December 23, 2021

Good morning MindSite News Readers, and happy holidays. In today’s newsletter you’ll read about a new California law that diverts domestic violence crisis calls away from police and directs them to trained community responders. You’ll also hear about the worsening mental health crisis at colleges and universities and how peer counselors in high school are helping fellow students through hard times. Plus: Need therapy? Meet your wolf. 

Can running with wolves be therapeutic? A California nonprofit thinks so

Image: eihypnotic/Shutterstock

Children who were brought up on The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which involves a rural town terrorized by a pack of wolves, might be surprised to learn that trained wolves are now being offered as a form of mental health therapy, according to a story in LAist. A nonprofit called Wolf Connection, based in Palmdale, California, pairs up wolves and a handler with war veterans, troubled children and firefighters to help them work through trauma during weekly hikes and interactions over a two-month period. The program has contracts with L.A. County departments of veteran affairs, social services and mental health, among other organizations. Claremont Graduate University studied young program participants who’d been expelled from school and found that none of the students who came to Wolf Connection over a 10-year period were expelled again, the group’s founder, Teo Alfero, told LAist.

One student, Edward Amaya, found the sessions so gratifying that he now works there. “The work that’s done here, the healing that can occur for people who have suffered trauma, is unparalleled in terms of its impact,” said Jonathan Sherin, MD, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. “We too often want to find people that have suffered trauma and find out how to medicate them … And that’s not the only solution.” 

As COVID surge hits college campuses, worry over mental health crisis looms

During finals early this December, an anonymous letter found in the men’s bathroom at West Virginia University warned that the writer would kill himself near the student union on December 6. The administration – which has already dealt with two student suicides since the pandemic began – swiftly posted a campus-wide alert on the university website pleading with the letter’s author to get help. The threat wasn’t carried out, but it underscores a crisis in student mental health at WVU and other universities and colleges around the country, where students are struggling with isolation, depression, and, in some colleges, an upsurge in suicides, according to an article in The New York Times. 

After two years of disrupted social connections and a resurging pandemic, demand for mental health support had already exploded – and now a resurgence of cases driven by Omicron are adding to the unsettled mood. Students at WVU, Saint Louis University, and others are campaigning for more funding for mental health initiatives. And at Yale, where a first-year student, Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, died by suicide last April, her family, friends and alumni are pushing for the university to change its mental health policies. Her mother, Pamela Shaw, told the Yale Daily News she had tried to convince her daughter to take a year off of college until the pandemic waned. “This is not what college is like,” she reassured her daughter. But, she said, Rachael was unable to recognize that “this is just a blip in time.”

New California law provides alternative for people afraid to call police about domestic violence

California is poised to become the first state to divert emergency domestic violence calls away from police, according to an article in witnessLA, a nonprofit news site focused on criminal justice. The new policy, signed into law this October, is part of legislation that will fund pilot programs using mental health professionals and trained members of community-based organizations rather than police to respond to mental health crisis calls – including those involving domestic violence. Grants of at least $250,000 over three years will be awarded by January 2023 to selected community nonprofits to work in crisis response and prevention along with a local government agency. “It’s the biggest investment in alternative responses that the state has ever seen,” said Cat Brooks, executive director of the Justice Teams Network, which pushed for the bill’s passage. 

To ensure that the pilot programs work, advocates want to make sure that domestic violence survivors help shape what those calls sound and feel like. Many women who have experienced domestic violence have found themselves being interrogated or even arrested by police officers responding to 911 calls. Aylaliyah Assefa, a domestic violence survivor, wishes that when she had called for help, the person answering the phone had known how to have a conversation rather than jumping into interrogation mode. “The first thing we want is a safe haven away from the hurt…not further criminalization on top of what we’ve been through,” she said.

Teens step in to help fellow students with stress and mental health struggles

Three days a week, Kelly Zamudio works with a partner offering peer counseling to classmates at Garey High School in Pomona, California. Students sign up at the school’s Wellness Center when they need help dealing with emotional landmines ranging from break-ups to conflicts at home. “They don’t know anything about me, but the fact that they can confide in me and be vulnerable with me takes some weight off their shoulders,” Zamudio, 18, told the Los Angeles Times. She’s one of 50 peer counselors at the school, one of several in Pomona that have been training students to provide peer counseling since the 1970s and 1980s. The four-month training includes empathetic listening, restorative justice practices, de-escalation and coping skills. 

Peer counselors are also trained to recognize when their peers need more than just a sympathetic ear. The meetings are confidential unless students let on that they want to harm themselves or others – something that triggers an immediate referral to the district’s mental health team. At Garey High, there are about two referrals each week. For students nationwide, peer counseling offers a lifeline – especially since, on average, U.S. schools have one counselor for every 424 students, far higher than the recommended ratio of one counselor per 250 students. For Angela Perez, 16, peer counselors were a place to turn for comfort when she was experiencing panic attacks at school and suffering because her parents rejected her queer identity. “In peer counseling, I can talk however I want because I’m with another teenager,” she told the Times. “I know they’ll get it.”

Advocates wary of SF mayor’s state-of-emergency declaration for Tenderloin neighborhood

Tenderloin street scene, 2018. Photo: David Tran/Shutterstock

San Francisco Mayor London Breed is increasing policing in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that includes some of the city’s most vulnerable residents: those who are unhoused and struggling with mental illness and addiction. The emergency declaration will enable the city to cut through bureaucracy to bring in more police and social services into the Tenderloin, where many of the city’s two fentanyl overdoses a day occur. Breed contends that the area has also seen an uptick in criminal activity. “I know that San Francisco is a compassionate city,” she said in an article in USA Today. “We are a city that prides ourselves on second chances and rehabilitation. But we’re not a city where anything goes. Our compassion should not be mistaken for weakness and indifference.”

Advocates said Breed’s move is misguided. “Expanding policing does nothing to make unhoused people safer, and only contributes to their instability and poor public health outcomes,” the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness said in a statement. “The tried and failed strategy of addressing socioeconomic problems with punishment will only lead to more harm and suffering on our streets.” The group is calling for the use of  unarmed civilians to respond to mental health and substance use crises on the streets and to expand access to mental health systems in the community.  

In the US, if you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re a veteran, press 1.

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