NH Hospital's innovative approach to mental health is based on the patient's biochemical makeup and gene-environment interfaces. Photo courtesy of NH Hospital

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to medical care. NH Hospital is bringing innovative technologies and functional medicine to patients in the Houston area. Using patients' biochemical makeup, the medical provider has created a unique service for Houstonians seeking a multi-pronged approach to behavioral health and substance use disorders.

The past year has been an incubator for mental health issues. Pandemic isolation, social distancing, financial instability, racial reckonings, and a massive death toll have posed an enormous threat to the mental wellbeing of people around the world. Experts predict a long-term spike in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases as society grapples with the tragedies of the last year, but the toll is already here.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that the percentage of adults with recent symptoms of anxiety or depression increased from 36.4 to 41.5 percent between Aug. 19, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021.

As the world waits for a moment to exhale after a catastrophic year, NH Hospital keeps busy serving patients struggling with both behavioral health and addiction during the pandemic. Outside of depression and anxiety, the facility also treats bipolar disorder, PTSD, codependency, and postpartum depression by using a multidisciplinary approach.

NH Hospital integrates traditional medicine with functional medicine with a mission of treating the root cause of an issue and not just the symptoms. From providing an on-site chef and nutritionist to stimulating patients with calming acoustic therapy, the facility blends unique treatment modalities that address the whole body rather than an isolated issue.

"With functional medicine, we find other avenues and ways to allow [patients] to heal and to change their behavior," explains Debbie Cormier, CEO of NH Hospital.

Using genetic markers as a roadmap to health

You can build the closet of Carrie Bradshaw's dreams online, buy bespoke cologne based on your body chemistry, monogram jewelry and clothing, and even get a Renaissance-style portrait of your family pet. Tailor-made options are ubiquitous; why not customize medical care?

"For years, the traditional way, we just gave people the same amount of meds, the same diets, the same everything," and wondered why some patients responded better or quicker than others, explains Cormier. For the unlucky patients who didn't get stellar results, she says doctors may have thought "they just have to deal with it" and wait. "We don't feel that you should have to just deal with it," she continues.

When treating a patient, NH Hospital doctors consider the genetic makeup of each patient to create a custom care plan. With tests as simple as a swab of the cheek, the facility can gather biochemical markers that can share valuable medical information like risk factors for diseases.

Cormier believes NH Hospital's ability to look at a patient's genetic background and "treat you as an individual," is a key factor that sets the facility apart. The hospital also focuses on understanding how your genes interact with your environment.

Think of gene-environment interactions as nature vs. nurture, an ideology that research suggests plays significant roles in the outset of mental illness. Genetic and environmental factors interact to influence phenotype, the observable characteristics you exhibit when your genotype and environment interact.

When these factors are off-balance, it can result in undesirable results. A 2001 study of Finnish twins studied the socio-geographic impact on adolescent alcohol use in urban and rural environments. While the frequency of alcohol use was the same in both settings, the factors that led adolescents to drink were entirely different. Genetic factors played a larger role in urban areas, whereas the shared environment had a greater influence in rural settings.

By applying various modalities based on genetic information, doctors aren't going in blind and "know you from the inside out," says Cormier.

When a patient comes in struggling with something as grappling as depression or anxiety, conditions they've seen an uptick in since the beginning of the pandemic, doctors will run a genetic test as well as traditional lab work. Cormier says some potential treatment paths may include photosynthesis therapy, hydration therapy and nutrition.

Dietetics meets tech

NH Hospital helps patients get micronutrient infusions, but its nutrition program provides an integrated approach to fueling the body with the help of a staff chef.

"We only have so much energy every day, and we choose how we use the energy but by getting your diet right, it starts to heal you in all kinds of ways," says Cormier.

While the physical repercussions of a poor diet like diabetes and heart disease are widely known, you may be surprised to hear that nutrition can affect mood disorders and harm brain cells. According to Harvard Health Publishing, refined sugars can lead to brain impairment, depression and oxidative stress — the free radicals produced when the body uses oxygen, which can damage cells. By focusing on a patient's nutrition, "the person has a better chance to heal, not only from the issue that is brought to us but to overall feel good," she says.

Counseling, cryotherapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation and cocoon therapy therapies are just some of the other methods NH Hospital doctors use to treat their patients.

Cormier recalls the recovery of a patient who was experiencing depression and using a wheelchair due to pain in her knees. She gradually gained the ability to walk without pain again after a months-long treatment plan of cryotherapy and micronutrient infusions.

"She said that we really changed her life because we gave her back her life. Now she's walking a mile a day around her block and she's able to do daily moving. She said she hadn't done that in years," says Cormier.

A mission to heal

Outside of neuropsychology, NH Hospital offers medical detox with monitoring from trained professionals and therapy plans for patients coming off of alcohol, methamphetamine, heroin, opioids like fentanyl and other prescription drugs.

Since the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency in 2017, nearly 841,000 people have died of an opioid overdose. Like anxiety and depression, addiction is also on the rise during the pandemic. A CDC survey found that 13 percent of respondents began using drugs during the pandemic or increased their use of illicit substances.

NH Hospital doctors provide micronutrients among other aides to help "build [patients] up] before taking them off the drugs, says Cormier. "We're just trying to make sure the patient feels safe and that if we're doing all these things, we continue to move them in a positive direction instead of just letting them sweat it out," she says.

"Our leadership here is committed to doing what it takes to help people whether they have behavioral, medical, or whatever [condition] brings them through our doors so that we make them have a better life," says Cormier.

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

UH expert: Mental health research just as important in the time of COVID-19

Houston voices

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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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.