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Urgent call for mental health research response to COVID-19 pandemic

A paper published today in Lancet Psychiatry highlights an urgent need to tackle the harmful impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health.  

It calls for mental health science to be central to the global response to COVID-19 – with unprecedented national leadership, research coordination and a commitment to funding.

The call comes from an expert group of scientists and those with lived experience, convened by MQ and the Academy of Medical Sciences to set out mental health research priorities for COVID-19.  The group warns that the pandemic could have a ‘profound’ and ‘pervasive impact’ on global mental health now and in the future, yet a recent analysis shows so far, a tiny proportion of new scientific publications on COVID-19 have focused on mental health impacts.

The roadmap set out in the paper includes the immediate need for high-quality data gathering on mental health and the rapid roll-out of evidence-based programmes and treatments, which can be accessed remotely to treat mental health conditions and increase resilience to keep people mentally healthy.

The public already has substantial concerns about mental health in relation to the pandemic - according to a new Ipsos MORI poll of 1099 members of the UK public, and MQ’s survey of over 2000 supporters and members of the public, including many people with lived experience of mental health conditions.

Both surveys were carried out in late March, the week lockdown measures were announced, to inform the Lancet Psychiatry paper. They showed the public had specific concerns related to COVID-19, including increased anxiety, fear of becoming mentally unwell, reduced access to mental health services and the impact on mental wellbeing.

Paper author and MQ’s Research Committee Chair, Professor Emily Holmes commented:

 “We are all dealing with unprecedented uncertainty and major changes to the way we live as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Our survey and poll show that people perceive these changes are already having a considerable impact on mental health.

“There are many uncertainties around the effects of COVID-19 on mental health, not least the consequences of quarantine on different groups, the effects on healthcare workers, or what we may see in terms of adaptive outcomes around resilience and creativity. The scale of the challenge around COVID-19 calls for unprecedented efforts to coordinate around the systematic collection of high-quality evidence. If we do this, we can build an accurate picture of exactly what we’re dealing with. We can learn how best to intervene to help people now, and importantly, we can map and address the long-term mental health impacts.

Mental health science has a role to play, perhaps especially in bringing together different disciplines and working with people with lived experience to help co-create answers to the challenges identified ”

The roadmap outlines a range of rapid learnings for immediate research to apply to future infection waves and pandemics, including: 

  • Evidence-based support for vulnerable groups under pandemic conditions, including frontline health and social care staff, those with pre-existing mental health issues, young people, and older adults.
  • Interventions that reduce mental health issues and boost resilience, including those that can be repurposed.
  • Solutions to the impact of repeated media consumption about COVID-19 on mental wellbeing.
  • Finding the best methods for promoting successful adherence to behavioural advice about COVID-19, while enabling mental wellbeing and minimising distress.

Commenting, MQ’s Acting CEO, Dr Helen Munn OBE said: 

“Mental health science must be integral to the UK and global response to this pandemic. With the right action now, we can accumulate the knowledge that will stop COVID-19 leading to a mental health catastrophe.   MQ is hugely grateful to the expert advisory group for rapidly setting out this vital plan of action, and to all our supporters and others who shared their views and concerns to influence the work.

There has never been a more important time for mental health research. Meeting this challenge will take leadership, coordination and a commitment to funding. MQ will not stop in our efforts to mobilise funders, researchers and the pubilc to make this happen.” 

MQ is launching two new resources to mobilise the research community response.  We've updated our groundbreaking Participate platform to boost vital recruitment to high-quality studies on the mental health impacts of COVID-19. And we will be shortly creating a new resource to showcase opportunities for collaboration and shared learnings.

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Last updated: 30 April 2020

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