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Mental Health Awareness Month at PLOS Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. It goes without saying that efforts to educate and advocate should be global and all year round. However, as PLOS Mental Health gears up to start publishing content, we are taking this opportunity to highlight important mental health pieces that have been published in some of our sister journals during the first part of 2024.

In a very recent guest-written blog post for PLOS Mental Health, a call was made for psychiatry to adapt to today’s world. Indeed, a key priority of PLOS Mental Health is to elevate the voices of lived experience in order to understand exactly how the field needs to adapt to the very specific needs of individuals and communities. So much has changed in recent years that unless the field adapts and barriers to mental health care are broken down, millions will continue to be left behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic had both an acute and long-lasting impact on mental health that continues today. A study by Panagi et al., in PLOS Medicine, published at the beginning of 2024, provides a longitudinal analysis of children and young persons (CYPs, ages 11-17years) with Long COVID (CLoCk). Although a general consensus about how the pandemic has affected the mental health of young persons remains elusive, this study suggests that those in their mid-late teens are more vulnerable to mental health decline, and differences in mental health were also observed in those with special educational needs. Although follow-up studies are needed, this publication reiterates that the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of young persons is not straightforward and, as such, support and treatments cannot be one-size-fits-all. 

Monitoring or predicting changes in the mental health of young persons can be complicated due to a variety of factors such as stigma, access to appropriate services, and even individual self-awareness. A paper published by Bloomfield et al.,  in PLOS Digital Health last month presents the use of wearable devices for predicting stress in college students. The study demonstrates how physiologic estimates (in this case, sleep data) from wearable devices could be used to proactively manage well-being in a more personalized way. Of course, when attempting to predict and manage changes in mental health, one must take into account both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Our mental health is a result of an interplay between what is going both internally and externally. As such, management and treatment approaches need to be tailored to individuals and there needs to be a balance between the use of psychological and pharmacological interventions.  At the beginning of April, Jurado-González et al., presented a network analysis in PLOS ONE, in which they compared the effectiveness of psychological and pharmacological approaches in the treatment of emotional disorders. The fine-grain analysis revealed that, within the population tested, transdiagnostic group cognitive behavioural therapy combined with pharmacological interventions was more effective than the use of pharmacological tools alone. This is in line with recent shifts in the field – moving away from an overreliance on medication alone, towards utilizing psychological therapies. 

Treatment approaches need to be tailored to individuals and there needs to be a balance between the use of psychological and pharmacological interventions.

Far too many people are in need of psychological therapies and support, but structural barriers mean that help is often out of reach. Efforts that aim to deliver support to all individuals and communities across the globe are crucial. A groundbreaking example of such an effort is the Friendship Bench in Zimbabwe. Back in January, Simms et al., published a study in PLOS Global Public Health in which they assessed the potential benefits of the Friendship Bench initiative for the mental health of those with HIV in Zimbabwe. They found that not only did the low-cost intervention improve mental health outcomes, but also appeared to potentially maintain viral suppression. This is an important example of how closely intertwined mental and physical health can be. 

Improving mental health care globally requires that we adapt to the needs of all affected individuals and communities, in all contexts. Our mental health hinges on our biology and our circumstance, with millions facing extremes with respect to the latter in recent years.  PLOS Mental Health will contribute to advancing our understanding of all of the factors that influence mental health and access to mental health care, as have our sister journals before us. 

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