the Darkness was the culmination of a month-long mental health awareness project, organized by an immigrant-support organization that brought in Irish artist Tom Meskell, who specializes in creating art with communities. Philadelphians touched by mental illness or suicide were invited to work with Meskell and a local collaborator to create a life-size sculpture in two-day workshops that doubled as another way to honor those who suffered. Meskell describes his mission and process in a video showing a similar installation in London.
Philadelphia Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for his series of photographs of the city’s homeless community, covered the recent art-as-awareness event and posted a gallery of beautiful photos that should not be missed.
U.S. suicide rate spikes upward, with young men most affected
Suicide deaths increased 4% last year, driven almost entirely by a surge in deaths among men, especially younger ones, the National Center for Health Statistics reported. Suicides had been rising steadily for years, up 35% over nearly two decades, until back-to-back declines totaling 5% in 2019 and 2020 puzzled experts who had predicted even greater increases during the disruptive early years of the pandemic. Researchers still haven’t figured it out.
The 2021 spike represents 1,667 more lives lost than the year before. Even with that increase, however, last year’s total (47,646 suicide deaths, a rate of 14 per 100,000 population) was still slightly below 2019’s ─ and far lower than where epidemiologists expected the country to land after Covid-19. The bad news is in the data for gender and age. The suicide rate shot up 8% for males ages 15 to 24 and 4% for those aged 25 to 34. It went up 6% for men in the 35 to 44 and 65 to 74 age groups. The suicide rate for females increased slightly but neither their overall rate nor that of any age group satisfied statistical significance tests that assure a measured change didn’t happen by chance. As usual, males died by suicide at quadruple the rate for females.
Concern has also grown in recent years about increased suicides among Blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. Systemic discrimination, which leads to higher stress and lower access to care, is considered a key factor, but there are still mysteries. “It’s all over the country,” Sally C. Curtin, an NCHS statistician and lead author of the new report, told the Washington Post, referring to the especially large increases among younger people of all ages and ethnicities. “What would a kid on a farm in Iowa and a kid in New York City have in common?”
Her report, based on 2021 provisional data that is unlikely to change, did not break the numbers down by race and ethnicity. But a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of health disparities found that overall suicide rates increased far more among most racial and ethnic minority groups between 2010 and 2020 than it did among whites, significantly widening the gap. Adolescent rate changes were even more alarming, with the Asian suicide rate more than doubling and the Black and Hispanic rates close behind.
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Who decides what about your mental health treatment?
The editors of the New York Times’s ambitious “It’s Not Just You” opinion project is about how society influences our mental health and how to best treat it ─ knowledge that, they say, is a prerequisite to feeling better.
In “How Is Depression Treated? Let Me Show You” is a fascinating interactive that puts you in the therapist’s shoes ─ specifically, the footwear of Awais Aftab, a psychiatrist, blogger and professor at Case Western in Cleveland ─ just as a new patient walks into the office. The patient recently lost his job, his relationship with his longtime girlfriend is on the rocks and he’s been having difficulty getting out of bed and completing routine chores for weeks. For what has all the hallmarks of major depressive disorder, you consider two potential courses of treatment: one-on-one weekly talk therapy or prescribing an antidepressant. Whichever you choose will lead you, with Aftab’s guidance, through the pitfalls, successes, and frustrations of modern mental health treatment, forcing you to circle back when an option doesn’t work and try other things.
We also hear from Barclay Bram, an anthropologist who studies mental health and was doing fieldwork for his Ph.D. in China when the pandemic hit, followed by the death of a family member and a painful breakup. That’s when he met “Woebot, my A.I. chatbot therapist.” Woebot didn’t try to investigate his psyche, instead offering ways to reframe what he was dealing with: “‘I am depressed’ became ‘I have depression,’ as a way to stop identifying with a label.” It was full of little tricks and tasks, some of them useful, and while it never pretended to be human, Bram became “weirdly attached to my robot helper.” “What Woebot offers,” he writes in MyTherapist, the Robot “is a world of small tools that let you tinker at the margins of your complicated existence.”
In another take on mental health, Adrian Aguilera, an associate professor at two University of California campuses, considers the pros and cons of digital health care more broadly in “Therapy for People Who Can’t Go to Therapy.” He concludes that the best solution would be to fix the nation’s longstanding problems with access to mental health care, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. And in “The Forgotten Lessons of the Recovered Memory Movement” ─ a vivid if buried memory for some readers of this newsletter but likely new to most people ─ journalist Ethan Watters remembers the “moral panic” the movement incited some 30-odd years ago ─ “a time when therapists proudly advertised their ability to help clients unearth supposedly repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse; the accusations that followed shattered families and communities across the country.” It was a “catastrophic misadventure,” writes Watters, who coauthored a 1994 book about it.
How to help protect your mental health during a hurricane
Powerful storms like Hurricane Ian don’t wait until your house is flattened to dump on your mental health. Experts say the threat of flooding and property damage can create significant stress, particularly for people with a history of anxiety and depression.
WCCO talk radio posted a guide to protecting your mental health during a storm ─ yes, we, too, wish we’d known about it sooner ─ drawn from an earlier and more detailed story that the impressively prescient Tampa Bay Times published months ago. In short:
1. Get ready for the storm immediately. 2. Don’t obsessively check weather updates: Staying glued to the TV or refreshing social media feeds for the latest updates, even if you live far away, will only make you overthink a situation you cannot control. 3. Check on the kids: Young ones may not comprehend the danger as you do but they are having feelings of anxiety as well. You’ll feel better, too. 4. Reach out to a mental health professional: Crisis counselors man the federal Disaster Distress Helpline 24/7. Call or text 800-985-5990.
In other news …
“Building Your Bookish Mental Health Toolkit”: The bookish site Book Riot offers tips to prepare for a blue day, from making a list of your favorite books to taking notes on new additions (say, quotes you want to remember) and keeping them handy so you can get a quick boost without having to thumb the pages. The author doesn’t suggest any titles but recommends Book Riot guides to reading during mental health challenges, mental health nonfiction for teens and mental health memoirs. Check out the MindSite News Review of Books for more.
A combined set of psychological factors like loneliness and feeling unhappy can cause you to age faster than being widowed or a current smoker, The Hill reports. The study behind the story confirmed that physical illnesses like lung and liver disease influence the pace of aging more than the psychological, social and behavioral variables analyzed.
Three of Oregon’s largest health systems are suing the state over its alleged lack of adequate mental health care, which they say has forced hospitals to house patients in need of such care for months, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, Oregon’s Medicaid program will become the first in the nation to cover climate change-related expenses for specific health conditions (no mental conditions so far) affecting certain low-income patients, starting in 2024.
Oklahoma’s GOP-led legislature passed and sent to Gov. Kevin Stitt a bill that would appropriate over $100 million in federal stimulus funds ─ earmarked, in part, to build a new pediatric mental and behavioral health facility ─ to the University of Oklahoma health system on the condition that none of its medical facilities offer “gender reassignment medical treatment” to children, The Oklahoman reports. Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the governor did not directly mention the health system but said that “Governor Stitt adamantly opposes irreversible surgeries that mutilate, sterilize or otherwise harm healthy children.”
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.
Recent MindSite News Stories
New Kaiser Report: The Pandemic Hammered our Mental Health –Especially People of Color
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a steep toll on the mental health of many people but have struck hardest at communities of color. A new analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation makes this clear.
MindSite News Psychedelics and Mental Health Live Conversation Series
MindSite News—the only news site dedicated exclusively to reporting on mental health in America—is launching a live public conversation series that will take place throughout the month of October to engage the public in conversations about psychedelics and mental health. Today at 10 am PST: part 1 with author and journalist Michael Pollan. Continue reading…
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