Is the Pandemic Over? A Looming Mental Health Pandemic Points Up Need for Action

Optimism is building that we are on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the power of science to develop vaccines that are effective and safe.  

While there is much to celebrate, experts agree we are beginning to see the contours of a second pandemic to come. The threat is no longer a physical virus, but a global mental health crisis triggered by the upheaval and distress of the past year.  

“Not since the Great Depression and World War II has the world faced such economic, social and health challenges,” said Dr. Eric Nestler, head of the Brain Institute at Mount Sinai and a world leader in psychiatry. “We’re just beginning to see a depression, stress, and anxiety pandemic.” 

Dr. Eric Nestler in his office at Mount Sinai

Rates of PTDS and clinical depression always rise after a disaster, research shows. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-century global event, and early surveys by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are ominous:    

40% of adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic, up from 10% in 2019.

13% of adults reported starting or increasing substance use, and 11% of adults reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days. 

The greatest burden falls, as always, on the most vulnerable among us—marginalized groups, women, the poor, and the isolated. 

In light of this historic challenge, leaders in multiple arenas—from politics to health—must step up to strengthen mental health infrastructure. Key to this endeavor are the scientific leaders like Dr. Nestler, whose biomedical research will pave the way for new and better treatments for depression that can reach a wide population.  

The HDRF Depression Task Force: Conor Liston, M.D Ph.D., Helen S. Mayberg, M.D., Michael Meaney, Ph.D, René Hen, Ph.D., Elisabeth Binder, M.D Ph.D., Kafui Dzirasa, M.D Ph.D., Eric Nestler, M.D., Ph.D., Huda Akil, Ph.D., Jonathan Javitch, M.D., Ph.D.

Recently Nestler met with colleagues on the Depression Task Force at the non-profit Hope for Depression Research Foundation (HDRF). The Task Force is an international team of top scientists from different universities who are pooling expertise and data to find new targets in the brain for treatment.  They have been working together since 2012, and their annual meeting this year was set against the backdrop of COVID. 

The meeting radiated optimism and wisdom. There are no overnight discoveries in science, Nestler stressed, pointing out that even the new COVID vaccines grew out of decades of painstaking research that happened before the virus hit.  

However, the Depression Task Force was uniquely poised to lead the way forward on the last frontier of medicine: the mind and brain. They have identified the most important targets in the brain to study, and they have discovered several new potential precision treatments, two of which are in clinical trials.  Several others are in the pipeline. 

Dr. Eric Nestler

 “The Depression Task Force has largely defined the entire field of depression research over the past decade,” said Nestler.  “We’ve made progress across the spectrum.”

He closed with a historic overview: “We believe that the field and the Depression Task Force in particular is now at an inflection point, at the beginning of a revolution in brain research,” he said. “So for the first time in history – in my lifetime—there’s a rational basis for optimism in better understanding and conquering depression.”