Mental health topics to explore in 2022

About Katti Gray

Katti Gray (@kattigray) is AHCJ's core topic leader for behavioral and mental health. A former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, Gray is providing resources to help AHCJ members expand their coverage of mental health amid ongoing efforts to de-stigmatize mental illness and to place mental health care on par with all health care.

Photo by Finn via Unsplash.

Almost two years of pandemic lockdowns, re-openings, retreats from re-opening, and coronavirus variants — and another COVID-19 winter upon us — mental health challenges remain a hot topic.

Now that we’ve entered a new year, a bevy of stories already in the news cycle beg for follow-up coverage, including ones on the pros and cons of telemental health and, by extension, the future of video-conferenced and teleconferenced care. 

During the pandemic, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid issued waivers expanding patient access to their clinicians via Zoom, phone calls, etc. Some lauded that move, which is expected, on some level, to become permanent. Others say telehealth is far from the preferred avenue of care for everyone, including some patients with more severe diagnoses, including drug-resistant depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Along with those looming questions and trends, there are emerging and resurfacing news topics for reporters to tackle. From that pool, here are the discussions to listen for and probe in 2022:

  • There’s a renewed move afoot to change the term schizophrenia. Of 1,190 government officials, clinicians and members of the general public responding to this survey, published online in October 2021 and print in December 2021 in Schizophrenia Research, 74.1% said the term was stigmatizing; 71.4% wanted to change it to phrasing they contend might more accurately describe the symptoms of that disease. Among alternatives that those respondents preferred were “altered perception syndrome,” “psychosis spectrum syndrome” and “neuro-emotional integration disorder.” From the same journal, this 2015 paper assessed 41 previous studies, commentaries and such on whether to change the term. And this 2019 paper, “The debate about renaming schizophrenia: a new name would not resolve the stigma,” questioned whether a name change, which already exists in several Asian countries, would actually diminish stigma.

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Video games evaluated as possible treatment for COVID ‘brain fog’, other conditions

About Karen Blum

Karen Blum is AHCJ’s core topic leader on health IT. An independent journalist in the Baltimore area, she has written health IT stories for publications such as Pharmacy Practice News, Clinical Oncology News, Gastroenterology & Endoscopy News, General Surgery News and Infectious Disease Special Edition.

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Digital tech company Akili Interactive’s recent collaboration with two academic medical centers to evaluate a video game developed for children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in patients with COVID-19-related “brain fog”, has become one of the latest investigations of video games in medicine.

Over the past decade, some researchers worldwide have been studying the potential use of video games as a treatment, educational tool, or complementary therapy for a variety of ongoing or perplexing medical challenges, as well as for teaching medical trainees new skills. Journalists can find interesting stories in this area, provided they acknowledge that data and results so far have varied widely.

A glance at the research

In randomized controlled clinical studies, investigators at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center are testing the potential of Akili’s game EndeavorRx to target and improve cognitive functioning in patients following COVID-19 infection. In the game, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2020 as a prescription treatment for children with ADHD, players help an alien avatar navigate a digital environment while being presented with on-screen prompts as a form of distraction, according to an article on medicine.com. Users work to earn rewards and unlock new environments.

The game has challenges and demands, said James Jackson, Psy.D., director of long-term outcomes for the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt, in an interview with AHCJ. As people improve, the challenges and demands become harder. If they struggle, the tasks become easier. The hypothesis is that this dynamic nature of the game can help improve function in attention and processing speed, he said — key difficulties experienced by COVID long haulers.

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ProPublica’s Jenny Deam offers tips for finding sources

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health reform. He welcomes questions and suggestions and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Jenny Deam

When reporting on junk health insurance plans, one of the prerequisites is finding consumers willing to talk about how they fell victim to an egregious health coverage scam.

Such stories are most compelling when you feature an unsuspecting consumer willing to explain how he or she got swindled into buying what looked like a worthwhile health insurance plan that would cover the costs of routine or emergency care or a major illness.

While finding sources for these types of stories can be challenging, Jenny Deam, a veteran health care journalist for ProPublica, explains what has worked best for her in a new tip sheet. As with all good health care stories, finding these sources takes some digging, along with knowledge of how social media works and knowing where to look, she explains.

Deam also advises in the tip sheet for reporters to join online forums for moms because in most American households, mothers are responsible for making health insurance decisions. And mothers who get scammed by sales people for unscrupulous health insurance plans may be willing to explain what happened to them so that other moms and families won’t suffer the same fate.

On May 8, 2021, ProPublica published the article Deam wrote about junk health insurance plans. Her colleague Maya Miller, an engagement reporter, contributed additional reporting.

In the article, “He Bought Health Insurance for Emergencies. Then He Fell Into a $33,601 Trap,” Deam and Miller featured the story of Cory Dowd, a self-employed event planner, who was 31 at the time and considered himself to be healthy. He bought two short-term insurance plans that came with low monthly premiums. He expected that the plan would cover his costs for any emergency care.

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The most recent COVID-19 recommendations for older adults 

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic leader on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo by Neil Moralee via Flickr.

The CDC modified its recommendations (again) for people who test positive for COVID-19 in late December. For most people, that means a shorter quarantine or isolation time if they have been vaccinated, boosted and are asymptomatic or only experiencing mild symptoms. While Omicron appears to be more transmissible, according to experts on a recent AHCJ webcast, it may also be less severe.

However, older adults should still take extra precautions. Even if they have done everything right — getting vaccinated and boosted, masking, and social distancing, they are still statistically at higher risk of more severe disease or complications from the virus than younger people.

While these changing recommendations are confusing, they also present another opportunity for journalists to educate their audiences with evidence and facts, and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that still prompt some to spurn the vaccine or push back against mask requirements. It’s especially important for older people to understand and follow the latest recommendations since their risk of serious consequences is so high.

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U.S. prepares to launch 3-digit mental health crisis hotline with a text option

About Kerry Dooley Young

Kerry Dooley Young (@kdooleyyoung) is AHCJ's core topic leader on patient safety. She has written extensively about the Food and Drug Administration, medical research, health policy and quality measurements. Her work has appeared in Medscape Medical News, Congressional Quarterly/CQ Roll Call and Bloomberg News.

A tweet from Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, Ph.D.

Federal officials and telecommunications companies have been working to meet a July 2022 deadline for a switch to a new three-digit hotline number for people experiencing mental health crises.

The new 988 dialing code will operate through the infrastructure of the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800- 273-TALK. 

In covering the creation of the 988 code, journalists should consider the advice that a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave in a 2020 statement. Michael O’Rielly warned against “giving a false promise to the public that 988 is already operational.”

Instead, it’s important to note how much effort establishing the 988 code will require. Deploying 988 “isn’t a matter of simply pulling a proverbial switch,” O’Rielly said. Instead, it will require telecommunications companies to replace, update, or otherwise alter their systems, as well as changes in dialing, he said.

“Even in the best of circumstances, such transitions can be challenging and lengthy, requiring consumer education, end user equipment upgrades by enterprise and government entities, and coordination with state public utility commissions, among other challenges,” O’Rielly said. “Acknowledging the work ahead doesn’t diminish the extensive work that’s been done to arrive at this point; it just reflects the reality of the transition.”  

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