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Why the global recovery from coronavirus depends on mental health research

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic will have profound consequences on mental health worldwide. How could it not, when isolation has become the new normal for entire populations, when front line health and social care staff are working under pressure not seen in peace time, when those with existing mental health issues face a greater struggle than ever to access effective support?

But while we know the pressures on mental health are continuing to grow, we have dangerously little knowledge of exactly how mental health will be affected and what the most effective, evidence-based responses will be – both now and in the aftermath of the pandemic.

This is why mental health research must be integral to the international response to the virus.

Why mental health research matters

An effective and immediate mental health research response will enable us to apply what we learn now to any subsequent outbreaks or future lockdowns. Research can guide how digital support can be most effectively targeted to those in need, helping people cope with stress, anxiety and depression during isolation. It can clarify how to communicate public guidance without creating unintended mental health issues. It could identify the factors that make us more resilient to the crisis, so we can shape new ways to help others feel less anxious and alone. It is only by equipping ourselves with this knowledge that we can plan the most effective global recovery from this crisis.

For the huge potential of mental health science to be realised, we must avoid a fragmented research response, characterised by small-scale, localised studies. Only through unprecedented collaboration and coordination among researchers, research funders and those with lived experience of mental health problems can we provide the level of insights needed to guide policy makers and the public. While there have been welcome efforts to initiate data collection, the research community must coordinate and collaborate like never before, sharing methods, assessments and data so we can build an accurate picture of exactly what we’re dealing with, and what interventions are working, as fast as possible. As ever, we will learn most from the highest quality research, subject to rigorous standards of scientific and ethical review, and with input from the public and in partnership with those with experience of mental health conditions. 

Comprehensive real-time monitoring is needed to record levels of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide and other mental health issues across populations, including among vulnerable groups such as front line health and social care staff, and people with existing mental health issues. We need to rapidly design, evaluate and refine treatments to address the psychological impact of the pandemic – including by learning from those on the front line. We need to understand how wall-to-wall media coverage and social isolation are affecting mental health so we can develop solutions to help people cope. We need to prioritise research into the neurological impact of COVID-19 at all stages of the infection and illness.

The stakes could not be higher

The stakes could not be higher. Previous outbreaks of infectious diseases have had devastating implications on mental health: in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, suicide in people aged over 65 increased by 30%, while close to a third of healthcare workers experienced probably emotional distress. More broadly, we know that a combination of social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety and a potential economic downturn risks creating a perfect storm for mental health and wellbeing.

We need to act now

But with the right action now, an increase in suicides is not inevitable and we can stop COVID-19 developing into a mental health crisis. Working with the Academy of Medical Sciences and others, MQ is seeking to mobilise the coronavirus mental health research response in the UK and beyond.

We’re calling on funding bodies, research institutes and policy makers to work together now to limit the impact the pandemic has on all of our lives. We’re doing everything we can to galvanise and mobilise the research community, to find out how coronavirus is already affecting people and to push for funding that will help us respond to this unprecedented mental health challenge. These are challenging times, but a tremendous opportunity now exists for science to serve society and make a profound and lasting impact on global mental health. 

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Last updated: 7 May 2020

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