There is research pointing to how COVID-19 changes the mental health status of those infected. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Researchers across every discipline are redirecting their work in order to study COVID-19. The well-being of our global community depends on it. While some are exploring vaccines for the respiratory illness (according to the Guardian, 78 strains of the vaccine are currently in the works), others are saying that researching mental health issues around the pandemic is an equally important undertaking.

Long-lasting and significant effects

"Rapid and rigorous research into the impact of COVID-19 on mental health is needed to limit the impact of the pandemic." The impact on the mental health of individuals may be long-lasting and significant, say experts in Lancet – Psychiatry journal.

There are countless mental health issues that are raised by the novel coronavirus and two major research thrusts. One explores the way isolation, social distancing and excess stress affects people. For instance, researchers are studying how individuals react when they are constantly bombarded with media and negative news stories.

The second is how the COVID-19 virus itself may break through neurological boundaries and cause changes to the mental health and well-being of those infected. Other coronaviruses have passed into the central nervous system, according to experts interviewed by CNN Health.

Still working

The range of articles emerging from this dark time show that researchers are working diligently behind the lines during the peak of this epidemic – hopefully within the confines of their "safe at home" or "shelter-in-place" orders.

In higher education, there are myriad articles published every day about how college students are coping. And there are thousands of very targeted, niche studies being undertaken, like how do hospitals protect the psychological well-being of nurses caring for COVID-19 patients?

Researchers with expertise in family life are conducting studies about how the crisis affects children and parents: "COVID-19 has far-reaching implications for children and parents. While I hope that something like this doesn't happen again in our lifetimes, it is an important time for us to study how differing levels of stress impact parenting," says Leslie Frankel, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Houston.

Feeling down?

There is research pointing to how COVID-19 changes the mental health status of those infected. In some cases, encephalopathy or a malfunction of the brain may occur along with the stress and anxiety that is suffered by someone infected with COVID-19.

Michael Zvolensky, Ph.D., distinguished professor in the department of psychology at University of Houston and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory and Substance Use Treatment Clinic, says even those without the disease may suffer: "Many people worry about infection risk. Anxiety is apt to be exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, including virus risk potential, severity of COVID-related symptoms, and social isolation, among others. Although anxiety about the pandemic is normal, certain individuals – specifically, persons high in sensitivity to stress, may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 related stress presently and even when the social distancing measures are loosened."

Slow going

While the disease spreads quickly, the research unfolds more slowly than most we would like. An article on the World Economic Forum about COVID-19 research reads: "People and institutions tend to have a certain inertia, and it's not easy to alter their speed or course. Working within a compressed timeline, we've had to make changes and accommodations in order to reach ambitious goals."

If you are thinking about taking your mental health research in a different direction now that the pandemic has firmly taken hold, the NIH and NSF can help you determine what proposals to submit. There are funds for this type of research, after all, it is timely and absolutely required during these uncertain times.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Sarah Hill is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Through a $4 million grant, the city of Houston will be able to provide mental health treatment to at-risk students. Educational First Steps/Facebook

City of Houston and local health care organizations receive $4M to treat mental health in students

Help granted

The city of Houston just received a major opportunity to help grow access to mental health treatment in children.

Thanks to a four-year $4 million grant from the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the city and its partner, Baylor College of Medicine, are launching the Be-Well Be-Connected program that provides at-risk students age six to 17 years old with mental health treatment.

The program will be led by Dr. Laurel Williams, associate professor of psychiatry at Baylor, division head for child and adolescent psychiatry and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital. The treatment will include cognitive behavioral intervention for students with bipolar disorder and first episode psychosis, according to the release. The services will be provided in the child's home, which will ensure compliance.

"We do not have many places in Houston that have this capability to provide this level of intensity of services," Williams says in the release. "Having in-home therapy can allow the young person to stay engaged in their community and in their schools, which can promote wellness and reduction in symptoms burden more quickly."

Other Houston health centers, including Texas Children's Hospital, Harris Health System, Menninger Clinic, Harris Center, Veteran's Mental Health Care Line, Legacy Community Health Services, and DePelchin's Children's Center, will be involved with the program and the Mayor's Office of Education is the program manager of the grant.

"I created the Office of Education to support school districts in Houston because they are doing the essential work of guaranteeing that our next generation of adults is educated and ready for the future," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "The grant validates our efforts and more importantly will provide care on the frontlines of a key health issue involving young people."

Five independent school districts will also receive first level screening services and telemedical care. Families of the students receiving care will also receive support from the newly developed Texas State Child Mental Health Consortium.

"Houston and our surrounding area is primed to really take children's mental health care to the next needed level," says Williams in the release. "This SAMHSA grant opportunity coupled with the State Consortium will allow better coordination amongst services and an overall increase in available services — services that are desperately needed."

Ryan Schwartz realized online dating was easier than finding a therapist. He created a tool to change that. Courtesy of Mental Health Match

Houston entrepreneur launches an app that matches patients to their ideal therapist

Match made in health care

Nearly five years ago, Ryan Schwartz sat in a coffee shop in crisis mode. His mother had just died suddenly and he was struggling to find an appropriate therapist. Across the table, his friend sat making a profile on a dating app. Quickly, her endeavor was complete and she was ready to swipe right, but Schwartz was still on the hunt for mental help.

"In two minutes she could have a profile matching her with a partner potentially for the rest of her life and I was sitting there for hours and hours trying to find a therapist," he recalls. "I thought it should be easier to find a therapist than a life partner. That's what sent me on my journey."

That journey reached a watershed last month when Schwartz launched Mental Health Match, a website designed to pair patients with their ideal therapist. The idea gained traction as Schwartz described it to people he met and found that many said they had experienced similar difficulties in finding the right practitioner for their needs.

Schwartz began the process of developing the service by interviewing about 30 people who had recently found a therapist about how they did it and what was helpful. He also talked to a group who had just started with a new therapist about whether it was a match and why. He did the same for therapists about how they found clients.

With that information, Schwartz began making mock-ups of search criteria for the website. An offshore company designed and programed the site for the entrepreneur, who was previously a consultant for nonprofits.

The result of Schwartz's thorough research is an exhaustive list of criteria, but the matching process only takes about five minutes. In fact, it feels a bit like taking a BuzzFeed quiz, answering questions about yourself. It starts with basics like age and gender (even with trans and non-binary are options), then expands into categories of why you're choosing therapy. They include looking for medication management or getting a specific diagnosis like ADD, depression, or an autism spectrum disorder.

But the search gets even more refined. Potential patients can choose what they want to talk about, such as questions of identity like sexuality, race, or physical ability. The "How I Feel" section runs the gamut of emotions from angry or afraid to withdrawn or worried. Those who check "suicidal" will be met with a message on how to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The criteria even drills down into specific life events, including natural disaster, career change, and abortion.

Those who want a therapist who does art therapy or trauma informed yoga can check boxes in those categories. Therapy seekers can find help based on sexual orientation, race, or religion, or get even more minute and request someone who's vegetarian or from a blended family.

"We want to make sure we have therapists for everyone," Schwartz says.

Perhaps most importantly, it's paramount to Schwartz to match users with an affordable therapist. The website allows users to set a limit of what they're willing to pay per session and fill out insurance information to get an ideal fit.

After completing the form, future clients are presented with a top-five list of potential therapists. The practitioners fill out information about themselves that allows users to get to know them as a person for a better idea of whether they'll be a match. The therapist profile even lists their current availability and showcases photos of where they practice.

"We're trying to show a bit of the humanity of the therapists and what it might be like to be in a room together," Schwartz explains.

Currently, about 70 therapists are signed on for a free trial — there will eventually be a small fee to be listed — on the site. The company, based in Sugar Land, employs one person full-time besides Schwartz and the founder says he's focusing on staying in Houston for now.

"Houston is an amazing city, but we're a stressed city between the traffic, the heat, the storms," he says. "It's a service that is really helpful for Houstonians."

And by design, it will always be free to anyone who needs a little assistance in finding the help they need.

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Houston is poised to lead 5G growth in Texas, according to a new report

leading the stream

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

Houston lands on list of nation's top spots for millennials on the move

migration destination

The Bayou City is shining as an attractive destination for young people on the move.

According to the fifth-annual study from SmartAsset, millennials are fleeing cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and migrating to other areas in search of work and a better quality of life, with Houston landing as the No. 18 spot for young professionals age 25 to 39.

In order to compile the list, SmartAsset dug into U.S. Census Bureau data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 180 specific cities. According to the findings, 18,035 millennials moved in to Houston in 2019, while 15,838 moved out. That makes a net migration of 2,197, per the study.

When it comes to migrating millennials, the Lone Star State is tops, landing at No. 1 for states where millennials are moving, with more than 187,000 young people heading to Texas in the pre-pandemic year. Though some 154,000 millennials left Texas during the same time period, this results in a net gain of more than 33,000 millennial residents, the biggest net gain for the group in the country, giving Texas the lead in millennial migration for the second year in a row.

In news that is hardly shocking, Austin landing as the No. 4 hot spot overall.

While Austin ranks as the top Texas city where millennials are moving, one other Texas spot landed in the top 10, the Dallas suburb of Frisco (No. 6), with a net migration of 3,516 out-of-state millennials in 2019.

Dallas just missed the top 10, landing at No. 11 on the list, with a net millennial migration of 2,525 in 2019. San Antonio (No. 22) showed a net migration of 1,865 millennials.

The top city overall for millennial migration in 2019 was Denver, followed by Seattle.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.