As I sit down to write this blog, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a widespread impact, and we’re all trying to figure out our “new normal.” For some, figuring out the new normal has been especially difficult, and that’s something for all of us to consider during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. It’s such an important time to share what we know about suicide prevention and consider how we can further this knowledge to those in need.
At NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), we’ve been asking ourselves: What have we learned about suicide risk and prevention during the pandemic? And how should our research evolve to reflect a rapidly changing world?
Over the last few years, people have been concerned about the pandemic’s impact on suicide rates. So far, data suggest that the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has remained steady. But there is concerning evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately affected suicide risk in historically underserved communities.
For example, data suggest that people in minority racial and ethnic groups experienced greater increases in suicidal thoughts during the pandemic . Additional data indicate that suicide rates may be rising among some young adult racial and ethnic minority groups .
Structural racism and other social and environmental factors are major drivers of mental health disparities, and NIMH continues to invest in research to understand how these social determinants of health influence suicide risk. This research includes investigations into the effects of long-term and daily discrimination.
To mitigate these effects, it is critical that we identify specific underlying mechanisms so that we can develop targeted interventions. To this end, NIMH is supporting research in underserved communities to identify suicide risk and the protective factors and effective strategies for reducing this risk (e.g., RFA-MH-22-140, RFA-MH-21-188, RFA-MH-21-187). There are important lessons to be learned that we can’t afford to miss.
Building Solid Foundations
The pandemic also underscored the urgent need to support youth mental health. Indeed, in December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued the Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, calling attention to increasing rates of depression and suicidal behaviors among young people. Crucially, the advisory highlighted the need to “recognize that mental health is an essential part of overall health.”
At NIMH, we know that establishing a foundation for good mental health early on can support a person’s overall health and well-being over a lifetime. In light of this, we are investing in research to identify effective prevention efforts that can help set kids on positive mental health trajectories early in life.
Additionally, by re-analyzing research investments already made, we are looking to see whether these early prevention efforts have meaningful impacts on later suicide risk and mental health outcomes. These findings may help to improve a range of systems—such as schools, social services, and health care—to better support kids’ mental health needs.
At the same time, NIMH is investing in work to understand the most effective ways to help providers use evidence-based approaches to prevent suicide. This research helps inform federal partners and others about the best ways to support policies and practices that help prevent suicide deaths.
In July, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) launched the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a three-digit suicide prevention and mental health crisis number. This service builds on the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, allowing anyone to call or text 988 to connect with trained counselors and mental health services. Research supported by NIMH helped build the case for such lifelines, and now we’re calling for research aimed at identifying the best ways to help people use this evolving crisis support system.
With these and many other efforts, we are hopeful that people who are at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors will be able to access the evidence-based support and services they need. This National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I’d like to issue a call to action: Help raise awareness by sharing resources on how to recognize the warning signs for suicide and how to get help. By working together, we can prevent suicide and save lives.
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 16th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” At NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), we believe that educating future and current scientists from diverse backgrounds benefits the entire biomedical research enterprise, changing the world through advances in disease diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.
As the summer winds down and students and educators embark on a new school year, I thought I’d highlight some of our educational resources that complement science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula. I’d also like to draw your attention to training programs designed to inspire and support research careers.
STEM Programs and Resources from NIH
The NIGMS Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPAs) are resources that provide opportunities for pre-K-12 students from underserved communities to access STEM educational resources. It lets them aspire to careers in health research.
The SEPA grants in almost every state support innovative, research-based, science education programs, furthering NIGMS’ mission to ensure a strong and diverse research ecosystem. Resources generated through SEPAs are free, mapped to state and national teaching standards for STEM, and rigorously evaluated for effectiveness. These resources include mobile laboratories, health exhibits in museums and science centers, educational resources for students, and professional development for teachers.
One SEPA program at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, West Lafayette, IN, pairs veterinarians from their nationwide “superhero” League of VetaHumanz with local schools or community centers that support underserved students. These professional veterinarians, also from diverse backgrounds, strive to help young students from underrepresented groups envision future careers caring for animals.
Another SEPA program at Baylor University, Waco, TX, is increasing access to chemistry labs for high schoolers with blindness. It uses a robotic reactor with enhanced safety features to eliminate many dangers of synthetic organic chemistry. Students with blindness can control the robot to conduct experiments in a similar fashion to their sighted counterparts. The robot is housed within an airtight, blast-proof glove box, and it can perform common chemistry operations such as weighing and dispensing solid or liquid reagents; delivering solvents; combining reagents with the solvents; and stirring, heating, or cooling the reaction mixtures.
As noted in the 2021 report from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, “equity and inclusion are fundamental prerequisites for making high-quality STEM education accessible to all Americans and will maximize the creative capacity of tomorrow’s workforce.” I believe this statement falls right in line with the spirit of SEPAs.
New NIH-Wide STEM Teaching Resources Website
To help educators find free science education content, we recently launched a STEM teachingresources website. It includes NIH-wide teaching materials as well as those from SEPA programs for grades K-12, categorized by different health and research topic areas.
The NIGMS free educational resource Pathways, designed for educators and aspiring scientists in grades 6-12, is one of many resources available through the STEM website. Each issue of Pathways provides information about basic biomedical science and research careers and includes a student magazine, teacher lesson plans, and interactives such as Kahoot! classroom quizzes. Our most recent vaccine science issue teaches students how COVID-19 vaccines work in the body and introduces them to scientists dedicated to vaccine research.
Programs for Early Career Scientists
While SEPA grants focus on future scientists (and their educators) in grades pre-K-12, NIGMS also has a robust research training portfolio for those at the undergraduate through postdoctoral and professional levels. These programs aim to enhance diversity by engaging and training scientists from diverse backgrounds early in their careers.
At the other end of the spectrum, our Maximizing Opportunities for Scientific and Academic Independent Careers (MOSAIC) program helps promising postdoctoral researchers from diverse backgrounds transition into independent faculty careers. The MOSAIC scholars become part of a career development program to expand their professional networks and gain additional skills and mentoring through scientific societies. You can learn more about each of these impressive early career scientists on our MOSAIC Scholars webpages.
At NIGMS, we’re dedicated to increasing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce. Through STEM content and outreach, as well as scientist training resources, we focus on emphasizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. This holds true with funding and programming for current scientists, and in the inspiration and training of future scientists.
Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 15th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.
There’s been a lot of focus, and rightly so, on why older adults and adults with chronic disease appear to be at increased risk for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Not nearly as much seems to be known about children and COVID-19.
For example, why does SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, seem to affect children differently than adults? What is the psychosocial impact of the pandemic on our youngsters? Are kids as infectious as adults?
A lot of interesting research in this area has been published recently. That includes the results of a large study in South Korea in which researchers traced the person-to-person spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the early days of the pandemic. The researchers found children younger than age 10 spread the virus to others much less often than adults do, though the risk is not zero. But children age 10 to 19 were found to be just as infectious as adults. That obviously has consequences for the current debate about opening the schools.
To get some science-based answers to these and other questions, I recently turned to one of the world’s leading child health researchers: Dr. Diana Bianchi, Director of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Dr. Bianchi is a pediatrician with expertise in newborn medicine, neonatology, and reproductive genetics. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat, which took place via videoconference, with Diana linking in from Boston and me from my home in Chevy Chase, MD:
Collins: What is the overall risk of children getting COVID-19? We initially heard they’re at very low risk. [NOTE: Since the recording of this interview, new data has emerged from state health departments that suggest that as much as 10 percent of new cases of COVID-19 occur in children.]
Bianchi: Biological factors certainly play some role. We know that the virus often enters the body via cells in the nasal passage. A recent study showed that, compared to adults, children’s nasal cells have less of the ACE2 receptor, which the virus attaches to and uses to infect cells. In children, the virus probably has less of an opportunity to grab onto cells and get into the upper respiratory tract.
Importantly, social reasons also play a role in that low percentage. Children have largely been socially isolated since March, when many schools shut down. By and large, young kids have been either home or playing in their backyards.
Collins: If kids do get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, what kind of symptoms are displayed?
Bianchi: Children tend to be affected mildly. Relatively few children end up in intensive care units. The most common symptoms are: fever, in about 60 percent of children; cough; and a mild respiratory illness. It’s a different clinical presentation. Children seem to be more prone to vomiting, diarrhea, severe abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal problems.
Collins: Are children as infectious as adults?
Bianchi: We suspect that older kids probably are. A recently published meta-analysis, or systematic review of the medical literature, also found about 20 percent of infected kids are asymptomatic. There are probably a lot of kids out there who can potentially infect others.
Collins: Do you see a path forward here for schools in the fall?
Bianchi: I think the key word is flexibility. We must remain flexible in the months ahead. Children have struggled from being out of school, and it’s not just the educational loss. It’s the whole support system, which includes the opportunity to exercise. It includes the opportunity to have teachers and school staff looking objectively at the kids to see if they are psychologically well.
The closing of schools has also exacerbated disparities. Schools provide meals for many kids in need, and some have had a lot of food insecurity for the past several months. Not to mention kids in homeless situations often don’t have access to the internet and other learning tools. So, on the whole, being in school is better for children than not being there. That’s how most pediatricians see it. However, we don’t want to put children at risk for getting sick.
Collins: Can you say a little bit more about the consequences, particularly for young children, of being away from their usual areas of social interaction? That’s true this summer as well. Camps that normally would be a place where lots of kids would congregate have either been cancelled or are being conducted in a very different way.
Bianchi: Thus far, most of the published information that we have has really been on the infection and the clinical presentations. Ultimately, I think there will be a lot of information about the behavioral and developmental consequences of not being exposed to other children. I think that older children are also really suffering from not having a daily structure, for example, through sports.
For younger children, they need to learn how to socialize. There are advantages to being with your parents. But there are a lot of social skills that need to be learned without them. People talk about the one-eyed babysitter, YouTube. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued recommendations for limiting screen time. That’s gone out the window. I’ve talked with a lot of my staff members who are struggling with this balance between educating or entertaining their children and having so-called quality time, and the responsibility to do their jobs.
Collins: What about children with disabilities? Are they in a particularly vulnerable place?
Bianchi: Absolutely. Sadly, we don’t hear a lot about children with disabilities as a vulnerable population. Neither do we hear a lot about the consequences of them not receiving needed services. So many children with disabilities rely on people coming into their homes, whether it’s to help with respiratory care or to provide physical or speech therapy. Many of these home visits are on hold during the pandemic, and that can cause serious problems. For example, you can’t suction a trachea remotely. Of course, you can do speech therapy remotely, but that’s not ideal for two reasons. First, face-to-face interactions are still better, and, secondly, disparities can factor into the equation. Not all kids with disabilities have access to the internet or all the right equipment for online learning.
Collins: Tell me a little bit more about a rare form of consequences from COVID-19, this condition called MIS-C, Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome of Children. I don’t think anybody knew anything about that until just a couple of months ago.
Bianchi: Even though there were published reports of children infected with SARS-CoV-2 in China in January, we didn’t hear until April about this serious new inflammatory condition. Interestingly, none of the children infected with SARS-CoV-2 in China or Japan are reported to have developed MIS-C. It seemed to be something that was on the European side, predominantly the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. And then, starting in April and May, it was seen in New York and the northeastern United States.
The reason it’s of concern is that many of these children are gravely ill. I mentioned that most children have a mild illness, but the 0.5 percent who get the MIS-C are seriously ill. Almost all require admission to the ICU. The scary thing is they can turn on a dime. They present with more of a prolonged fever. They can have very severe abdominal pain. In some cases, children have been thought to have appendicitis, but they don’t. They have serious cardiac issues and go into shock.
The good news is the majority survive. Many require ventilators and blood-pressure support. But they do respond to treatment. They tend to get out of the hospital in about a week. However, in two studies of MIS-C recently published in New England Journal of Medicine, six children died out of 300 children. So that’s what we want to avoid.
Collins: In terms of the cause, there’s something puzzling about MIS-C. It doesn’t seem to be a direct result of the viral infection. It seems to come on somewhat later, almost like there’s some autoimmune response.
Bianchi: Yes, that’s right. MIS-C does tend to occur, on an average, three to four weeks later. The NIH hosted a conference a couple weeks ago where the top immunologists in the world were talking about MIS-C, and everybody has their piece of the elephant in terms of a hypothesis. We don’t really know right now, but it does seem to be associated with some sort of exuberant, post-infectious inflammatory response.
Is it due to the fact that the virus is still hiding somewhere in the body? Is the body reacting to the virus with excessive production of antibodies? We don’t know. That will be determined, hopefully, within weeks or months. Collins: And I know that your institute is taking a leading role in studying MIS-C.
Bianchi: Yes. Very shortly after the first cases of MIS-C were being described in the United States, you asked me and Gary Gibbons, director of NIH’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, to cochair a taskforce to develop a study designed to address MIS-C. Staff at both institutes have been working, in collaboration with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to come up with the best possible way to approach this public health problem.
The study consists of a core group of kids who are in the hospital being treated for MIS-C. We’re obtaining biospecimens and are committed to a central platform and data-sharing. There’s an arm of the study that’s looking at long-term issues. These kids have transient coronary artery dilation. They have a myocarditis. They have markers of heart failure. What does that imply long-term for the function of their hearts?
We will also be working with several existing networks to identify markers suggesting that a certain child is at risk. Is it an underlying immune issue, or is it ethnic background? Is it this a European genomic variant? Exactly what should we be concerned about?
Collins: Let me touch on the genomics part of this for a minute, and that requires a brief description. The SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus is crowned in spiky proteins that attach to our cells before infecting them. These spike proteins are made of many amino acids, and their precise sequential order can sometimes shift in subtle ways.
Within that sequential order at amino acid 614, a shift has been discovered. The original Chinese isolate, called the D version, had aspartic acid there. It seems the virus that spread from Asia to the U.S. West Coast also has aspartic acid in that position. But the virus that traveled to Italy and then to the East Coast of the U.S. has a glycine there. It’s called the G version.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether this change really matters. More data are starting to appear suggesting that the G version may be more infectious than the D version, although I’ve seen no real evidence of any difference in severity between the two.
Of course, if the change turned out to be playing a role in MIS-C, you would expect not to have seen so many cases on the West Coast. Has anyone looked to see if kids with the D version of the virus ever get MIS-C?
Bianchi: It hasn’t been reported. You could say that maybe we don’t get all the information from China. But we do get it from Japan. In Japan, they’ve had the D version, and they haven’t had MIS-C.
Collins: Let’s talk about expectant mothers. What is the special impact of COVID-19 on them?
Bianchi: Recently, a lot of information has come out about pregnant women and the developing fetus. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that pregnant women are at a greatly increased risk of hospitalization. However, the report didn’t divide out hospitalizations that would be expected for delivering a baby from hospitalizations related to illness. But the report did show that pregnant women are at a higher risk of needing respiratory support and having serious illness, particularly if there is an underlying chronic condition, such as chronic lung disease, diabetes or hypertension.
Collins: Do we know the risk of the mother transmitting the coronavirus to the fetus?
Bianchi: What we know so far is the risk of transmission from mother to baby appears to be small. Now, that’s based on the fact that available studies seem to suggest that the ACE2 receptor that the virus uses to bind to our cells, is not expressed in third trimester placental tissue. That doesn’t mean it’s not expressed earlier in gestation. The placenta is so dynamic in terms of gene expression.
What we do know is there’s a lot of ACE2 expression in the blood vessels. An interesting recent study showed in the third trimester placenta, the blood vessels had taken a hit. There was actual blood vessel damage. There was evidence of decreased oxygenation in the placenta. We don’t know the long-term consequences for the baby, but the placentas did not look healthy.
Collins: I have a friend whose daughter recently was ready to deliver her baby. As part of preparing for labor, she had a COVID-19 test. To her surprise and dismay, she was positive, even though she had no symptoms. She went ahead with the delivery, but then the baby was separated from her for a time because of a concern about the mother transmitting the virus to her newborn. Is separation widely recommended?
Bianchi: I think most hospitals are softening on this. [NOTE: The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued revised recommendations about labor and delivery, as well as about breastfeeding, during COVID-19]
In the beginning, hospitals took a hard line. For example, no support people were allowed into the delivery room. So, women were having more home deliveries, which are far more dangerous, or signing up to give birth at hospitals that allowed support people.
Now more hospitals are allowing a support person in the room during delivery. But, in general, they are recommending that the mother and the support person get tested. If they’re negative, everything’s fine. If the support person is positive, he or she’s not allowed to come in. If the mother is positive, the baby is separated, generally, for testing. In many hospitals, mothers are given the option of reuniting with the baby.
There’s also been a general discussion about mothers who test positive breastfeeding. The more conservative recommendation is to pump the milk and allow somebody else to bottle-feed the baby while the mother recovers from the infection. I should also mention a recent meta-analysis in the United Kingdom. It suggested that a cesarean section delivery is not needed because of SARS-CoV-2 positivity alone. It also found there’s no reason for SARS-CoV-2 positive women not to breast feed.
Collins: Well, Diana, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. If there’s one thing you wanted parents to take away from this conversation, what would that be?
Bianchi: Well, I think it’s natural to be concerned during a pandemic. But I think parents should be generally reassuring to their children. We’ll get through this. However, I would also say that if a parent notices something unusual going on with a child—skin rashes, the so-called blue COVID toes, or a prolonged fever—don’t mess around. Get your child medical attention as soon as possible. Bad things can happen very quickly to children infected with this virus.
For the expectant parents, hopefully, their obstetricians are counseling them about the fact that they are at high risk. I think that women with chronic conditions really need to be proactive. If they’re not feeling well, they need to go to the emergency room. Again, things can happen quickly with this virus.
But the good news is the babies seem to do very well. There’s no evidence of birth defects so far, and very limited evidence, if at all, of vertical transmission. I think they can feel good about their babies. They need to pay attention to themselves.
Collins: Thank you, Diana, for ending on those wise words.