May 23, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday morning, MindSite News readers. In today’s newsletter, we look at a scary story about drug dealers using social media channels to market fentanyl-laced knockoff pills posing as well-known painkillers, ADHD or anxiety drugs. We also bring you stories about a bipartisan effort to improve mental health services and the growing push to write prescriptions for people to get out in nature. Plus 13 mental health influencers that may help brighten your day or alter your perspective.


Fentanyl’s deadly rise, powered by social media

Twitter post

It’s no secret that drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years – doubling from 2015 to 2021 – because of  fentanyl, the cheap, deadly synthetic opioid. So how did fentanyl spread so fast? One big answer, the New York Times found, is social media, where real-looking pills labeled Percocet and oxycodone are promoted to teenagers and young adults who often have no idea that they are counterfeits laced with fentanyl. “Social media is almost exclusively the way they get the pills,” said Morgan Gire, district attorney for California’s Placer County. The pills are crudely manufactured by Mexican cartels using chemicals from China and India. Drug Enforcement Administration scientists estimate that about 40 percent of the pills contain enough fentanyl to kill.

In a parallel to dealers’ use of pagers and burner phones to conduct business covertly in the 1980s and ’90s, suppliers now are turning to social media and messaging apps with privacy features like encrypted or disappearing messages. Buyers and dealers find each other on social media, then move to direct messaging to pursue a sale. “There are drug sellers on every major social media platform — that includes Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, TikTok and emerging platforms like Discord and Telegram,” said Tim Mackey, a UC-San Diego, professor.

The DEA is attempting to counter the trend with a public awareness campaign that includes decoding emojis used as signals by drug dealers. The Ad Council recently announced a campaign funded by Snap, Meta and Google. Still, software that detects illicit online drug trafficking is finding 100,000 new accounts a month. “As long as your child is on one of those platforms, they’re going to have the potential to be exposed to drug sellers,” Mackey says.


Red senator, blue senator join forces to improve mental health

Image: Shutterstock

Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut don’t agree on much politically, but their shared passion for upgrading the nation’s mental health system brought them together in 2016 to write the Mental Health Reform Act – and now to improve and reauthorize it before it expires in September.  

In an interview with NPR, the senators discussed how they got together: Murphy heard Cassidy was walking around with a dog-eared copy of the book Crazy by journalist and mental health advocate Pete Earley. The unlikely partners have a few goals. They want to boost funding for a program that allows pediatricians to consult with mental health providers via telehealth while a child is in the room. Each had a pandemic moment of clarity about the depth of the nation’s mental health crisis. Murphy’s was realizing how many kids needed professional help when they were returning to school. Cassidy’s came when annual drug overdose deaths topped 100,000.


Why self-care alone won’t cut it

Self-care and even professional therapy aren’t enough to address everyone’s mental health problems, writes Alice Boyes in a clear-eyed blog in Psychology Today. The clinical psychologist turned author (Stress-Free Creativity, The Anxiety Toolkit) offers four big suggestions:

1) Workplaces need real accommodations, understanding and change – as opposed to nice words about diversity and inclusion –to help employees who struggle with their mental health.

2) Therapists need to acknowledge the limitations and imperfections of current treatments – and not rely on the techniques they’re used to if they’re not working.

3) As a culture, we must move beyond clichéd paradigms – like hard work equals success and stress be damned – to find creative solutions that may well require defiance and dissent.

4) We need to go beyond talking about mental health – which has become palatable and feel-good, especially in corporate workplaces – and talk about mental illness, which terrifies many people but is real. Boyes bristles when she observes that one of the few times the media does discuss mental illness is when “labeling white, male murderers as mentally ill, whenever a mass shooting happens. No, mental illness doesn’t cause this. Imagine how it feels to those with a mental illness to have it represented this way, over and over.”


Suicidal military members face long wait for help

Sailors who are thinking about suicide must wait five to six weeks, on average, to get an appointment with a mental health provider, the Navy’s top enlisted leader told a House Appropriations panel, Stars and Stripes reported. And NBC News found that one reason Navy desertions more than doubled in two years is because panicked sailors fear the service won’t provide adequate mental health treatment yet also won’t release them from enlistment contracts so they can get help at home.


In other news …

There’s growing interest in so-called nature prescriptions but scant research for physicians to rely on. MDLinx offers background on a topic that wasn’t covered in medical school: how health care providers can write prescriptions for their patients to go to parks and other healing natural places. An organization called Park Rx America has gathered research to back up the idea.

The University of Chicago and its undergraduate student government jointly created a Mental Health Fund, initially financed with $100,000 from the school, that seeks to support “student-led projects aimed at improving students’ mental health and wellbeing on campus,” according to the Chicago Maroon, an independent student newspaper.

Testimony in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial has horrified and transfixed many of us, but people with borderline personality disorder – her diagnosis, according to his expert witness psychologist – have been unsettled by the social media coverage and worry it will further stigmatize those with the condition, HuffPost reported.

13 mental health influencers that bring a little sunshine to your day. To help sort through the emotional chaos of work, romance, trauma and grief, Healthline offers up a baker’s dozen: 13 mental health advocates and influencers, many of them professionals, who post positive and supportive messages – and lead serious discussions – aimed at calming your mind and brightening your day.


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.


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Don Sapatkin

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...