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5 things we’ve learnt so far about mental health research during COVID-19

A lot has changed since the coronavirus first began to spread across the world. But for MQ, our message has remained the same – the global research response to COVID‑19 must include mental health. 

In April, a group of experts brought together by MQ and the Academy of Medical Sciences set out their priorities for the mental health research response to COVID-19. We caught up with three of the scientists from that group during a webinar on 27th May, chaired by Dr Helen Munn OBE, Acting CEO of MQ. The speakers were:

  • Professor Emily Holmes, Professor of Psychology at Uppsala University and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Emily is also an MQ Trustee and the chair of MQ’s Research Committee.
  • Professor Rory O’Connor, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Glasgow. Rory is Director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab.
  • Professor Irene Tracey FMedSci, Nuffield Chair of Anaesthetic Science and Warden of Merton College, Oxford. Irene is a Trustee of MQ.

During the webinar we heard about how our mental health is being affected during COVID-19, and what research needs to happen.

Here’s our top five takeaways.

1)    Bringing together different types of science is essential

The three speakers each set out different ways that the pandemic is affecting mental health. Irene discussed how the SARS-CoV-2 virus might affect the brain and nervous system. Rory talked about the impact on individuals of the pandemic and lockdown. Emily explained how the crisis is affecting society and the population’s mental health.

The clear message is that we need a range of perspectives to better understand and mitigate the mental health effects of COVID-19.

This philosophy has always been a key part of MQ’s approach, and it’s even more important now. “The COVID-19 pandemic is such a unique situation”, said Rory. “We need to bring together people from all areas of expertise, and MQ are probably uniquely placed to do this. They were really quick off the mark, and other organisations are really grateful for MQ’s coordinating role.”

2)    We need new ways of working

A unique situation requires a unique response, Emily explained. “The huge task we have ahead of us is to bring together all these perspectives, do research in an urgent and novel way, and deliver immediate impact, with an eye to the longer term.”

Emily believes that to develop effective interventions, input from the public and people facing mental illness is crucial. “Especially in challenging circumstances, we must be prepared to learn from people, and what they find helpful”, she said.

Research has always been an international endeavour. But during this global pandemic, learning from what’s happening in other countries is even more important. Many international collaborations have already been set up to pool resources and share results as quickly as possible.  

And when research finds something that does work, it needs to be put into practice as quickly as possible. Rory highlighted one initiative he’s been involved in known as the ‘Distress Brief Intervention’. It was originally being tested in four areas of Scotland, but has now been adapted for the COVID‑19 pandemic and rolled out across Scotland.

3)    We must consider the needs of vulnerable groups

While the pandemic is something that has touched all our lives, we’re not all affected equally. “We must understand the factors which make some people more likely to be affected than others”, explained Emily. “Young people and the elderly are vulnerable. But even across the age spectrum, other factors need to be considered, such as social disadvantage and existing mental and physical illness.” Rory also underlined that people from black and ethnic minority communities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and the same will likely be true for its mental health effects.

People have turned to digital services to stay connected during lockdown. And while apps and websites can be really helpful for delivering mental health interventions, we need to look beyond digital. “15% of people in the UK have no access to the internet”, says Rory. “It’ll be the most vulnerable and marginalised groups which won’t be reached by new digital interventions.”.

Emily and Rory are leading MQ’s follow up work in building a network of researchers to harness digital and remote interventions in response to COVID-19. As Rory pointed out, “social isolation doesn’t have to lead to social desperation” and research has a vital role to play.

4)    It’s possible to make a difference – but we must act now

Research isn’t only going to help us prepare for future outbreaks. We need research to avoid the crisis we’re facing right now.

Many of the mental health effects of COVID-19 are yet to arise. The SARS outbreak in 2003 was followed by an increase in deaths from suicide in some age groups, and Rory believes there is a risk the same could happen again after COVID-19, but with action now a rise is not inevitable. The effects on young people may take years to emerge. Early evidence shows that many front‑line health workers in China and Europe are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

To have any impact on the mental health effects of the current pandemic, the researchers say we must act now. Irene is optimistic about what can be done:  “Look at what’s happening with the coronavirus vaccine development, for example”, she said. “It shows how fast we can make things happen when we galvanise our efforts – let’s not lose the momentum.”

The task ahead is to apply this momentum to include mental health.

5)    Everyone has a part to play

We can all play a role in supporting the mental health research response to COVID-19.

Firstly, we’re inviting everyone to get involved in mental health research during the pandemic. Our ‘Participate’ research platform has lots of studies needing people to take part, whether you have experience of mental illness or not. Spreading the word about these studies will also help ensure that participants represent as much of the population as possible. Visit Participate here to take part.

We also need the public and MQ supporters to help us keep mental health research on the COVID‑19 agenda of the government and research funders. “So far the message has been received loud and clear, but we need to keep the pressure on to make sure we turn awareness into action”, said Irene.

Finally, we need MQ supporters to donate. As well as funding vital research, this will help us continue to coordinate the research response, and influence decision-making at the highest levels. A strong response from the mental health community is crucial to support everyone’s wellbeing and save lives.

Last updated: 11 June 2020

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