Tuesday, January 25, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Greetings, MindSite News readers. Today, we share an explainer on the importance of culturally responsive therapists. We look at the uneven push to provide mental health care for NFL players. And I share my thoughts on how gun violence keeps being blamed on the mentally ill, instead of politicians refusing to pass gun reform. Plus: Hollywood wonders if a film centered around mental health could ever win a Best Picture Oscar. And more.

My take: Keeping guns away from the identified mentally ill won’t stop mass shootings

In the past eight days, Californians have experienced four mass shootings, leaving dozens dead and untold more reeling from trauma. What’s to stop the horror? I believe major federal gun reform is the solution, and yet, in the face of US politics, a veritable fantasy. In an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle, Jason W. Park, who suffers from bipolar 1 disorder, proposed legislation to keep guns away from mentally ill people. “I could’ve been a mass shooter,” Park declares, ”but for “a lucky sliver of self-discernment on my part.” He argues that an ability to stop oneself is “a personality characteristic that the untreated mentally ill and unreformed convicted felons often do not have” – and why they should have no individual right to bear arms. 

The column is impassioned and well organized; I wish I could agree. Instead I’m left frustrated by yet another op-ed that passes off the US epidemic of gun violence as a problem created and perpetuated by crazy people. Frankly, I have a couple mental health diagnoses and none of them has ever prompted me to consider shooting anyone other than myself.

Park suggests establishing an “online onsite psychiatric evaluation capable of picking up a mental illness or signs of violent tendencies, for all prospective gun buyers.” But what algorithm will detect people who lie? Or keep guns out of the hands of teenagers who shoot their schoolmates with guns given to them by their parents. No, dropping this back into the laps of the mentally ill doesn’t sit well with me. It doesn’t fly with research either.

(To view a telling, and compelling, series of infographics on gun violence, go here.)

The Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions notes that although rates of mental illness in the US are similar to those in other nations, our country has much higher rates of gun violence. Moreover, epidemiological studies show that most people with mental illness are not violent. Past violent behavior, regardless of a mental health diagnosis, is a better predictor of future violence. In fact, mental illness is strongly associated with increased risk of suicide, suggesting that easy access to guns might put the mentally ill at greater risk to harming themselves. Simply put, gun reform solely focused on keeping guns away from folks with a mental health diagnosis will not end gun violence. It will, on the other hand, perpetuate fear and drive prejudice against the mentally ill, and potentially stop people from seeking much needed treatment due to the mental health stigma.

The sad truth is that mass shootings have become a way of life in this nation, a reality that we or our children may face at church, while picking up groceries, or even while learning to skip count alongside fellow first graders. Mass shootings are The American Way, at least until our elected leaders stop shifting blame onto the mentally ill and start treating gun violence like the national public health crisis it is.

The importance of culturally responsive therapists

If you’ve read our news roundup, you may have noticed the term “culturally-responsive therapy.” Ever wondered what that means? It’s more than just matching therapists and clients based on race. 

Culturally-responsive therapists are always learning, said Adriana Alejandre, who founded Latinx Therapy to destigmatize mental health in her community. Therapists with the same ethnic and racial background as the community they serve may understand that community’s culture and values, but no community is a monolith, and no two households are the same, Alejandro told the LA Times. Culturally-responsive therapists work to build trust in the client-therapist relationship, helping people to feel safe, seen and understood. That foundation is critical to therapeutic healing, said Meag-gan O’Reilly, a clinical psychologist and facilitator with the Black Emotional & Mental Health Collective. 

“If I have multiple situations with my therapist where they’re looking at me incredulously, don’t understand my worldview or why things are a struggle, I won’t be getting that human element of healing. And I won’t be able to trust their interventions,” O’Reilly said.

How can you find a culturally-responsive therapist? The Times suggests starting with culturally-specific mental health directories, like Latinx Therapy, Latinx Therapists Action Network, National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health), the Assn. of Black Psychologists, Inclusive Therapists, and Asian Mental Health Collective. Some places can connect undocumented people to free or low-cost culturally-responsive therapy, like Immigrant Rising’s Mental Health Connector.

Insured patients should search their provider’s networks to seek a good fit, Alejandro advised. Churches and religious groups sometimes partner with community organizations to provide low- or no-cost therapy; ask them for a list. Once you’ve settled on therapists you think might be good, ask them for a consultation to make sure. They usually run about 15 minutes and should be free. The Times article also offers a list of questions you can ask to screen for cultural competence.

The NFL mandated mental health care for players and employees – but consistency seen as lacking

In 2019, at the behest of the Players Association, the NFL rolled out a mental health and wellness program that requires each team to have a licensed mental health clinician on staff. But no standard defines what that means and there are vast inconsistencies.

Some teams have full-time sports psychologists, some have part time, and others simply contract with mental health providers on an “as-needed” basis. Providers aren’t required to have any sports background – “a critical flaw,” psychologist Sam Manier told Kaiser Health News.

Maniar, who consults for the Cleveland Browns, said professional sports require specialization, “and not every clinician being brought into the NFL has that.” Los Angeles Rams sports psychologist Carrie Hastings said her history as a college track & field athlete and extensive experience with other athletes enables her to build trust with elite competitors. “It’s often the case that a player comes in for something performance-related, and that opens up the door for conversations in other areas of mental health,” she said. “The relationship deepens.”

While some football players have opened up about their mental and emotional struggles, the NFL remains less amenable to such conversations. Football players are taught to be tough and that pain is part of the job. Powering through is expected. The recent on-field cardiac arrest suffered by Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin had a profound effect, and left some players traumatized. 

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few players retire early,” Maniar said. “A big concern is a player going out there and playing hesitantly or in fear. That is a sure way to get hurt in a sport like football, and this is a league where the contracts are not guaranteed. You’ve heard the saying ‘NFL means not for long.’ The players feel that pressure.”

In other news…

Are films centering mental illness too depressing to win Best Picture? This piece in the Hollywood Reporter asks that question. Though several of this year’s Oscar-nominated films feature lead characters struggling with mental illness, none are nominated for best picture.

In a story that sent shockwaves through the romantic literature community, the New York Times spoke with author Susan Meachen, who, in fall 2020, allowed her husband and daughter to tell the world that she was dead in an effort to protect her mental health. At the start of 2023 though, Meachen revealed to a community of bereaved readers that she was very much alive, in a better headspace, and ready to get back to writing. 

The Kitsap Sun reported that the January 18 death of a sailor assigned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt has been confirmed as suicide. This death follows the suicide of another sailor on December 5 and another before that – three on the same aircraft carrier in 18 months. The Navy has made chaplains, psychologists and counselors available to sailors for support and counseling. 

Temple University is adding $1 million to its mental health services budget, extending hours at the university counseling center, consolidating its mental health programming into one office, and expanding wellness programming to include employees. The university will also hire counselors to be stationed at its health sciences campus, in contrast to its previous practice of contracting external counselors. It’s the latest effort in Temple’s growing focus on mental wellness. Last fall, the school canceled classes to incentivize attendance at a university-wide “wellness day,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reports

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:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...