Psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein talks with The Jewish Press about mental health and the pandemic, his foundation’s current research and his show’s new season.
Brooklyn born psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein realized he wanted to help people suffering from mental illnesses while doing rotations in his residency, where he saw firsthand the profound impact treatment had on the lives of patients. He earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard and his M.D. from New York University in 1984.
Borenstein has been honored with the American Psychiatric Association’s Special Presidential Commendation and is editor-in-chief of their newspaper, Psychiatric News. He has also received the Federation of Organizations Community Mental Health Man of the Year Award and the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NY State Connie Lieber Award. He is president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (BBRF), the largest private funder specializing in giving research grants in the field of mental health.
The Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research, headed by Stephen and Connie Lieber until Stephen’s passing in 2020, is one of the most prestigious awards in the mental health field, two scientists who received the award having gone on to win the Nobel Prize. In January 2021, the BBRF received an $8 million dollar bequest from Lieber, which is being allocated to support research in such areas as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar, addictions, eating disorders, and most recently, Covid-19 and the brain.
Dr. Borenstein’s Emmy-nominated PBS series, Healthy Minds, is now in its seventh season.
The Jewish Press: What can you suggest to the many people who are still suffering from anxiety, fear and forms of depression due to the pandemic?
Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein: The first thing is, don’t suffer in silence. Seek help, whether it be speaking with friends and family and getting support…If the symptoms a person is experiencing are affecting their level of functioning, that would be a time to seek professional consultation. People shouldn’t just try to tough it out on their own.
How does Covid affect the brain?
It may relate to inflammation that occurs when people have Covid, but there is, for some people who get Covid, an increase in the rate of depression and anxiety…it’s something that people should be aware of… The first episode of our current season is with a researcher who shares the cutting edge work she’s done on the effects of Covid on the brain, Dr. Maura Boldrini at Columbia.
Who are some of the guests you have featured on Healthy Minds and what did they discuss?
Over the years, well-known guests have included Mike Wallace and his wife, Mary, speaking about his experience with depression; Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys spoke about his experience with schizoaffective disorder; Jane Pauley spoke about her experience with bipolar disorder. This season, I interview Maurice Benard, who is the star of General Hospital. He shares his own experience as a person who lives with bipolar disorder – and the character that he portrays has bipolar disorder as well. He’s a tremendous advocate for educating the public and reducing the stigma about mental illness.
Can you tell us a little about noninvasive treatments BBRF is involved in studying that can help people suffering from conditions like depression, anxiety, PTSD and insomnia?
CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is a form of talk therapy. It is really a way for people to better understand some of the issues that may be causing them distress, and how to better manage those issues. It’s more directive.
TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) is the use of magnets directed towards particular areas of the brain to help treat certain conditions. BBRF was an early supporter of research on developing TMS for depression. Dr. Mark George, at the University of South Carolina, has continued to support researchers around the world looking to further fine-tune TMS…For the upcoming season, I interview Dr. Nolan Williams who has further fine-tuned TMS to make it even more effective in treating depression.
Can you explain the significance of the BBRF study comparing the neurodevelopment of babies born to women who had Covid while pregnant verses women who didn’t have it while pregnant?
One of the key points of that particular study is that, for people who are pregnant and had Covid during their pregnancy, the early indications are that those children aren’t doing differently than other children born during the same time frame from mothers who didn’t have Covid during their pregnancy…Obviously, pregnant women want to minimize the risk of getting Covid, but if they do, the good news is it appears, at least from this study, that their child doesn’t do any differently than the mothers who didn’t develop Covid during pregnancy.
Is there anything pregnant women can do to protect the health of their baby’s developing brain?
Research done with support from BBRF by Dr. Robert Friedman and colleagues at the University of Colorado Denver looked at the potential benefit of choline supplementation during pregnancy. Similar to how pregnant women may take folic acid, the use of choline supplementation during pregnancy can potentially decrease the risk of developing certain psychiatric illnesses in the child down the road… This may be particularly helpful during the time of Covid. Women who are pregnant or who are thinking of getting pregnant should speak to their OB-GYN physician about the potential of choline supplementation.
An upcoming episode of Healthy Minds features Dr. William Carson, psychiatrist and Chairman of the Board of Otsuka Pharmaceutical. It will bring attention to a new emergency phone number, 988, that anyone in the U.S. who is experiencing a mental health crisis can call, text or chat starting on July 16.