Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Headlines Challenge: Extra! Extra! Read All About It!

Mental health rarely makes it to front page news above the fold – well, at least not explicitly. With headlines about war, climate, jobs, Brexit, and French elections, it might appear that mental health gets beaten out by other topics. Tout au contraire, I said to my friend and writer, Tracy Grathwohl. And so was born, the “Headlines Challenge” for this week’s Five on Friday. Tracy was to pick five front page articles from around the world that did not appear to be about mental health, and I promised to make them all about mental health.

“You give me the news, I’ll give you the mental health connection.”  

1. Already Unwelcoming, Hungary Now Detains Asylum Seekers (New York Times, USA). The story of unwanted refugees is not limited to Hungary, although Hungary, which has historically had one of the toughest immigration policies in the European Union, has instituted procedures that will reduce asylum seekers to 10 people per day. The world now has more than 65 million displaced persons – either displaced within their own country (like the Japanese who were relocated from Fukushima to other parts of Japan) or refuges who have been forced to flee their countries (like the 4.8 million people who have fled Syria). The mental health implications are obvious. WHO estimates that severe disorders (psychosis, major depression, and disabling anxiety) double in prevalence and mild to moderate mental disorders increase to prevalence rates of at least 15-20% among refugee populations. And unless mental health needs are addressed, the implications can be seen generations later.

2. Life after Islam State: They Taught Us How to Decapitate a Person  (Der Spiegel, Germany). Just a few weeks ago, Iraqi army troops freed eastern Mosul from the Islamic State, which had dominated the city since 2014. This article is about kids and school and what we teach. For the past three years, the kids in Mosul have been taught violence and have witnessed atrocities that most of us will never know firsthand. Kids are resilient, but not invulnerable. Individual personality traits, interpersonal relationships, social support, caregiver mental health, and social systems like schools, hospitals, and community organizations significantly impact mental health outcomes, especially in fragile states. We also know that concerted and explicit efforts to address mental health needs are as important has rebuilding houses, schools, and roads. Although this article is about the end of the IS dominance of Mosul, I read it as an invitation to get working on mental health recovery and promotion.

3. The Retail Apocalypse is Suburban (Slate, USA). 2017 will be the first year in a half-century that no new malls were built in America. This article goes on to tell us that brick-and-mortar retail is “gasping for breath.” Big brand names like The Limited, Kmart, and Macy’s are each closing over 100 stores and laying off thousands of employees. The changing retail environment has major implications at many levels, including mental health. Individuals working in retail stores frequently earn minimum wage and have limited or no health benefits. For many, it is difficult to make ends meet when employed, and most do not have significant savings to fall back on when they lose their jobs. Such economic insecurity is significantly correlated with worse mental health. This article also reminds us that technological change has far-reaching consequences for mental health if we do not appropriately anticipate and prepare individuals and communities. Consider the debilitating rates of mental illness and substance use disorders in failing US coal towns today. Need I say more?

4. Did You Know That A Daily Dose of Chia Seeds Can Make You A Happier Person? (India Times, India). Last year it was Kale, now it is Chia Seeds. With all the bad news, it would be great if Chia seeds really could make us all happier. Chia seeds are a rich source of omega-3 fats, and as the article says, that helps “boost the happy hormones in people.” There is no doubt that eating well is good for all aspects of our health, including our mental health. And there are some exciting data about the gut microbiome and mental health, but I really don’t think that Chia is the strategy for the refugees in Hungary or the school children in Mosul. Also, watch out for articles with solutions to big problems that present no scientific data.

5. Prince William Praises Lady Gaga for Speaking Out on Mental Health (Page Six, The Sun, UK). Okay, so she lobbed one in for me to hit out of the park. Not only because Tracy knows that I adore the Royals, but because Prince William, Princess Catherine (a.k.a. Kate among her friends) and Prince Harry have become the royal trio on mental health as founders of the Heads Together campaign. And in case you don’t consider Page Six a real news source, Prince Harry spoke to The Telegraph this week about his mental health challenges. He “shut down all his emotions” for almost two decades after losing his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, and after two years of “total chaos” he said he finally sought help when he turned 28. Even for royalty, life is not a fairytale.

Next time we pick up the newspaper, we will do well to remember these words from William, Kate and Harry: “…we have seen time and time again that unresolved mental health problems lie at the heart of some of our greatest social challenges.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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