Personal Health

News you can use, carefully digested and curated.


Colleges Work To Prevent Suicide And Fight Stigma Around Mental Health On Campus

A training session for Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Student Support Network. The group's more than 400 members are trained to intervene and help students dealing with mental health issues. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A training session for Worcester Polytechnic Institute’s Student Support Network. The group’s more than 400 members are trained to intervene and help students dealing with mental health issues. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As another academic year winds down, many colleges are reviewing how they raise awareness of mental health issues on campus, and what additional steps they can take to try to prevent suicide among students.

More than 1,000 college students die by suicide every year. Suicide is listed as the nation’s second-leading cause of death for people of college age, though people not enrolled in school take their own lives at a higher rate than those attending college. And research has found about 7 percent of undergraduate and graduate students seriously consider suicide.

Suicide prevention efforts vary greatly among schools. So does the rate of students seeking help from campus mental health services. According to the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, college mental health centers see on average about 10 percent of the student body, though mental health providers say the need is much greater. Smaller schools serve a greater percentage of their student body through campus mental health services than large colleges and universities do.

There’s also no consistency in how suicide is tracked in higher education. WBUR reached out to 10 Massachusetts colleges and universities to request information on their suicide rates and suicide prevention programs. Only two, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Worcester State University, provided data. WPI has experienced one suicide since 2006 (in May 2011) and four in the last 18 years. Since implementing prevention programs several years ago, the school’s suicide rate has dropped below the national average. Worcester State University reports it has had one suicide in the last 10 years.

In the latest installment of our series, “Suicide: A Crisis in the Shadows,” several people involved in and affected by the issue of college suicide prevention joined WBUR to share their thoughts. Below find highlights from that conversation, and listen to it in full above. Continue reading


After Cluster Of Suicides, MIT Works To Relieve Student Pressure, Raise Awareness

Student climb the steps of the Rogers building at MIT. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Students climb the steps of the Rogers building at MIT. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

On a recent sunny spring day, MIT students were lined up at a table grabbing ice cream sundaes, milk and cookies, and, if they were interested, an embrace.

“Yes, giving away ice cream and now hugs,” explained MIT parent Sonal Patel, of Cambridge, as she embraced Miguel Mendez, a native of Mexico who is doing post-doctoral research at MIT.

“It’s always good to know that people around the campus actually care about you as a person,” Mendez said. “This being an institution that expects a lot from you, it can really pass a toll on you sometimes.”

The event was billed as “Stress Less Day,” a chance for people at the university that churns out many of the world’s top engineers and scientists to take a break from problem sets, exams and research.

The snack break was sponsored by the student group Active Minds, which promotes mental health awareness. Volunteers handed out flyers with facts on depression and anxiety, as well mental health resources at MIT.

Active Minds raised awareness about their group during MIT's campus preview weekend for incoming freshman. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Active Minds raised awareness about their group during MIT’s campus preview weekend for incoming freshman last month. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Following six student suicides since March 2014, Active Minds and other student groups have seen increased interest in their events designed to reduce stress, promote a sense of community and reduce stigma.

MIT is not the only higher education institution to struggle with suicide clusters. But the school and its students, widely considered among the world’s most elite, are taking some very open steps to confront the problem. Continue reading


Mass. VA Clinic, Hospital Wait Times Vary Widely

In a state that prides itself on access to great health care, wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics vary widely, with some facilities in central and western Massachusetts delaying appointments at much higher rates than in the affluent east.

Nearly 9,000 medical appointments at VA facilities in Massachusetts – about 2 percent of the state’s total during the six-month period ending in February- failed to meet the department’s goal of completing medical appointments within 30 days.

That’s better than the national average of 2.8 percent, but nearly half the delays in Massachusetts occurred at only three of the state’s 20 facilities, according to government data reviewed by the Associated Press.

“We’re working to get the veterans into their appointments in a more timely manner. It’s a work in progress.”

– Dennis Ramstein, Central Western Mass. VA spokesman

The AP analysis of six months of appointment data at 940 VA hospitals and clinics nationwide found that the number of medical appointments delayed 30 to 90 days has stayed flat since Congress began pumping $16.3 billion dollars into the VA system in August. The number of appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.

Many of the delay-prone hospitals and clinics are clustered within a few hours’ drive of each other in a handful of Southern states, often in areas with a strong military presence, a partly rural population and patient growth that has outpaced the VA’s sluggish planning process.

Continue reading


John Hancock Taps Fitness Trackers To Breathe New Life Into Insurance Industry

John Hancock Financial is the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers, like the ones pictured here. (Richard Drew/AP)

John Hancock Financial is the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers, like the ones pictured here. (Richard Drew/AP)

Could 15 minutes of exercise could save you 15 percent on your life insurance?

John Hancock Financial on Wednesday became the first U.S. insurer to offer discounts to policyholders who wear Internet-connected fitness trackers. Sign up for a new life policy today, and the company will send you a Fitbit, one of those bracelets that tracks your steps.

The more you exercise, the bigger discount you get on your insurance premium, up to 15 percent.

Company President Craig Bromley says the policy will also incentivize healthy behavior with “fun sort of rewards” to get policyholders to the gym, like gift cards, discounted hotel stays and leisure travel.

Delaying a death benefit “would obviously be good for us, but also good for them,”  TWEET Bromley said. “You know, other companies are not really helping people to live longer.”

It’s not just about customers living longer. By leveraging wearable devices and promoting wellness, the 153-year-old company is also trying to bestow a youthful glow on the aging life insurance industry.

“It’s great to be at sort of the forefront of all this technological change, which hasn’t always been the case for the life insurance industry,” Bromley said.

Continue reading

Hundreds Gather At Final Public Hearing On State’s Opioid Abuse Crisis

Two to three men and women in Massachusetts will die today from heroin or other opiate overdoses, according to current death rates.

“There were three times as many deaths associated with opioid overdoses last year as there were automobile accident deaths,” said Gov. Charlie Baker, speaking at the fourth and final hearing yesterday of a task force he appointed to vet the state’s drug abuse problem. “That’s really all you need to know to understand that it’s in fact a crisis.”

The task force is expected to make its recommendations on how to deal with the statewide drug crisis by next month. Ahead of that deadline, hundreds of people turned out at the State House Thursday to relate their stories of addiction and recovery.

WBUR’s Martha Bebinger joins Morning Edition with a report on what was said during Thursday’s hearing.

To hear the full report, click on the audio player above.


Suicide Prevention Campaign Approaches Men ‘On Their Own Terms’

Franklin Cook, project manager of the MassMen campaign, and Candice Porter, executive director of Screening for Mental Health, using the MassMen website. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Franklin Cook, project manager of the MassMen campaign, and Candice Porter, executive director of Screening for Mental Health, using the MassMen website. (Lynn Jolicoeur/WBUR)

Franklin Cook of Watertown knows the issue of suicide among men all too well. In 1978, when Cook was 24, his father killed himself.

After that Cook struggled with addiction and found recovery, suffered from depression but got treatment, and built a career in suicide prevention and suicide grief support.

He knows many men struggle to seek help for mental illness.

More men than women die by suicide, and across the country middle-aged white men have the highest suicide rate of any age group.

“But the care-giving world also doesn’t market or doesn’t design programs specifically around our species, if you will,” Cook says. “[Some men] might not want to sit down face-to-face and talk to somebody for 55 minutes about their feelings. I’ve done that hundreds of times with a counselor, and it works for me, but it doesn’t work for all men.”

Now Cook is helping lead a Massachusetts suicide prevention campaign centered around a new website called It was created by the Wellesley-based organization Screening for Mental Health, with funding from the state Department of Public Health.

On the site, people can complete an anonymous mental health screening in about two minutes to find out whether their feelings and behaviors are consistent with depression or another mental health disorder. They get results immediately and after the screening a “video doctor” does an interactive assessment.

“I’m concerned about your symptoms. I want to be sure you’re aware of the impact this can have on your health and well-being,” the video doctor, portrayed by an actor, says in one portion of the segment. “To help me understand how you feel about taking steps to feel less depressed, I have a question for you. On a scale of one to nine, how ready would you say you are to take steps to feel better?”

Candice Porter is executive director of Screening for Mental Health and a clinical social worker. She points out that while middle-aged men have the highest suicide rate, many of them may not be “moping around,” appearing overtly sad or depressed.

“They might mask their symptoms in a lot of ways that we’re not recognizing, and they’re not seeking the help,” Porter says. But she adds that even though the men might not seek counseling or treatment, many people who die by suicide visit their doctor for some physical ailment in the months leading up to their death.

“We do know that the primary care physicians are not asking the question, ‘How are you feeling? Are you depressed? Have you had thoughts of wanting to end your life?'” Porter explains. “So part of what we’re also trying to do is just increase awareness that these questions should be asked.”

The MassMen site also directs users to resources including mental health services in their communities.

Continue reading


Not Male Or Female: Molding Bodies To Fit A Genderfluid Identity

From left to right, Devon Jones, Dale Jackson and Taan Shapiro. (Courtesy)

From left to right, Devon Jones, Dale Jackson and Taan Shapiro. (Courtesy)

For more than three years, Devon Jones gave himself weekly shots of testosterone to align his body with the feeling that he was male. The shots worked. Jones’ voice dropped, body fat shifted from his thighs and breasts into his neck and stomach, and he sprouted facial hair.

But then last year, Jones, a 27-year-old author who lives in Dorchester, stopped taking the hormone.

“I realized that wasn’t the look I was ultimately going for,” Jones said. “I wanted to still have breasts that had substance to them, they’d really shrunk and I wanted that back.”

And Jones wants the option of getting pregnant and having a child, something he could not do while testosterone overpowered estrogen in his body. It’s not clear if he will be able to get pregnant now.

“I’ll only know that when I try,” he said.

Jones still use male pronouns. The changes to his voice are permanent. But as estrogen again becomes the dominant hormone in Jones’ body, the hair on his face doesn’t grow as quickly and his body fat has shifted back.

“I have a more curvy feminine shape. I’m more comfortable now with people being confused. So it’s an evolving process. It’s weird to be in the middle of it right now actually, and talking about it,” Jones said, his voice trailing off.

Jones is part of a growing group of young adults who are genderfluid and are using hormone therapy and surgery to create bodies that matches this identity.

Continue reading

Wishing They Asked Tough Questions: Reflecting On A Father’s Suicide

Valerie Alfeo files through a table full of old family photos at her home in Waltham. Her father, Ted Washburn, took his own life in 2011. He was 54. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Valerie Alfeo files through a table full of old family photos at her home in Waltham. Her father, Ted Washburn, took his own life in 2011. He was 54. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Part of an occasional series, “Suicide: A Crisis In The Shadows

WALTHAM, Mass. — TJ Washburn first learned his father, Ted Washburn, was battling depression in 2009. That’s when the then-52-year-old starved himself for three days.

“He said basically that he was planning on not eating or drinking anything until he passed away,” TJ recalls. “And obviously shock kind of sets in at first.”

Ted, who lived in Waltham, spent a few weeks in two psychiatric units. And during that time his son was stunned to learn he had attempted suicide at the age of 21 — two years before he started having children.

“To think that he could have taken his life before I was born was something that was just… surreal is the best word that I keep using — that I can’t really imagine,” TJ says.

But in 2009, when their father got out of the hospital and right back into his routine as a truck driver, TJ and his sister, Valerie Alfeo, say he didn’t talk about his depression. And they didn’t ask much.

“I was scared. I mean, for me it’s half of the people who created me. You still have them on a pedestal to some degree, even at late 20s, early 30s,” TJ reflects. “I mean, I still would go to him, ask him for his advice. I guess I wasn’t prepared to be kind of on the other end, and be the one giving any advice.”

Continue reading

More Than 1,700 Reports Of Drug-Exposed Newborns Seen In Mass. Last Year

Massachusetts child welfare officials say they investigated more than 1,700 reports of drug-exposed newborns over the final 10 months of last year.

Over that period, the state saw a more than 40 percent increase in reports of drug-exposed newborns, from 132 instances in March 2014 to 190 in December, according to data provided by the Department of Children and Families. The December total was down from the agency’s peak recording of 236 in September that year.

Experts say it’s a sign of just how dire the state’s opioid epidemic has become.

Jonathan Davis, chief of newborn medicine at the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, tells the Boston Herald that Massachusetts hospitals combined used to report two or three drug-exposed babies being born per day, but it’s now more like 10 to 15 per day.

Davis said several initiatives have been created to address the issue, pointing to Project Respect, which provides substance abuse treatment for pregnant women and their newborns at Boston Medical Center and serves more than 150 mother-baby pairs each year.

The state started tracking drug-exposed babies last March.

With reporting by The Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom


AG Healey Seeks Ban On Sale Of E-Cigarettes To Minors

Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday filed proposed regulations that would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, prohibit free product giveaways or sampling, and require the devices be kept out of the reach of customers at stores.

Currently there is no state law prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in Massachusetts. Several cities and towns have approved their own local age restrictions.

The regulations would treat e-cigarettes like other tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco – including banning most sales of e-cigarettes except through face-to-face purchases and not through vending machines except in adults-only establishments.

Attorney General Maura Healey (AP)

Attorney General Maura Healey (AP)

The regulations would also define as an unfair or deceptive practice the sale of nicotine liquid or gel without the use of child-resistant packaging that meets federal standards.

“The regulations make it clear that in Massachusetts an e-cigarette is a cigarette when it comes to protecting our kids,” Healey said.

The regulations don’t extend all current smoking prohibitions to e-cigarettes, including the state’s workplace smoking ban. Healey said she supports legislation that would require users of e-cigarettes to abide by additional smoking regulations.

The metal or plastic battery-powered devices resemble cigarettes but heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale.

While e-cigarettes contain fewer toxic substances than burning traditional cigarettes, health officials warn they shouldn’t be considered harmless and say much more needs to be known about long-term effects of e-cigarette use.

Continue reading