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Building an urgent mental health research response to COVID-19

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The coronavirus is hitting mental health hard. Surveys show it is causing stress, anxiety and loneliness – impacts that are likely to put extra pressure on key workers and people already experiencing mental health problems.

MQ is working with the Academy of Medical Sciences to lead an urgent global mental health research response to this epidemic.  We convened 24 world-leading experts on mental health, including people with experience of mental health problems, we gathered the views of more than 2,000 of our supporters, and we commissioned an Ipsos MORI poll of 1,000 people.  

This work has culminated in a new roadmap, published in Lancet Psychiatry on 15 April 2020. The paper sets out the urgent action needed to keep the public mentally healthy during the pandemic and avert a long-term mental health crisis.

What needs to happen?

To meet the scale of the challenge ahead, the paper calls for mental health research to be central to the global research response to COVID-19.  This will require national leadership, unprecedented research coordination, and a commitment to funding.

MQ fully endorses the expert group’s findings and is committed to working with Government, the mental health science community and the public to ensure the priorities set out are delivered.

With the Academy of Medical Sciences, we have written to the UK Government and leading research funders to call for the immediate establishment of a ‘high-level co-ordination group’ - a key recommendation from the expert group.

What are the priorities that need to be addressed?

The roadmap identifies key questions that need answering with high quality research. Involvement of the public and those with experience of mental health conditions remains a critical component to mental health research, especially given that the entire UK population has lived experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key priorities are: 

  • How can we promote good mental health in the wake of the pandemic and the lockdown? Different groups will need different approaches – a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work. We need to better understand how health and social care workers can be best supported, and this will be useful now and for any future pandemics. In the longer term, we must find new ways to protect mental wellbeing, including through encouraging positive activities such as exercise and volunteering.

  • What impact will the lockdown and social isolation have on the mental health of vulnerable people? How can these impacts be reduced? Loss of access to the usual mental health and social support systems during lockdown can make people even more vulnerable than they already are. We have to work out the best ways of identifying and delivering mental health services for vulnerable groups during a pandemic, work out whether existing approaches can be adapted to the pandemic, and identify gaps where we will need to develop something completely new.

  • What is the impact of the wall-to-wall media coverage of the pandemic on mental health and how can wellbeing be promoted? Responsible and trusted media coverage and government communication is vital during a national crisis and can provide reassurance – but it can also make people more anxious and this can affect their mental health. We need to understand better the ways that media and communications contribute to distress and mental ill health. In the short term we need to research ways that allow people to stay informed without become unduly distressed. In the longer term, we need evidence-based guidelines for the media covering pandemics. We need to find ways to help people avoid becoming overly affected by the media reports.

  • What are the best ways to get people to follow the expert advice on reducing the risks of infection – without unduly increasing stress and anxiety? Research should focus on the best ways to communicate advice and rules about behaviour – while reducing unintended mental health issues. In the long run we must ensure that we have learned from the lessons from this pandemic. We need to motivate and allow people to plan for future pandemics and understand how to best promote people’s care and concern for others.

  • What effects will the virus have on the brain and mental health? From studies of similar viruses, we know there is a risk the COVID-19 virus could affect the brain and may cause long term health problems. We need a database of cases to study the impacts on the brain and nervous system. In the long run we need more research to understand if and how the virus can get into the brain, how we can measure the impact any infection has and how we can develop new drugs, or use existing ones, to treat or stop infection.

What happens next?

MQ has already begun working with Government, UK research funders and policymakers to mobilise national leadership and coordination around the priorities set out in this roadmap.

We are also committed to championing and funding research that can shed key insights on how coronarvirus is already affecting people and help us respond to the unprecedent challenges we face, now and in the future. 

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