August 8, 2022

By Don Sapatkin

Good Monday morning! Today’s MindSite News Daily tells the hallucinogenic backstory of Go Ask Alice. We share the atrocious experience of a 15-year-old boy stuck in the abusive Texas juvenile justice system, and why many experts oppose screening for a genetic risk of mental illness in embryos produced by IVF. And then there’s the sandwich shop that named a three-foot-long sub “Anorexic.”

Controversial 1970s “diary” Go Ask Alice yields more secrets

Credit: Twitter

Remember Go Ask Alice?

The ostensible 1971 diary of a promising 15-year-old’s harrowing descent into addiction, a book that shocked a generation, borrowed its title from Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 classic “White Rabbit“ (“Go ask Alice / When she’s ten feet tall”), which itself drew on imagery from Lewis Carroll’s 19th century Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass ─ all of them major cultural influences. 

Go Ask Alice, a cautionary tale about using illicit substances, was published at the height of the War on Drugs, a time when insight into mental health issues was limited and topics like adolescent depression were hardly mentioned even in scientific research. Its descriptions went largely unchallenged at the time. Widely acclaimed but banned by schools for its profanity and graphic descriptions of sex, drugs and mental health struggles, it sold more than 5 million copies and remains a best-seller in some categories for children and teens. 

The book was later found to be a ploy: a fake diary whose anonymous author turned out to be a 54-year-old Mormon youth counselor. Now, according to a fascinating writeup by  writer Maya Davis in WebMD, a new exposé by radio personality Rick Emerson titled Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries details what led Beatrice Sparks to write the book a half-century ago, and how its impact lives on today. 

“While Alice from Go Ask Alice has not existed in either [era], comparing the two periods can offer insight into teens’ struggles in the 1970s vs. today and sheds light on how literature – fiction or faked fiction – can transform a nation,” concludes Davis. 

YouTube video

Fed-up Kaiser mental health workers prepare to strike

Credit: National Union of Healthcare Workers

Kaiser Permanente, the giant California-based health provider and insurer, has been criticized for years over deficiencies in its behavioral health services such as wait times that reportedly have reached four to eight weeks between appointments. The state announced an unusual survey in response to the latest complaints in May, two weeks after a damning article by Capital & Main. Then came this headline on the same news site: Therapists Flee Kaiser as Mental Health Patients Languish.

Now, CalMatters reports, a union representing 2,000 Kaiser mental health workers in Northern California has announced an open-ended strike for next Monday. The National Union of Healthcare Workers framed the labor action as a move by outraged psychologists, therapists, addiction counselors and social workers to force the HMO to provide  behavioral health care on par with its medical and surgical care, an inequity found throughout the insurance industry

Union members, who have been working without a contract for nearly a year, voted to authorize a strike in June. This prompted a Kaiser spokeswoman to label the latest threat as “sadly, a bargaining tactic this union has used every time it has bargained a new contract.” The union has held brief walk-outs in the past, but this is the first time it has approved an open-ended strike.

“I had to do this just to show them”

Credit: Twitter

A 15-year-old boy named Keith, held since he was 11 by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, began cutting himself during the pandemic when face-to-face visits with his mom were canceled and the staff denied his requests for Facetime calls with her. He regularly inserts bits of metal, glass and wood into his urethra. He has been hospitalized and received surgery 12 times, with the medical bills passed on to his mother. He has returned each time to state facilities, where the cycle repeats. 

Keith, like many traumatized Texas teens with mental disorders, is kept in isolation most of the time.The only way for the children to get out of their rooms is to create a crisis, according to a Texas Tribune article and investigation into isolation, abuse and other horrifying conditions at the extremely underfunded agency. “I done it because even if you talk to [the staff], it’s like they don’t realize what I really want. So I had to do this just to show them,” Keith said, explaining that he hurt himself because he missed his mom and wanted to go home.

Following multiple federal and state investigations, department leaders, legislative analysts and advocates agree that things have reached a breaking point – youth self-harm has increased 78% over three years while the population decreased by 27%. However, they disagree on what to do about the agency, whose stated mission is “to provide a safe environment” where youth receive “individualized” education and treatment.

At the end of March, following three hospitalizations for inserting objects in his urethra during that month, Keith was transferred to a psychiatric hospital, where he started therapy and was able to attend school with three other teens. His self-harm stopped. In June, however, he opted to return to the juvenile justice facility despite his mother’s pleas. Although he is a minor, she told the Texas Tribune, the agency has allowed him to make the decision and she had no say. “My biggest fear is getting a phone call telling me my child is dead,” she said. “My phone rings and I’m terrified to answer because I’m afraid they’re going to tell me [Keith] didn’t make it this time.”

Screening embryos for future mental illness raises questions

With private companies starting to offer genetic screenings of embryos for adult mental health disorders as part of the in vitro fertilization process, the International Society of Psychiatric Disorders issued a cautionary advisory last year. It said that accuracy of the results are “currently not sufficient for clinical use” and that the results can be easily misinterpreted. The tests raise a host of ethical, legal and social issues, that advisory said, pointing out that psychiatric genetics has a history of misuse for eugenics.

Screening for diseases like sickle cell anemia that are caused by a single mutation is straightforward and precise. But the new screenings of embryos before implantation calculate the risk of developing complex conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression and many more non-psychiatric diseases that are caused ─ in part ─ by the “polygenic” interactions of hundreds or thousands of genes.

“We are concerned that these tests are being marketed with limited empirical data behind them and virtually no scientific or ethical discussion,” Todd Lencz, a professor at the Institute of Behavioral Science in New York, said in a Vanderbilt University press release last week. Lencz is the first of 18 authors of a commentary in The Lancet Psychiatry that expanded on the technical issues and possible unintended consequences.

In IVF, embryo screenings have traditionally been used to determine which embryos to implant and which to discard, and some physicians are worried that abortion opponents may increasingly define the latter procedure as an abortion. Infertility patients and doctors depend on IVF practices to produce a healthy embryo, and many fear restrictions on IVF in the wake of the Supreme Court decision eliminating the right to an abortion.

In other news…

Mental health experts are pushing back on suggestions that publishing graphic images of mass shootings would force lawmakers to do more to address gun violence, according to interviews conducted by Mic, a website that offers thought-provoking content for young people.

Women are increasingly using medical cannabis to alleviate symptoms caused by the hormonal changes associated with menopause, according to a survey published in Menopause that was covered by News-Medical.Net. Its efficacy for that purpose has not been studied.

A mental health study of Syrian children living in refugee camps that sought to identify what made some young survivors of war more resilient than others yielded findings that the senior author called both “definitely remarkable” and “deeply concerning”: only 20% met the study criteria for resilience, far less than the researchers had expected, according to a Newswise release from Queen Mary University of London  about the findings published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Psycho Riffic Sandwiches opened last month in Quincy, Illinois, with menu items like Psycho, Bipolar and Anorexic (a three-foot-long party sub). It quickly drew plenty of online criticism, to no one’s surprise but the owner’s. David Schoengood told McClatchy News that he wanted to raise awareness about mental health ─ and  quickly apologized and changed the names on the menu. He said he plans to donate a portion of the profits to local mental health awareness efforts.

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 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...