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Federal Communications Commission and Media Must Combat Black Mental Health Crisis

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Screenshot of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman from the webcast

July 13, 2020 — Recent data from a survey launched by the federal government, originally intended to trace the effects of the coronavirus, has revealed that anxiety and depression rates among Black Americans have spiked disproportionately in the weeks following the widely-circulated video of George Floyd’s death.

The proportion of Black Americans battling anxiety and depression has risen from 36 percent to 41 percent, an increase amounting to roughly 1.4 million individuals.

Demonstrations and civic unrest, as well as the ongoing pandemic’s disproportionate toll on minority communities, have exacerbated existing disparities in mental health, as rates of anxiety and depression have remained relatively stable among white Americans.

In a virtual event on Monday, entitled “Thriving While Black: The Role of Media and Communications Technology in Addressing Black Mental Health,” panelists called attention to the growing Black mental health crisis in America.

Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks opened the event, speaking of the trauma shared by members of the Black American community and describing common “emotions of fear, frustration, and most of all, hope.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health, noted that the task at hand is a challenging one because “mental health in general has had a stigma in our communities.”

This stigma is one that the panelists are working diligently to overcome.

As the FCC is set to vote on finalizing a three-digit National Suicide Hotline on Thursday, it is clear that there is a distinct for the agency to play in conversations regarding universal access and content creation, panelists said.

Communities that lack access to electronic devices and broadband connections lack the resources necessary for critical mental telehealth services.

Panelists noted that minority groups are disproportionately vulnerable to both mental health conditions and internet inequality.

The telecommunications sector is uniquely situated to not only connect Black Americans to vital health resources, but also to educate the masses about Black experiences.

Screenshot of Nicol Turner-Lee, director of the Center of Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution

Constant exposure to images of Black individuals being harassed and murdered can cause great trauma for Black Americans, said Nicol Turner-Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center of Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

Media lacks images of Black men and women simply existing, she said.

As individuals look to media to make sense of the world around them, Noopur Agarwal, vice president of social impact at ViacomCBS, argued that media and entertainment companies have crucial roles in providing diverse representations and working to destigmatize mental health in Black communities.

She detailed the effects of one scene from a popular VH1 series, which follows the journey of a predominantly Black cast.

In the episode, a cast member opens up to his loved ones about his battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. His friends and family rally around him, offering their support. The character goes on to seek professional help.

This kind of representation has positive effects, Agarwal said.

“It helped normalize the experience of depression and it showed viewers dealing with mental health that they are not alone,” she explained.

The night the episode aired, it inspired 20,000 people to immediately seek help, she said.

“Social media posts related to the story generated 5 million video views and 200,000 engagements outpouring support,” said Agarwal, adding that this is just one example of the powerful impact entertainment media can have in formulating ideology.

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, attributed increasing depression and suicide rates among Black LGBTQ+ youth to a lack of representation, stating that “young people rely upon seeing reflections of themselves through media.”

“What we know about Black LGBTQ+ youth in particular is that 70 percent have reported having depression in the last 12 months, 35 percent have considered suicide, and 19 percent reported having attempted suicide in the past year,” he said.

Screenshot of David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition

A further explanation for these statistics is that mental health care providers aren’t trained to respond to intersectional trauma, Johns added.

Yet another contributing factor is the criminalization of Black youth, said Michael Lindsey, executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

“Often Black children are suspended from school because of behavior that is addressable through mental health treatment,” he said.

Lindsey referenced the “push-out phenomena,” or how young Black girls are disproportionately expelled from schools due to their behavior being perceived as more aggressive and defiant than similar actions from their white counterparts, resulting from ingrained racist prejudices.

Lindsey found that in lieu of being treated for mental health concerns, Black children are often disproportionately suspended, which only exacerbates existing conditions.

The number of mental health providers in schools should be proportionate to the number of students, he suggested.

“It is often the case that in communities of color [that] there is not an available mental health professional,” he said.

In conclusion, Turner-Lee called for panelists to utilize social media in order to “have conversations with people that would not typically come to these tables.”

Starks pledged to continue fighting to expand the FCC’s Lifeline Program, which works to subsidize phones for low income individuals, and could potentially help many Black Americans access mental health resources.

Funding

Another $700 Million for 26 States Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

Over 400,000 locations across the U.S. will get broadband in this funding wave.

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Photo by John Staley from NextTV

WASHINGTON, November 12, 2021 – The Federal Communications Commission announced Wednesday that it will authorize $709,060,159 for 26 states through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

These are disbursements of the $9.2 billion that were announced in round one of the RDOF reverse auction that took place in the fall of 2020.

The rural fund supports new broadband deployment efforts for 50 broadband providers in 400,000 locations across the U.S. Much of the funding will go to nonprofit rural electric cooperatives to deploy broadband in their service areas.

But others awarded funding under the auction have already defaulted on coverage that they said they would provide as part of their winning bids.

The 26 states ready to receive Wednesday’s funding include Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that the announcement “highlights the agency’s commitment to supporting even more opportunities to connect hundreds of thousands of Americans to high-speed, reliable broadband service while doing our due diligence to ensure the applicants can deliver to these unserved communities as promised.”

The Commission’s announcement comes after the FCC launched the second round of its COVID-19 Telehealth Program on Tuesday, granting $42.5 million for health care providers. This telehealth program and exceeds the FCC’s $150 million goal by reaching $166.13 million for telehealth funding.

These funding programs provide reimbursements for telecommunication and information services and connected devices the providers have purchased to continue their telehealth services. The Commission also announced $421 million on Monday to keep over 10 million students connected across the U.S. as part of the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

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Health

Senate Subcommittee Hears Broadband Affordability, Regulatory Flex Key to Reducing Hospital Burdens

Health providers testified before a Senate subcommittee that Congress should be open to all forms of telehealth.

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WASHINGTON, October 7, 2021 – A Senate subcommittee heard Thursday that affordability is the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that lawmakers should exercise regulatory flexibility when it comes to the forms of telehealth to help reduce inessential hospital visits.

Covid-19 often brings about extreme shortness of breath, the severity of which is best assessed by a doctor, Deanna Larson, president of Avel eCARE, told the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband, which convened a hearing on the state of telehealth and removing barriers to access and improving patient outcomes.

Patients with affordable, high speed internet access can be monitored at home by doctors so that they don’t enter an emergency room or take up a hospital bed prematurely, she said.

Larson urged Congress to extend or make permanent their regulatory flexibility toward telehealth especially as it relates to being neutral on the kinds of telemedicine, such as phone-only care, asynchronous care, and remote patient monitoring. An economic benefit of which would be keeping medical commerce local, she said. Patients wouldn’t be required as often to move to a higher level of care out of town.

Physicians would have 24-hour access to the patient through video calls, monitoring patients in a way which significantly lightens the burdens of the healthcare system, added Larson. With telehealth, doctors can advise patients on exactly when and if they need to go to an emergency room.

Steps to improve telehealth

The committee also heard testimony from Sterling Ransone Jr., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. Ransone, a strong proponent of telehealth, has found that the digital divide touches rural, tribal and urban communities alike and proposed a series of steps Congress could take to increase public health through broadband policy, including investing in universal affordable broadband service, digital literacy services, end-user devices, audio-only telehealth and data collection in the determinants and outcomes of telehealth as it relates to key factors such as race, gender, ethnicity and language.

Defining broadband as a social determinant of health, Ransone highlighted that affordability is possibly the greatest barrier to broadband adoption and that affordability and access disproportionately affect rural communities.

Sanjeev Arora, founder of Project ECHO and distinguished professor of medicine at the University of New Mexico, agreed: “expanding access to high-quality, high-speed broadband connectivity is critical. It’s a prerequisite for the success of any telehealth model in rural communities and urban underserved areas.”

Telehealth isn’t just vital and broadly popular, it is cost saving. Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, who also appeared before the subcommittee, shared an estimate that widespread telehealth availability could save the health care system $305 billion a year.

Carr, in an effort to reduce inessential hospital visits and decrease the risk of spreading Covid-19, endorsed the CONNECT for Health Act, the RUSH Act of 2021, the Telehealth Modernization Act, and the Protecting Rural Telehealth Access Act, which in combination would remove geographic restrictions to telehealth services, foster use of telehealth in skilled nursing facilities, grant the Secretary of Health and Human Services greater ability to reduce telehealth restrictions and more.

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Expert Opinion

Craig Settles: Libraries, Barbershops and Salons Tackle TeleHealthcare Gap

Craig Settles describes the important role that community institutions have played in promoting connectivity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Photo of Urban Kutz Barbershops owner Waverly Willis getting his blood pressure checked used with permission

Today, Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., Senator Chris Van Hollen,D-Maryland, and Representative Grace Meng, D-N.Y., led 40 members of Congress to introduce the Securing Universal Communications Connectivity to Ensure Students Succeed (SUCCESS) Act. The bill would extend the Emergency Connectivity Fund by five years and provide $8 billion a year to schools and libraries for student connectivity off-campus.

Barbershops and hair salons are long-time anchor institutions in African-American communities that have shown promise for advancing telehealth. Their partnering with libraries (a broadband anchor institution), and the Biden Administration’s enlisting of 1,000 shops and salons to help combat COVID-19, telehealth and public health in these communities could go into overdrive.

Missing their July 4 COVID-19 vaccination goals, the Biden Administration raised money to transform the shops into mini-medical centers. This success is motivating shop owners to do more. As one of the targets for $7 billion in broadband funds, libraries are idea partners that can provide broadband services, digital content, and digital and health literacy shops’ customers. 

Mike Brown manages a barbershop in Hyattsville, Maryland, and participated in the vaccination program. Brown and others owners talks with their customer about how the vaccines have been proven to work. “I use my platform to advocate for truth and dispel myths,” said Mr. Brown in an Wall Street Journal article, who has also held a vaccination clinic in his shop. “I’ve gotten about 60% of my clients to get vaccinated.”

The program has opened shop owners’ eyes to the power they have to make a difference in the healthcare of their communities. It’s a logical transition from the vaccination program to hypertension screening. Urban Kutz Barbershops in Cleveland have been screening customers for 12 years, recently with telehealth assistance from the famed Cleveland Clinic’s. 

Owner Waverley Willis says “Barbers and hairdressers are part-time marriage counselors, psychiatrists, spiritual advisers, and expert listeners. So many customers listen to our medical advice.” He has made a noticeable impact on many of his customers’ healthy eating habits as well.

Think differently about broadband, public health and telehealth

On July 1, the Federal Communications Commission began a 45-day Emergency Connectivity Fund of $7.1 billion in broadband and digital technology funding to support libraries and schools. By August 13, libraries interested in grants from the program must present a proposal on how they plan to spend money for libraries laptops, hotspots, Internet services, and other resources to advance education and remote learning. 

A generous interpretation of “education“ enables libraries to serve any patrons with broadband. If libraries are situated in areas in which there are no ISP services, they can request money from ECF to build their own broadband infrastructure for unserved patrons. Unlike traditional E-rate proposals, ECF doesn’t require a competitive bid for services, meaning libraries can present a quote from the first vender they contact.

Libraries partnering with shops and healthcare organization could give shops laptops, telehealth software, and portable hotspots to provide hypertension screening and other healthcare services that are suited to their customers’ needs up to three years. Shop owners often don’t have computing devices or Internet access in their shops. Telehealth devices such as portable digital blood pressure monitors and digital scales will have to be provided separately and possibly through funds from another government agency such as Health & Human Services.

For hypertension screening, for example, shops can take customers’ blood pressures digitally. The healthcare provider takes that data through telehealth and recommends treatment when necessary or advisable. The partner likely would have established rates for their healthcare services. Shops can then decide on additional telehealth services they want to provide.

The shops could work with libraries to develop health information and interactive Web content to reduce hypertension and other medical issues through healthier living, plus the libraries can provide telehealth services beyond what the shops can do.  

Libraries and shops can also designate customers who need a laptop, hotspots and telehealth software for chronic illnesses such as severe hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, mental health treatments, and so forth. However, these devices in this scenario would need to be given out for longer periods then just a couple of weeks. For occasional medical appointments, libraries can loan out laptops and hotspots for limited times such as two or three weeks. Libraries are good at delivering digital training and literacy programs.

Why barbershops, hair salons and libraries? 

Facilitating telehealth and healthcare does have an educational element for barbershop and hair salon customers as well as for general library patrons. These health services and information help both groups of people learn more about their own health, enables them to react effectively to medical issues, and be more proactive in taking care of their health.  

The ability for shops and salons to reach and impact African-American communities is legendary. “This type of barbershop health initiative has been shown to be effective,” said Cameron Webb, a senior White House health equity adviser on the coronavirus. Willis adds, “On more than one occasion, a guy’s blood pressure would be so high we would urge him to skip the haircut and go straight to the emergency room.”

The author of this opinion is municipal broadband expert and industry analyst Craig Settles.

Libraries have years of experience introducing new technology such as broadband to underserved populations. Matt McLain, Associate Director for Community Engagement at Salt Lake County Library, said, “We’ve had a pretty good amount of success reaching Hispanic populations at their markets. We have Asian markets out here too. And our health initiatives are quite important with the church leadership in these communities.”

The healthcare and broadband gaps are real and they are deadly! So many elements of the COVID pandemic reiterates the deadliness of those gaps. According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the data collected as of June 14 nearly two-thirds of people who got at least one dose of the vaccine were White. Only 9% were African-Americans. 14 million urban household cannot get any broadband, without which you cannot get telehealth, and 75% are Black or other people of color. 

There may never be as many federal broadband and health-related grant programs as we are seeing now. Partnership potential between libraries and haircare shops are many. Will public health practitioners and advocates, broadband builders, and community leaders step up?

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses with community stakeholders who want broadband networks to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. He hosts the radio talk show Gigabit Nation, and is Director of Communities United for Broadband, a national grass roots effort to assist communities launching their networks. He recently created a guide to help librarians uncover patrons’ healthcare needs, create community health milestones and effectively market telehealth. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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