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

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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Unlike past awards programs hosted by Ignite Healthcare Network, the Ignite Madness winners accepted their awards via video call. Photo courtesy of Ignite

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and Obatala Sciences took third place.

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