Science

How the Pandemic Is Changing Mental Health


Necessity is the mother of invention, and 2020 pushed the world like never before to find creative solutions to a litany of challenges, first and foremost in the medical field. From drug discovery to vaccine manufacturing to care delivery, COVID has animated clinicians, researchers, entrepreneurs and policy makers to radically rethink every facet of the health care ecosystem.

While COVID is prima facie a physical malady, the disease has placed a massive burden on already strained mental health systems around the world. Prior to the pandemic, mental health conditions were a leading cause of disability worldwide. Rates of diagnosis have been rising across all age demographics for years, costing the global economy an estimated $1 trillion annually. And the impact on the young has been particularly devastating. Suicide is now second only to accidents in deaths among teenagers. Since the beginning of 2020, the situation has deteriorated further: the U.S. has seen a large increase in adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression, and the impacts on children will likely reverberate for years to come.

Yet there is reason for cautious optimism. COVID has forced us to confront this growing issue, and innovative thinkers have stepped up to the challenge. From far-flung fields, they have brought solutions to a problem that once looked intractable. Work has begun on building systems to ensure that populations are not only physically safe but mentally well.

Systems modeling techniques from the finance world now forecast mental health incidents. Smartphone capabilities are being leveraged to create digital models of disease progression to detect and monitor cognitive health. Major initiatives have begun to map the brain and discover new therapeutic targets. Psychedelics, once maligned, are being given a second look for everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression to end-of-life anxiety. The venture capital world is incredibly bullish on mental health, pumping more than $2.4 billion into digital tools for physicians and patients in the past year alone.

With all this in mind, the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Mental Health, a diverse group with expertise in psychiatry, neuroscience, psychology, public health, technology, informatics, business, public policy and advocacy, set out to highlight the most innovative and game-changing advances in mental health. The council sifted through more than 60 nominations with an eye for solutions that are novel, bridge current gaps in access or care, improve on existing ways of doing things, have the highest near-term potential to spur progress in society, and enhance people’s mental lives.

We sincerely hope our list stimulates progress to create a better world for everyone suffering from mental ill-health. At the same time, we recognize that a future where mental health is taken seriously and escapes the stigma that currently surrounds it is not inevitable. Societies have an opportunity to advance these efforts through research and outreach. As Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame wrote in the Independent,Trying to predict the future is a mug’s game. But increasingly it’s a game we all have to play because the world is changing so fast and we need to have some sort of idea of what the future’s actually going to be like because we are going to have to live there, probably next week.”

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Click here to view the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Mental Health


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