Finding New Insights and Pathways to Mental Health

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an annual observance to raise awareness and promote understanding. In a health advisory released this week, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, said that loneliness poses serious mental and physical health risks that cost the health industry billions of dollars annually. In the advisory, he calls for Americans to strengthen the nation's social fabric and to prioritize meaningful relationships.

Research shows that Americans have become less engaged with houses of worship, community organizations and family members in recent decades, and are increasingly reporting feelings of loneliness, according to a report by the Associated Press. Isolation during the Covid pandemic heightened the problem.

In 1949, Mental Health America, an advocacy organization, launched Mental Health Week as an effort to educate the public, and the following year the first Mental Health Month was observed. Each year, the organization designates a theme and provides resources to promote mental health awareness. The theme this year is “Look Around, Look Within,” emphasizing the ways that surroundings – like housing, neighborhoods and nature – affect mental health.

Here are recent Retro Report documentaries that spotlight mental health.

Covid Deaths Left Orphans. The Stress of That Loss May Carry With It Lifelong Risks.
Scientists have long observed the effects of adverse events in childhood on mental health, but a study published in 1998 uncovered a less well-known outcome: Those experiences can have lasting effects on physical health, too. The study identified 10 sources of stress, and matched them to risky health behavior and disease later in life. Ongoing or repeated exposure to adversity, the study found, can trigger physical changes in the body that increase the likelihood of developing diseases like cancer and diabetes later on.

Could a Simple Intervention Fight a Suicide Crisis?
Suicide rates have been rising steadily across the country, but despite decades of research and innovation in the mental health field, not enough is known about suicide prevention and treatment. U.S. service members and veterans are at particular risk. In this Retro Report, we explore how a psychologist working for the Defense Department unearthed a prevention approach developed in the 1960s. At the time, researchers followed up on vets' hospitalizations by sending them messages of empathy, known as “caring letters.” Decades later, data shows that this simple intervention – updated for the digital era – remains promising.

Is Multiple Personality Disorder Real? One Woman's Story.
In 1976, millions of viewers watched “Sybil,” a television movie based on the best-selling book of the same name, and were introduced to the agonies of a young woman said to have 16 different personalities. The movie elevated a rare mental illness – multiple personality disorder – into a cultural phenomenon. By 1980, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized the disorder, and soon thousands of patients had received the diagnosis. But as cases continued to rise in the 1990s, so too did questions about the disorder, and the woman who had become the face of it. Today, the controversy over multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder, continues to shape mental health issues.

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