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The long-term pain of the mental health pandemic

A less visible but still massive trauma caused by the coronavirus is becoming clear: our mental health is suffering with potentially long-lasting consequences.

Why it matters: Mental health disorders that range from schizophrenia to depression and anxiety exert a severe cost on personal health and the economy. Addressing that challenge may require out-of-the-box solutions.


What's happening: During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., there were significant increases in acute stress and depressive symptoms, according to a study published earlier this week in Science Advances.

  • Higher levels of exposure to COVID-19-related media worsened symptoms as well, especially if that media contained conflicting information about the coronavirus — which, of course, has largely been the case since the start of the pandemic.

Context: A deep body of scientific research shows that experiencing collective traumas like a mass shooting or a natural disaster can lead to lasting mental health damage. But what sets the pandemic apart is its global scope and its sheer length.

  • And the pandemic is unfolding next to ongoing protests against racial violence and deepening uncertainty about the outcome of the 2020 election.

The trauma of getting sick, seeing loved ones get sick, or losing a job will adversely affect the mental health of even the most redoubtable individual. But the unique nature of the pandemic stresses us in other ways.

  • Humans may exist in the present, but unlike even our closest primate cousins we largely live in the future, anticipating and planning for possibilities, as Arthur C. Brooks argues in a piece for The Atlantic.
  • "Because of the pandemic," he writes, "the future feels difficult and uncertain, and few of us have much control over it. The result is a lot of unhappy monkeys."

More than almost any other condition, mental health disorders have remained stubbornly resistant to the interventions of modern medicine and, according to one estimate, are set to cost the global economy $16 trillion by 2030.

  • For that to change, we need to better understand what a "normal" mental state really is, argues Tara Thiagarajan, a neuroscientist and the founder of Sapien Labs.
  • Thiagarajan is spearheading the Mental Health Million Project, an effort to map mental health by building a global, consistent database that attempts to draw clearer lines around the blurry picture of mental illness.
  • "The major issue we face in mental health is measurement, so we can identify what aspect of the brain we really need to focus on," she says. "If we can understand what the psychology looks like, we can alter that with experimental therapies like magnetic stimulation."

What's next: That's an approach brain-interface startups like Elon Musk's Neuralink and NeuroOne are beginning to explore.

  • Brain stimulation interventions are already being used for motor disorders like Parkinson's and epilepsy.
  • "You'll be hearing more and more about using stimulation to treat psychological disorders," says Dave Rosa, the president and CEO of NeuroOne. "If we can understand the regions of the brain that have these emotions, can we control them?"

The catch: We're still far from fully understanding the brain as well as we do other organs like the heart, and if brain interfaces are ever going to be used for more common conditions like depression, they need to be much less invasive and much more durable.

The bottom line: Given the open-ended trauma of the pandemic and the general chaos of 2020, feeling depressed is more logical than pathological. But we desperately need better solutions to the lasting pandemic that is mental illness, even after COVID-19 is finally vanquished.

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