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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 coffee startup pivots to hand sanitizing product amid pandemic

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

guest column

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

A mass remote work experiment

While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.

Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.

Success depends on criteria

The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.

But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.

Digital breadcrumbs

Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.

Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.

What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.

For instance:

The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.

Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.

Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.

Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.

Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.

Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.

Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.

Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.

Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.

Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.

Innovation is at risk

Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.

What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."

The workplace advantage

The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.

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Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.