$2.5M project aims to reduce worry, stress amid pandemic in low income neighborhoods

Person looking at images on a computer screen.

by Charles Anzalone; adapted by the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

Published September 8, 2020

Wenyao Xu is part of a team of University at Buffalo researchers, led by the School of Nursing, who will help adults living in low-income, racial- and ethnic-minority neighborhoods reduce stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"New technologies can monitor user's stress levels and provide highly accessible intervention services to promote mental health among under-served populations."
Wenyao Xu, associate professor
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

The $2.5 million award comes from the independent and non-profit Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI).

UB researchers will compare a videoconference mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) group intervention to a MBSR mobile app. Both approaches seek to reduce worry among adults living in these areas who have limited or reduced access to mental health care, particularly due to the pandemic.

Xu, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, will lead the technical team in development of the app.

“We teamed up with the research team in the UB Nursing School to develop new mHealth tools for health care delivery and patient-provider communication. New technologies can monitor user's stress levels and provide highly accessible intervention services to promote mental health among under-served populations,” says Xu.

“We are excited about this project, not only because it is important patient-centered research, but also the fact that we will be providing important work for the residents in some of the most disadvantaged portions of the city of Buffalo,” says principal investigator Yu-Ping Chang, associate dean for research and scholarship in the School of Nursing.

The project is the school’s first PCORI contract, one of seven awarded by the institute nationwide through a special COVID-19-targeted funding announcement. All focus on assessing various health care approaches to improving outcomes among people infected by the novel coronavirus and lessening the effects of COVID-19 on patients, health care workers and communities.

“The fact that one of the seven projects that PCORI funded is directly benefiting the residents in the city of Buffalo is great news for the region,” says Chang.

The project, “Comparing Two Ways to Mitigate the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health among Adults from Underserved and Racial Minority Communities,” will evaluate whether mental health-related telehealth approaches achieve comparable or better outcomes for patients, with particular attention to health care access and disparities in outcomes among racial and ethnic minorities and underserved populations residing within the city of Buffalo.

The project summary defines worry as “a chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable. It has been conceptualized as a coping strategy to reduce the experience of anxiety.”

The project is important for the community, Chang notes. “Though worry is a normal part of life, the introduction of COVID-19 has turned much of this worry into harmful stress. This has been especially true within communities of color, where the pandemic has further exacerbated the profound inequities in health care,” she says. “We hope that information obtained through this study can help to mitigate some of these inequities.

“Ultimately, the study will seek to find ways to effectively address mental health concerns and will provide guidance for providers on ways to overcome barriers of access to mental health care in underserved communities during COVID-19.”

Researchers hope the study will yield lessons on strategies for personalized and culturally appropriate tailoring of interventions considering mental health needs, social determinates of health and cultural values of African American communities.

Chang developed the project in conjunction with a team of co-investigators, including Xu and School of Nursing researchers Christopher Barrick, Susan Grinslade, Rebecca Lorenz, Loralee Sessanna, Patricia Nisbet and Chin-Shang Li.

Chang also will partner with the African American Health Disparities Task Force and other key stakeholders striving to address health disparities in Buffalo, among them the Buffalo Center for Health Equity, Lincoln Memorial United Methodist Church, Agape Fellowship Baptist Church and Friendship Baptist Church.