During the COVID-19 pandemic, research across the world has understandably focussed on treating and preventing physical illness. But at MQ, we believe that the questions about mental health are just as important as those about physical health – and must be addressed with the same urgency.
In this article, we explore what we know already about how COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of vulnerable groups and the wider public. We also give examples of how the Government, researchers and MQ have mobilised to boost research and mitigate the mental health effects of the pandemic.
The public’s mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the ‘lockdown’ put in place to slow the spread of the virus, have touched all our lives in different ways. Nearly half of people in Great Britain are reporting high levels of anxiety according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
But while we’ve all been affected, some groups are particularly vulnerable to the mental health impact of the pandemic. For example, recent studies have found that nearly two-thirds of adults with disabilities have said the situation was affecting their wellbeing, and one in five unemployed people have had suicidal thoughts. People from black and ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and there is a risk that the same may be true for its mental health effects.
The immediate effects of the pandemic could lead to serious consequences for the public’s mental health for years to come. In a piece for the British Medical Journal, experts in public mental health explain how COVID-19 could affect different groups in the long term. Researchers have also warned of the possibility of a rise in deaths from suicide following COVID‑19, as was seen following the SARS epidemic in 2003.
People with existing mental health conditions
In the many conversations about mental health during the pandemic, one group of people have often been missing – people with existing mental illness. An editorial in The Lancet Psychiatry sets out what they believe is a continuing “neglect by the media, the public, and too many professionals, of those with severe mental illness”.
At MQ, we’ve been grateful for people who’ve shared their stories about their mental health during the pandemic. Louisa Rose told us her experience as a parent living with mental illness, and Flo Sharman talked about how she has coped during the lockdown.
Their personal stories reflect the wider picture of the impact on people with mental illness. A survey carried out by MQ revealed that anxiety, isolation, declining mental health, and reduced access to support services are key concerns for them. And 80% say that their mental health has declined during the pandemic, according to a survey by the charity Rethink Mental Illness.
Medical staff are facing unprecedented pressures and workloads because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of Scottish doctors found that one in four are experiencing extra stress or burnout as a direct result of the pandemic. According to an analysis of previous virus outbreaks, younger or more junior healthcare staff are at higher risk of distress, as well as those with children or an infected family member.
Research from the first countries to be hit by COVID-19 reveals some of the consequences of this extra pressure. In China, a significant proportion of healthcare workers have experienced symptoms of mental illness, with half reported symptoms of depression, 45% reported symptoms of anxiety, and just over a third experienced insomnia. In addition, half of the healthcare workers in Italy have experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
As the majority of mental health conditions start in childhood, there has always been an urgent need for investment in youth mental health. COVID‑19 has caused additional challenges, with closures of schools, colleges and universities, and isolation from friends. For example, a recent study reports that, as a result, two in five young people in Scotland are moderately or extremely concerned about their mental wellbeing.
Children with a history of mental illness are particularly vulnerable. One survey reveals that a third say the pandemic has made their mental health ‘much worse’, and a quarter have been unable to access the services they need.
Government initiatives to provide mental health support
The UK Government has taken steps to support the mental health of the public and vulnerable groups. A £5 million fund was set up for mental health charities to help fund additional support services. This fund has since been allocated to a wide range of community-based projects. Public Health England has also updated its ‘Every Mind Matters’ platform to help people maintain good mental wellbeing during lockdown.
Digital innovations to support people from vulnerable groups have received a funding boost through the TechForce19 challenge, including wellbeing resources for new and expectant parents. Additionally, the Scottish government has invested in telephone and online services and support for young people and people with autism.
The NHS also launched a mental health hotline as part of a package of measures to support the NHS’ 1.4 million staff as they help people deal with the coronavirus.
Building an urgent mental health research response
MQ has played a leading role in coordinating the mental health research response to the COVID‑19 pandemic. Working with the Academy of Medical Sciences, we set out the key priorities for COVID‑19 mental health research, by gathering the views of leading mental health experts, as well as 3,000 MQ supporters and members of the public.
This work has already led to:
- New research funding call from the National Institute for Health Research and UK Research & Innovation that references MQ’ priority-setting work, along with a blog from Professor Fiona Watt FRS FMedSci, Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council.
- The development of two new major networks of researchers from the UK and beyond to look at the mental health effects of COVID-19 infection and how best to rapidly deploy remote and digital mental health interventions.
- New opportunities for researchers collecting mental health data to share information and build a richer and more accurate picture of what is happening to mental health. Only with this level of research collaboration and data sharing will we meet the scale of the challenge ahead of us.
Because COVID-19 is a global problem, international collaboration has become more important than ever. An example of how scientists have responded is a new global network called COVID-MINDS, which is coordinating studies that follow people’s mental health over time. COVID-MINDS is helping researchers share data and disseminate the findings to health services and policymakers worldwide.
Collaboration with the public is just as crucial. MQ has updated its ‘Participate’ platform to boost recruitment to high-quality studies on the mental health impacts of COVID-19. The Repeated Assessment of Mental health in Pandemics (RAMP) study, supported by MQ, is just one example. Early results from the RAMP study, which has involved more than 7,000 participants, suggest that around 70% have reported a worsening of symptoms of depression and anxiety since the beginning of the pandemic.
Everyone, including young people and people with existing mental health problems, can contribute to research through Participate.
As we learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on our mental health, finding ways to reduce this impact is becoming ever more important. MQ is working hard to make this research happen – but we urgently need your help.
Your support will help us push this agenda and coordinate the mental health research community, to save lives in the future. Donate now to our COVID-19 Fund.
Last updated: 24 June 2020