Houston voices

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.

------

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.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

What's an employee group and why do you need to know about it during Hispanic Heritage Month? This Houston expert explains. Photo via Getty Images

Making a name for yourself in corporate America is no easy task. It is especially hard if you are the first generation in your family to attend college in this country and the first to take a stab at climbing the corporate ladder. The secret behind those who successfully make it to the top is access to a strong support group.

Finding the right support system, one that provides professional and personal mentorship and one that you identify with culturally, can help you navigate the business world and help you achieve your career goals.

Many Hispanic/Latino professionals have found that support system in employee groups, or EGs.

What are EGs and how can they help Hispanic professionals succeed?

EGs are employee-led groups that foster inclusivity and build community. The purpose of the group is to provide personal and professional support to its members, who usually share certain characteristics in common – like being Hispanic, or those who simply have interest in learning about a culture that is not unique to them.

AT&T has 14 EGs, including HACEMOS, which was established in 1988 and is dedicated to supporting Hispanic employees and the communities they live in. There are 36 HACEMOS chapters across the country supporting more than 8,500 members. The Houston chapter currently supports 278 members – all in different phases of their career.

HACEMOS members believe that “Juntos HACEMOS más,” which means “Together we do more.” Under that guiding belief, members work together to support each other in advancing their careers. Through HACEMOS, AT&T employees can participate in various professional development learning opportunities and have access to one- on-one mentorship sessions with members from the leadership team.

For many members, the group offers a safe environment to engage and learn from other professionals who understand their personal and professional hurdles from a cultural point of view.

At a personal level, the support I receive from HACEMOS has helped me to better understand and be proud of my heritage. HACEMOS has embraced my “Latina” identity, encouraging me to continue using my Spanish skills to serve our Latino customers within AT&T.

EGs provide members with a sense of community and belonging. 

Most EGs have a community aspect to them that allow members to work together to address needs in their communities. HACEMOS members in Houston take pride in organizing, volunteering, and participating in various initiatives that provide support to the most vulnerable members of their community.

This year, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Houston HACEMOS Chapter will be hosting events throughout the city, helping support our youth and instill the importance of continuing their education and striving for success. Our national group is actively volunteering on efforts to help close the digital divide (the gap between people who have reliable internet access and those who do not) which is more likely to impact people of color, especially Hispanic families.

EGs create a win-win for employees and employers. 

EGs are beneficial to employees and employers. It’s true, EG members are engaged and develop strong relationships with their colleagues from other departments resulting in a collaborative environment.

Also, the company benefits from the knowledge and skills EG members gain through the various workshops and learning resources. In addition, EG members serve as brand ambassadors in the community for the company while they participate in community volunteer events.

So, if the company you work for currently does not have an EG you identify with, it’s easy to build your case to launch one. And if your company has an EG you identify with, then I encourage you to join it today – I can ensure you, it will be a rewarding experience that can help you advance your career.

------

Erika Portillo is the Houston HACEMOS president for AT&T.

Trending News