November 18, 2021

Hello, MindSite News Daily Readers. In today’s newsletter, you’ll read how psychologists are mixing mindfulness and traditional practices to loosen the grip of “Gaza trauma.” You’ll also learn what data from 8 million calls around the world during the pandemic reveals about our inner struggles and find out what TikTok proposes to do to beef up its protection of teens’ mental health.

TikTok promises platform changes to protect teens’ mental health

Credit: New Africa/Shutterstock

Tik Tok has been castigated recently for user posts that encourage teens to participate in antisocial, illegal challenges, such as vandalizing and stealing property from bathrooms at school. Now some teens have been frightened by hoax warnings about alleged challenges that ask users to harm themselves, including one involving a sinister woman named “Momo” who runs a game that ends in suicide.

There is no evidence that children or teens are participating in the Momo challenge or that it even exists, but the rumor that her demonic game can pop up on innocuous feeds has fueled fear among users, as have other online hoaxes. A new survey of 10,000 teens, parents and teachers by TikTok found that 31% of teens exposed to hoax challenges said the experience had a negative impact on them, and of those, 61% said it affected their mental health. However, only 46% sought help or support.

The social media giant has been under fire for some time for not making more efforts to protect teens from risky activities on the platform. Most recently, TikTok executives were among the social media leaders excoriated in a Congressional hearing for not doing more to protect the mental health of teens. TikTok representatives said it will step up its monitoring and remove “alarmist warnings of hoaxes” that spread disinformation.  

Using Deep Breathing to Control ‘Gaza Trauma’

Last May a missile from an Israeli airstrike struck the edge of a building where 15-year-old Sama Ahel and her family lived. Ahel and her family crouched next to a metal dumpster as explosions went off around them. An ambulance picked the family up and Ahel’s father, Ismael Ahel, a psychologist, led his family through a deep-breathing exercise. The rationale behind the exercise was to bring him and his family members out of a state of shock into the present moment, according to a story on National Public Radio

After the elder Ahel returned to the building, he and fellow therapists checked in on all 120 units, referring some residents to therapy and teaching the breathing and movement exercises to others. Treating Gazans was hard, he told NPR, because “Gaza trauma” – as he and his colleagues refer to it – involves suffering one trauma after another during the 15 years of war between Israel and the Palestinean political party Hamas, which rules Gaza. About half of the population of 2 million is under 18, and this year the United Nations provided summer camp and therapy for about 150,000 children. For youngsters with walking problems as a result of trauma, counselors used a traditional approach to healing with an olive oil massage that translates into English as “cutting the fear.” 

Like Ahel’s breathing exercise, which is geared to redirect attention, psychologist Yasser Abu Jamei, director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, offers advice to parents on how to best help their shell-shocked children. “Sometimes the best thing which you can give the family is to make them identify their strength points in their life,” he said. “A strength point could be that you survived. A strength point could be that your home is still there. A strength point could be that your school is a good one.”

Medical residents’ mental health better than the previous generation’s

Ask any doctor about their first year of residency and you’ll likely be regaled with tales of 24-hour work shifts, raging stress and exhaustion. And indeed, research shows a high prevalence of depression among medical residents. Now a new study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine suggests it’s getting better, according to a HealthDay News story. The study of first-year residents found an overall increase in depressive symptoms in 2019, but that figure was still nearly 25% less than what their peers experienced in 2007. “Our findings suggest there has been some real improvement,” said University of Michigan Medical School Professor Srijan Sen, one of the authors of the study, which tracked 17,000 first-year residents between 2007 and 2019. 

What made the difference? A change in medical culture is likely one explanation, according to researchers. Compared to 2007, residents were working a bit less, sleeping a bit more, and rated the quality of interactions with senior doctors more highly. Perhaps most important, residents who needed mental health support for depression were actually seeking help and getting it. Some 38% reached out to therapists for support, compared to only 14% of their peers in 2007. “There may be less stigma about seeking care now, which is great to see,” said Sen.

People who exercised, spent time outside during pandemic had better mental health 

Photo: Shutterstock

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdown took different forms: Britons were allowed one outdoor workout a day. Turks could only leave the house to pick up groceries and basic necessities. In the United States, few states put restrictions on spending time outdoors. Researchers at Kaiser Permanente wanted to find out what impact exercise and being outside had on mental health during the pandemic.

After surveying 20,000 members of their health plan in Northern and Southern California, Hawaii, Colorado, Georgia  and in mid-Atlantic states, Kaiser researchers reported their findings: Physical activity and time spent outdoors during the pandemic were linked to better mental health and lower levels of depression and anxiety, according to an article on Those who did no exercise at all and didn’t go out during the lockdown had – no big surprise – the highest scores for depression and anxiety. “The data is very clear that the mind and the brain are healthier when we spend more time” in nature and outdoors in general,” said David Merrill, director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

Helpline data from 8 million calls reveals pandemic’s effects on mental health

In one of the largest global studies of how the pandemic has affected mental health, researchers found a 35% increase in crisis helpline calls during the first six weeks of the pandemic, with most people calling because they were anxious and lonely, according to a news article accompanying the study in the journal Nature. Rigorous lockdowns drove up suicide-related calls in France and Germany, but those calls waned after government financial assistance and work furloughs kicked in.

The team collected data from 19 countries, including China, the United States, Lebanon and 14 countries in Europe. Since the results are correlative, the researchers said, it’s hard to know whether financial assistance in France and Germany was the reason that suicide-related calls dropped. The data “signals” from helplines, however, allows researchers to better track mental health changes in real time. “We don’t really have a great way of monitoring mental health,” said Cindy Liu, a clinical psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and author of a commentary published with the paper. “And I think sometimes mental health gets the shaft as a result. People don’t know if the policies are really making a difference.”

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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Laurie Udesky reports on mental health, social welfare, health equity and public policy issues from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area.