The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed mental health services and systems, causing delays in service for people in need and disrupting treatment access. At the same time, a growing number of people, including health care workers and other essential workers, are developing what could become long-term mental health conditions due to the pandemic. The Digital Mental Health Care for COVID-19 High-Risk Populations project will work to address these challenges by creating, testing and delivering new digital mental health care tools and supporting sustained access for those who would most benefit from these resources.
In partnership with the New York State Office of Mental Health (NYS OMH), the project will develop digital mental health care interventions. These will include brief online videos to reduce stigma and empower individuals to seek treatment for mental health issues, and interactive behavioral change modules (digital tools that aim to reduce psychiatric symptoms by encouraging limited exposure to social media, more social support, better sleep habits and physical exercise). Resources will be made available via NYS OMH’s online platform and disseminated as part of a statewide effort to make digital mental health interventions for high-risk groups more accessible.
The project will bring together Columbia faculty with expertise across the areas of trauma, mental health and cultural competence – as well as significant experience working in Black and Latinx communities – and experts in videography and online behavioral change interventions. NYS OMH will integrate the interventions found to be effective into an online platform that it created as part of its COVID-19 response and will offer the interventions to residents of New York.
By creating digital resources that are evidence-based, customized for high-risk populations and made widely accessible, the project could provide a leading example of how to adapt mental health services in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and potentially provide lessons for other large-scale disasters.
Dr. Doron AmsalemColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Doron Amsalem, MD, is a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and a Research Scientist at Columbia University in New York City. Dr. Amsalem developed programs for medical students and...
Dr. Lisa B. DixonColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Lisa Dixon, MD, MPH is the Edna L Edison Professor of Psychiatry at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Dr. Sidney H. HankersonColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Sidney Hankerson, MD, MBA is Co-Director of the Columbia University Wellness Center, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and Research Scientist...
Dr. Roberto Lewis-FernándezColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Roberto Lewis-Fernández is Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, Director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Cultural Competence and the Hispanic Treatment...
Dr. Yuval Neria, PhDColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Yuval Neria, PhD, is Professor of Medical Psychology at Columbia University, Departments of Psychiatry and Epidemiology, and Director of Trauma and PTSD at the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI).
Dr. Thomas E. SmithColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Thomas Smith oversees clinical and quality aspects of the New York State public mental health system with a focus on improving access to prevention, recovery and rehabilitation services...
Dr. Melanie WallColumbia UniversityRead Full Bio arrow_right_alt
Dr. Wall is a biostatistician and director of Mental Health Data Science at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. She has worked extensively designing...
Conventional approaches to mental health services – which rely on face-to-face, office-based treatment – are impossible in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and are ill-equipped to meet the surge in need resulting from the pandemic. Moreover, social distancing and quarantining are likely to exacerbate the prevalence of mental health issues – including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety – conditions made worse by high exposure to digital and social media, lack of social support and inadequate sleep and physical exercise.
Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues in this pandemic. Even prior to the pandemic, health care workers disproportionately experienced chronic stress and exhaustion. The onset and persistence of the pandemic has increased the burden on health care workers, exacerbating these symptoms. Essential workers in industries such as child care, water operations, agriculture and food production, transportation and critical retail (e.g., grocery stores) are similarly exposed to profound stress and are at high risk of developing mental health issues. There is also increasing evidence of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underserved racial and ethnic groups, who are experiencing high rates of infection, hospital admissions and deaths – putting those groups at particular risk for mental health conditions.
Left unaddressed, these conditions may lead to chronic and disabling mental illnesses in our society, particularly among the people who have provided crucial services to communities during the pandemic. To mitigate current distress and to prevent the development of long-term mental health conditions among vulnerable groups, it is essential to develop timely, innovative and cost-effective interventions that do not need to be administered in person.
The immense demand for mental health care created by the COVID-19 pandemic presents a rare opportunity to shift to digital solutions, which have the capacity to transform access to mental health services both during and after the pandemic. In partnership with the New York State Office of Mental Health (NYS OMH), this project will develop, test and implement cost-effective, scalable and interactive digitally-delivered mental health interventions to meet the growing needs of high-risk groups.
The project will create and test the efficacy of new digital mental health tools— online videos and interactive behavioral change modules. The project will test the effectiveness of these two approaches by using an online crowdsourcing platform to conduct a randomized controlled trial of approximately 4,200 health care and other essential workers.
The project will integrate the interventions found to be effective into an online platform created by the New York State Office of Mental Health (NYS OMH) as part of its COVID-19 response. In November 2020, NYS OMH completed a large needs assessment survey that found that more than 1.5 million New York residents are potentially in need of such support.