Monday, December 12, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday morning! The Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year is Goblin mode ─ a choice (by readers) that according to Verywell Health says a lot about the current state of our mental health. Other news in today’s Daily: A Southern California county declares a public health crisis over racial and ethnic inequity. Researchers find the strongest evidence yet linking microbes in the gut to depression. And Russian soldiers returning from Ukraine are out of luck when it comes to one of their most critical needs: mental health treatment.

We start with a new feature by MindSite News culture writer Sarah Henry about a documentary on Selena Gomez and her effort to share her mental health struggles and encourage others to get the help they need.


In the Limelight, Selena Gomez Grapples With Bipolar Disorder

The celebrity mental health screen saga is officially a thing. Jonah Hill and Demi Lovato aren’t the only Hollywood stars recently revealing their most personal mental health challenges on the screen. Actor and singing superstar Selena Gomez follows suit in the unsparing Apple TV+ documentary, “Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me.”  Continue reading…

Orange County declares racism a public health crisis and 911 dispatchers learn to filter out bias

911 dispatchers in Montreal are getting trained in detecting and preventing callers’ biases or racist stereotypes from filtering through calls into the police response. And leaders of Orange County, Calif. – for generations the North Star of Reagan-style conservatism – declared a public health crisis due to racism and societal inequity, joining some 200 cities, counties and states that have taken similar steps.

Via Twitter

Orange County was nearly all white and a center of limited-government Republicanism for a very long time. Now the population is 34% Latino and 23% Asian, and Democrats won a majority on the Board of Supervisors last month for the first time since 1980. In unanimously adopting the resolution declaring racism and inequity a public health crisis, the supervisors cited a recent spike in race-based attacks and violence as well as studies that tie racism to poorer health outcomes among people of color, the Orange County Register reported.

The declaration is intended to support several goals, including educating the public about “systemic inequities from a health and human services perspective.” As if to drive the point home, hecklers in the already rowdy audience booed and yelled epithets as the board’s chair, Vietnam-born Andew Do, described how bottles and other objects have been thrown at him many times while he was out running. Do fired back: “Really? ‘Go back to China,’ and you think racism is dead?”

In Montreal, a CBC reporter sat in on a training as dispatchers grappled with a real-world scenario: What to do if someone calls about a group of young Black men in a park and says they are affiliated with street gangs. Some said the information might be pertinent to pass on to the police. Their philosophy was that 911 operators should give police every piece of information the caller delivers, which could help protect officers if they are heading into a dangerous situation.

Their coach, a former neighborhood patrol officer, said that while he sympathized with the desire to protect officers, a different approach might be better. For example, he said, the use of the term street gangs should be questioned. The caller may have no evidence or basis for assuming the men are part of a gang, in which case it may be a biased assumption ─ and if transferred unquestioningly onto police, could prompt a charged response. “The important thing,” he said, “is that the dispatch is able to give us observable facts so that we can work in an objective way.”

More support for the gut-brain connection

Image: Shutterstock

Once seen as a fringe idea, the idea of a connection between microbes in the gut and depression has been bolstered by two new studies, The Wall Street Journal reports. Trillions of microorganisms live in the digestive tract, including bacteria, fungi and yeast. A burgeoning body of research has found links to diseases like obesity, arthritis, diabetes and several cancers, as well as mental illnesses.

The new studies, both conducted in the Netherlands and published in Nature Communications, are the largest so far to find a potential association between gut microbiota and mental health. They could not show cause and effect – or how, exactly, such a relationship works – although depression is known to cause unhealthy eating, which can lead to changes in the gut microbiome. Scientists are exploring whether some gut bacteria produce or consume mood-regulating chemicals, such as serotonin, or chemicals that cause inflammation in the body, which can lead to changes in the gut microbiome. The authors of the latest research said some bacteria associated with depression are known to produce substances that are believed to improve peoples’ moods.

The studies ─ one with about 1,000 participants and the other involving more than 3,000 people from different ethnic groups ─ screened people not on anti-depressants for depressive symptoms and tested stool samples to assess the mix of microorganisms in their gut. More depressive symptoms were associated with higher levels of bacteria such as those in the family Lachnospiraceae and the genus Eggerthell. Lower levels of other bacteria, including in the family Ruminococcaceae, were also linked to depression. The researchers called their findings a preliminary step toward identifying biological indicators and therapies for depression.

Traumatized Russian soldiers can expect little help back home

The Pentagon and VA have long come under criticism for their failures to deal with high rates of suicide and serious mental health issues among members of the military. But imagine the plight of Russian soldiers returning home from Ukraine. No centralized rehabilitation programs serve veterans of military conflicts in Russia. Those who served in combat in Ukraine are left largely to their own devices, so private organizations try to fill the void and provide support for those needing help. “No one tests veterans for psychological trauma,” a representative of a grassroots group called War Veterans told the Washington Post.

Indeed, the country’s failed mental health care system is no better equipped to help traumatized veterans returning from Ukraine than it was after two costly showdowns in Chechnya in the 1990s and 2000s, or when the USSR’s Afghanistan disaster ended in 1989. Alya, the daughter of a Russian solider, remembers all too well how her how her father acted when her returned from Afghanistan to his hometown in Siberia.

He drank himself into oblivion, beat his wife and tormented his three children. He confused them with the enemy during flashbacks, “screaming that he was going to kill us all,” his daughter said. The entire family was left with long-term trauma and only realized later in life that Vladimir was dealing with a severe case of PTSD, Alya said. As traumatized soldiers return from Ukraine in greater numbers, she said, “there will be thousands of men just like my father and it won’t be safe either for them and for us.” Already, there have been numerous incidents of soldiers back from Ukraine engaging in violent altercations and domestic violence, sometimes publicly.

Meanwhile, Ukraine endorsed a roadmap to provide psychosocial support to Ukrainian soldiers and civilians during and after the war put together with support from the World Health Organization, according to a WHO press release. It lays out a plan to provide mental health and psychosocial support to veterans and their families, internally displaced people, those with disabilities, those who have experienced gender-based violence and people who have suffered from landmines.

In other news … 

Outpatient mental health treatment saves money, study shows. Some 23% of people in the U.S. have a behavioral health condition and for them, overall medical costs are three to six times greater than those without one. Providing outpatient behavioral health treatment for patients when they are first diagnosed saved 17% in medical and pharmacy costs over the next 15 months, according to a study in JAMA Network Open of pre-pandemic commercial insurance claims for over 200,000 people. The study compared costs for patients who had one or more in-person visits to those who received no outpatient treatment or behavioral medication, Medscape reported. More than one in five patients had both medical and mental health conditions and the savings spanned both areas of treatment.

After steep rises in every category of self-reported mental health disorders from 2020 to 2021, psychologists reported a slight decrease this year in patients seeking treatment for four of seven mental health conditions, including the two most common – anxiety and depression. There was a small increase in others, including disorders related to trauma, stress, substance use and addiction, according to an American Psychological Association survey of  2,295 psychologists. The biggest reported increase in demand came among adolescents, adults under 25 and kids under 13.

Texas began building a new state psychiatric hospital in Dallas last week with 200 adult beds and an expected 96-bed children’s wing, Fox4/KDFW reported. Some of the adult beds will go to inmates deemed incompetent to stand trial, including hundreds in the  Dallas County jail. Texas was ranked dead last on access to mental health care in Mental Health America’s 2022 annual report on the states.

“A world gone mad: Schizophrenia and a journey through California’s failed mental health system is the apt headline on a Los Angeles Times story that chronicled Anthony Mazzuca’s life over the last decade. A new law, hailed as a major transformation in how the state addresses mental illness, promises to mandate treatment and housing for people like Mazzuca, who are unable to care for themselves. But his story makes clear just how difficult it will be to end the epidemic of mental illness on the streets.

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 SapatkinReporter

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...