November 30, 2021

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And now onto today’s roundup of mental health news…

A young athlete trades football for psychology to heal trauma in the Black community

Photo: Shutterstock

Fellonte Misher was a football star in high school and college and went on to play in Europe. But his life took a turn when he attended a meeting on racial equity at an elementary school in Columbia Heights, a historically Black neighborhood of Washington DC, and the discussion turned to violence and trauma. One participant had found a gun on a school playground; another described the sounds of shootings. The talk triggered Misher’s own memories of violence: His hard-working father had been killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 5 years old, and he’d lost many others to gun violence, he told Washington Post columnist Theresa Vargas

That 2019 meeting, led by Sangeeta Prasad, a psychologist from George Washington University, changed Misher’s life path. He began meeting regularly with Prasad and LaToya Walker, a community-minded mother of nine, and the three decided to take action. Rather than trying to recruit outsiders to come to Columbia Heights and provide therapy, they started In the Streets, a Black-led nonprofit that works to heal generational trauma by “supporting, training, mentoring and hiring community members” to “provide services within their own community.” Misher became the group’s first employee and is also becoming a therapist himself. He is now enrolled in an online master’s program in social work at Simmons University in Boston. 

Chicago contract tracers get training to help them manage intense stress

Contact tracers make calls every day that are laden with fear and stress. These public health workers have the unenviable job of telling others they’ve tested positive or been exposed to an infectious disease like COVID-19 – and learn who they’ve been in contact with. On calls, people often cry or talk about the deaths of family members. “This job takes an emotional and psychological toll on our staff daily,” said Marla Blanton, a senior training specialist for Chicago’s Cook County Department of Public Health. To help, the department is providing mental health training to their contact tracers, the Chicago Tribune reports. 

The training, organized by a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, guides tracers on how to listen with empathy and offer support: If someone is crying, lead them through a breathing exercise. If you as a contact tracer feel overwhelmed, reach out for support and use techniques drawn from mindfulness meditation practice to stay calm and centered. “Don’t burn yourself out,” is the advice supervisor Gina Chapman gives her staff, encouraging them to walk around the block or take time off if they need to. “You can’t be there for people if you can’t be there for yourself.” 

PAWS ACT helps vets with PTSD get comfort from four-legged friends

Photo: Shutterstock

Danyelle Clark-Gutierrez, 33, an Air Force veteran who survived sexual harassment and assault in the military, didn’t feel safe leaving her house without her husband until a new companion entered her life: Lisa, a yellow labrador. “Having her now, it’s like I can go anywhere,” Clark-Gutierrez told Kaiser Health News.

Research suggests that service dogs can help relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which affects 10% to 30% of military members. Now a new law – Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers (PAWS) for Veterans Therapy Act – jumpstarts a pilot program that pairs veterans with PTSD with highly trained service animals. The dogs are trained to intervene when their owners show PTSD symptoms such as anxiety or hypervigilance. Since getting her service dog, Clark-Gutierrez says she’s gone off prescription medication for panic attacks, dissociation and nightmares and has stopped self-medicating with alcohol. “Lisa checks on me all the time,” Clark-Gutierrez says. “If she sees that I’m just kind of out of it, she’ll (do) whatever she has to do to bring me back. I can’t even put into words how helpful that is.”

A sport focused on toughness embraces mental health therapy

In recent months, star athletes like Simon Biles and Naomi Osaka have spoken openly about their mental health struggles. What might come as a surprise is that football players have too, The New York Times reports. The sport whose most famous coach, Vince Lombardi, extolled the virtues of “mental toughness,” along with “self-denial, sacrifice (and) fearlessness” is now offering players therapy. The mental health push came largely from the players themselves, who forged an agreement with the National Football League in 2019 requiring each team to employ a clinician. 

In a sign of change, several football players have spoken openly about their own struggles. Philadelphia Eagles tackle Lane Johnson announced he’d missed some games because of anxiety and depression. Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley said he left football to “focus on my mental wellbeing.” Team therapists offer private sessions, meditation exercises, check-ins and sports performance exercises. But some barriers still hold sway. “Even still in my family, people feel when you talk to someone it’s a sign of weakness,” said Calais Campbell, a Baltimore Ravens defensive end. “That’s something we’re still trying to break.” 

Anonymity of mental health apps might be draw for apprehensive men

During the pandemic, Jason Henderson, a newly divorced dad, was gripped by suicidal thoughts. A friend he met in an online support group suggested an app called Tethr that provides a forum for men to share among peers. Henderson began posting to the community about his own demons. “I was met with commiseration, empathy and compassion,” Henderson told the Washington Post. “That emotional support immediately helped me feel so much better.” 

One advantage of such apps, the Post reports, is that they provide a sense of anonymity – a big plus for men – who are half as likely as women to see a therapist but more than three times as likely to die by suicide. Apps such as Tethr offer emotional support from peers and sometimes weekly support groups – but they’re not a replacement for talking to a mental health professional, experts warn. There’s no regulatory body that oversees them, and claims about their effectiveness often lack evidence, according to C. Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health-care innovation for the American Psychological Association. “They’re coming out faster than the research can keep up with,” she said.

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

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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.