Dr. Yunyu Xiao Receives Grants to Study Mental Health and Health Equity and is Named a 2023 Google Research Scholar

Dr. Yunyu Xiao, assistant professor of population health sciences, recently received grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and was named a Google Research Scholar.

In her research, Dr. Xiao focuses primarily on addressing mental health and suicide prevention. She has developed novel measurement techniques to map the impact of social determinants of health (SDOH) on child and youth mental health and suicidality, both within the U.S. and globally. Throughout the pandemic, she’s witnessed how pandemic-related policies have disparately impacted marginalized groups and their mental health. Coming from a background in social work, she aims to address these disparities and improve health equity.

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Dr. Yunyu Xiao

For her R01 grant from the NIMH, Dr. Xiao will study the impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health, suicidal ideation (SI), and suicide attempts (SA). The study will account for how various SDOH and pandemic-related policies influence children’s mental health, including community poverty levels, racism, and disruptions at school. The study will also address how the pandemic affected parents’ unemployment, food security, and housing security—amongst other factors—and how those changes influenced their children’s mental health. She and colleagues including Dr. Timothy Brown and Dr. Lonnie Snowden from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Ketherine Keyes from Columbia University, and Dr. Chang Su, assistant professor of population health sciences, will construct novel causal models from epidemiology and econometrics and use two nationwide longitudinal datasets to complete the study.  

“We already know that during COVID-19, children have experienced a lot of stress and impact on their mental health and wellness,” she explained. But that’s just the short-term impact we’ve observed. The long-term impact of their familial mental health and the disruptions in their family life should be taken into account.” 

For the Google Research Scholar program, which supports early-career professors pursuing research in fields relevant to Google, Dr. Xiao proposes a workflow called Equity-focused Policy-Decision-Making using Causal Machine Learning, or EPIC. This workflow will use machine learning methods to assess the tradeoffs in policy making to reduce unintended side effects and avoid risks that could amplify health inequity. The workflow will contribute to the Google Health Equity Research Initiative, or HERI, by developing open-sourced SDOH and policy databases.  

“We can also use EPIC to inform policy makers,” she said. “Whenever they think about the pandemic-related restrictions they put in place, they will be able to predict whether a given decision could hurt a particular population. These factors (SDOH) can be weighed into their decision making.” 

Finally, in her study funded by the AFSP, Dr. Xiao aims to investigate the association between structural SDOH and increased suicide risk. In this grant, she will be working with her mentor Dr. J. John Mann, from Columbia University. While her R01-funded study will focus on children’s mental health, this will take a life-course perspective and identify how SDOH continues to affect youth suicide later in life. She hypothesizes that living in high-risk structural SDOH increases suicidal behaviors concurrently and longitudinally, particularly in racial and ethnic minorities. With the added expertise from Dr. Mann in brain and genetic factors related to suicide, Dr. Xiao will contribute to innovative findings linking gene-environment factors to the mechanisms leading to racial and ethnic disparities in suicide. As with her research for the Google Research Scholar program, her goal is to positively influence public health, city planning, and design decisions in a way that promotes healthcare access and actionable public health intervention.  

“Policy should address not only families but communities as well. Social connection is really important, and we need places to establish that,” she said. “For example, creating places for people to work, hang out, have picnics—all of these are important things that influence people’s lives and mental health.” 

Dr. Xiao extends gratitude to Dr. Jyotishman Pathak, chief of the Division of Health Informatics and Frances and John L. Loeb professor of medical informatics, and Dr. Bruce Schackman, Saul P. Steinberg distinguished professor of population health sciences and director of the Center for Health Economics of Treatment Interventions for Substance Use Disorder, HCB, and HIV, for their guidance. She explains that working with them and becoming exposed to new areas of expertise has changed how she identifies critical public health questions. Her research and thought processes now account for a larger range of communities and audiences. Interdisciplinary collaborations have stimulated new idea projects linking social sciences and data sciences.  

In the future, Dr. Xiao will continue leveraging data science techniques to refine SDOH metrics and extend her research to low- and middle-income countries. She is committed to devising community-centric suicide prevention strategies for marginalized groups and translating machine learning models into accessible frameworks for clinicians, policymakers, and community leaders. 

“There is still stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness,” said Dr. Xiao. “But I want everyone to feel like they can be a ‘security guard’ to their loved ones. Do not be afraid to share your stress or reach out for help. Family members should be aware of when their children or partners are not feeling well and be able to reach out to them before, or when we see warning signs.”  

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