December 28, 2021

Good morning! Here are some stories that intrigued us on this holiday week. Athletes who went public about their mental health this year: Can you remember them all? The battle to address despair and mental illness in South Los Angeles. And an English teen makes personalized mental health care packages (like one containing toothpaste for a girl who’d lost the motivation to brush). Plus more.


A teen who’s known despair creates care packages for others in need

Photo: Shutterstock

“I just want young people to know they are loved, there is hope and things will get better,” Lara Tang told the BBC, explaining why she has been making free mental health care packages to support struggling young people. Tang, 19, said she had anxiety and depression as a result of bullying at school. “I was lonely and felt like no one cared,” she said. She stuffs up to 11 items in each package and takes requests – more than 200 so far. One came from a 17-year-old girl from Ireland who attempted suicide and was desperate for support. Tang responded with a box that included toothpaste “because I struggled to have motivation to brush my teeth,” said the girl, who the BBC identified as Hanna. “Her package made me feel so unbelievably loved and cared for in a time where I didn’t see light in my life.”

A tale of two Americas – in the nation’s most populous county

Photo: Shutterstock

To understand what it’s like to be black or brown and struggling to keep your mind clear in America’s inner cities, take a walk through Compton, Calif. with Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo and photographer Francine Orr, meeting people along the way. There’s Sergio Nuño, a community college student living with his parents and struggling with depression and anxiety. The only therapists his parents, from Jalisco, Mexico, ever saw were on TV and there, “going to one, branded you as crazy,” Mozingo writes.

Mental health conditions often go untreated in Compton and nearby South LA, accompanied by poverty, homelessness, addiction, chronic disease, childhood trauma and disability. Mental health workers fear that Covid-19 accelerated the spiral. Medicaid covers some treatment but first you need a provider.

“There’s two different Americas in mental health,” said P.K. Fonsworth, a bilingual addiction psychiatrist at a community hospital nearby. The chasm is easily measurable: Santa Monica, just 20 miles away, has 361 licensed psychologists for 90,000 residents; Compton has five for 97,000. “What I see in South L.A. is unfathomable,” said Dr. Fonsworth, who likened much of his work to treating “end-stage organ damage” because the preventive care never happened.

The year the world truly learned that athletes get depressed too

Simone Biles at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Photo: Shutterstock

2021 was the year that athletes came out about their mental health, the Associated Press reports. Simone Biles’s struggles at the summer games in Tokyo became a TV drama as the seven-time Olympic medalist grappled with whether to pull out. Two months earlier, it was tennis champion Naomi Osaka battling depression and withdrawing from the French Open to preserve her mental health. “It’s OK to not be OK,” she said. Athletes of late have become more public about mental health issues but these admissions by two of the world’s best took the discussion to another level.

In just the last three months: Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley skipped play “to focus on my mental well-being.” Receiver A.J. Brown of the Tennessee Titans posted a video on the one-year anniversary of the day he considered suicide. And Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson missed three games to focus on his depression and anxiety. “I was living in hell for a long time,” he said. “Don’t bottle it up.”

The New York Times also counted athletes’ struggles and mental health issues as among the most important debates of the year in a collection of essays that included such headlines as “Is Instagram harming teenage girls?” and “What a hermit and a group psychologist can tell us about Covid, Jan. 6 and the rest of 2021.”

Mental health crisis teams have been rolling in Canada for years

Debates over how to allocate police and mental health resources in the U.S. often seem to degenerate into partisan food fights. Canada may be different. Most municipalities north of the border already pair mental health workers with police officers on certain 911 calls, CBC radio reports. Nearly 90 percent of Ontario Provincial Police detachments have mobile crisis teams.

In Hamilton, Ontario, three units on staggered shifts respond to nearly 2,700 people in crisis a year. Far fewer people are taken into custody than before the program started in 2013. Sarah Burtenshaw, a mental health worker based at a local hospital, has access to confidential medical records that help explain issues like lapsed medication. She  responds to a full range of calls. “It might be as horrible as somebody up on a bridge threatening to jump,” she said. “It might be somebody saying, ‘Listen, I’m really worried about my mom. She’s not answering the door. Can you do a wellness check?'” Sometimes, she gets them a cup of coffee.

A Pennsylvania high school struggles to take care of its kids

Tension hangs in the air at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa. – as it has since the school brought its 2,800 students back to physical classrooms in August. “It’s like there’s a bomb somewhere. And you’re just hoping no one lights a match,” Principal Harrison Bailey III told a visiting New York Times reporter. “People don’t know how to communicate anymore,” said Jazlyn Korpics, 18, a senior. “Everybody’s a robot now — their minds are warped.”

The pandemic triggered simultaneous academic, health and societal crises, and the effects – in rising rates of depression and suicide attempts — are apparent at schools and among young people around the country. Administrators like Bailey are now bracing for what they’ll encounter when schools reopen after a winter holiday marked by surging Omicron infections.

When Liberty High reopened in August, students grappling with anxiety and depression overwhelmed the wellness center. The center, with soothing wall colors and bean bag chairs  to go with its therapists, may be the cheeriest place in the school. It was built a year and a half ago as part of Bailey’s plan to make Liberty a “trauma-informed school.” Back then, the pandemic hadn’t begun and the district was thinking that the center could become a model to address mental health crises at schools around the state.

In other news:

The downsides of digital surveillance in schools should give parents pause, Minerva Canto writes in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed. Monitoring devices to gauge students’ mental well-being or viewing of porn can distress kids called in for infractions and may open the door to law enforcement.

“Burn Rate: Launching a Startup and Losing My Mind” by Andy Dunn, the millionaire cofounder of Bonobos, is one of Forbes’ 10 Must-Read Career and Leadership Books. Dunn was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and his memoir, available May 10, explores the challenges faced by entrepreneurs with mental illness.

A 988 mental health crisis line will be in place in New York by summer under a new law signed by Governor Kathy Hochul, the Daily Freeman reports. Advocates thanked the governor – but called on her and the legislature to fund a robust crisis response system. “We cannot achieve the promise of this landmark step forward if sufficient funding is not included in the upcoming 2022-23 budget,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the state mental health association. States have until July 16 to meet the requirements of the National Suicide Designation Act of 2020.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors declared a public health emergency to fight an  epidemic of fentanyl-related deaths in the Tenderloin neighborhood following a 10-hour debate that highlighted concerns it would be used to criminalize people who are homeless or addicted to drugs, the Associated Press reported.

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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Did a Rap Song Cut Suicide Rates?

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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...