Mental health and brain research must be a higher priority in global response to tackle COVID-19 pandemic

Press release labels: Peer reviewed: Comment piece and Survey

Authors of the paper stressed that support for people concerned about their mental health continues to be available through the pandemic, such as the Samaritans (call free on 116 123). Further places to get support can be found on the MQ website:  https://www.mqmentalhealth.org/mental-health/urgent-help-and-advice

Academy of Medical Sciences and MQ joint press release

EMBARGO: 23.30hrs UK time / 6.30pm New York time on Wednesday 15 April, 2020

Mental health and brain research must be a higher priority in global response to tackle COVID-19 pandemic

  • 24 experts publish a research roadmap to help keep us mentally healthy through the pandemic
  • A new poll shows the public are already substantially concerned about their mental health in response to COVID-19
  • Experts call for real time monitoring of mental health to be rolled out urgently in UK and globally
  • Front line medical staff and vulnerable groups must be a priority for mental health support
  • Digital apps and remotely delivered programmes must be designed to protect our mental health

A new paper, to be published today in The Lancet Psychiatry (at 23.30hrs UK time on  Wednesday 15 April), highlights an urgent need to tackle the harmful impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and potentially the brain and calls for research on these areas to be central to the global response to the pandemic.

The paper warns that the COVID-19 pandemic could have a ‘profound’ and ‘pervasive impact’ on global mental health now and in the future, yet a separate recent analysis shows that so far, only a tiny proportion of new scientific publications on COVID-19 have been on mental health impacts.

The paper calls for more widespread mental health monitoring and better ways to protect against, and treat, mental ill health – both of which will require new funding and better coordination.

The general public already have substantial concerns about mental health in relation to the pandemic - according to an Ipsos MORI poll of 1099 members of the UK public, and a survey of 2198 people by the UK mental health research charity, MQ, that included many people with 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, access to mental health services and the impact on mental wellbeing.

Paper author Professor Emily Holmes from the Department of Psychology, Uppsala University in Sweden, commented:

We are all dealing with unprecedented uncertainty and major changes to the way we live our lives as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Our surveys show these changes are already having a considerable impact on our mental health.

“Governments must find evidence-based ways to boost the resilience of our societies and find ways to treat those with mental ill health remotely to come out of this pandemic in good mental health.

“Front line medical staff and vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with serious mental health conditions must be prioritised for rapid mental health support.”

The paper calls for ‘moment to moment’ monitoring of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, as well as other mental health issues in the UK and global population. It also calls for the rapid roll out of evidence-based programmes and treatments, which can be accessed by computer, mobile phone or other remote ways, to treat mental health conditions and increase resilience to keep people mentally healthy.

24 leading experts on mental health, including neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, public health experts and those with lived experience of a mental health condition, came together to create the roadmap that is published today. The expert group was established and supported by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the mental health research charity, MQ.

Professor Matthew Hotopf CBE FMedSci, Vice Dean Research at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry Psychology & Neuroscience and Director NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and one of the paper authors, said:

“This paper gives us a research roadmap to help protect our mental health at this incredibly difficult time and in the future.

“We are calling for real time monitoring of mental health of the population to develop effective treatments. This needs to be on a bigger scale than we have ever seen previously, and must be coordinated, targeted and comprehensive to give us an evidence based picture of what is really going on in societies around the world.

“Knowing what is happening in real time will allow us to respond by designing more user friendly and effective ways to promote good mental health while people are in their homes. Above all, however, we want to stress that all new interventions must be informed by top notch research to make sure they work.”

The paper stresses there will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to keeping us mentally healthy – and any new approaches will need to be tailored to particular groups of people, such as front line medical and social care staff.

It also calls for research to understand what makes people resilient in the face of this crisis, and actions to build resilience in society – whether supporting people to sleep well, be physically active or do activities that improve their mental health. The surveys* showed many people had already started activities to boost their mental health, such as prioritising family time, staying connected, connecting to nature and doing exercise.

Study author Kate King MBE, Adviser on lived experience to The Mental Health Act Review 2018, has personal experience of severe depression and said:

“It is not surprising that concerns reported in our surveys related to anxiety and isolation, or that social communication is seen by many as important in supporting good mental health. This highlights the vulnerability of those who have little contact with family or friends, and particularly those for whom relationships are abusive.

“The digital age, for all its problems, has bestowed a real gift: social media, the internet, video and phone meetings mean that social communication and research can continue in a way that would have been impossible even twenty years ago. We are all in this together so at this time it’s essential that researchers continue to listen and work with people with lived, and living, experience to help those living with mental health challenges.”

The paper notes that ‘almost nothing is yet known with certainty about the impact of COVID-19 on the human nervous system’. As other coronaviruses have been shown to pass into the central nervous system, the paper recommends research to monitor and understand whether COVID-19 also has effects on the brain and nervous system. It calls for a new database to be set up to monitor any psychological or brain effects of COVID-19 and for research to look at the way the virus could enter the nervous system.

Study author Professor Ed Bullmore FMedSci, Head of Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, said:

“We need an unprecedented research response if we are to limit the negative consequences of this pandemic on the mental health of our society now and in the future.

“To make a real difference we will need to harness the tools of our digital age – finding smart new ways to measure the mental health of individuals remotely, finding creative ways to boost resilience and finding ways to treat people in their homes. This effort must be considered central to our global response to the pandemic.”

Previous outbreaks of infectious disease have been known to have an impact on mental health of the population, for example, the SARS epidemic was associated with a 30% increase in suicide in over 65s and 29% of healthcare workers experienced probable emotional distress.** Authors stressed that an increase in suicides as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was not inevitable, but that monitoring and research is needed urgently.

The paper urges UK research funding agencies to work with researchers and people with experience of the mental health impacts of the pandemic to create a ‘high-level co-ordination group’ to ensure these mental health science research priorities are tackled as a matter of urgency.

Professor Rory O’Connor, Professor of Health Psychology, University of Glasgow, and one of the paper authors said:

“Increased social isolation, loneliness, health anxiety, stress and an economic downturn are a perfect storm to harm people’s mental health and wellbeing.

“If we do nothing we risk seeing an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, and a rise in problem behaviours such as alcohol and drug addiction, gambling, cyberbullying or social consequences such as homelessness and relationship breakdown. The scale of this problem is too serious to ignore, both in terms of every human life that may be affected, and in terms of the wider impact on society.

“Despite this situation making some of us feel trapped, it shouldn’t make us feel powerless – we can make a difference if we act now. We are calling on funding bodies, research institutes and policy to act now to limit the impact the pandemic has on all our lives.”

-ENDS-

More information on this work can be found on the dedicated policy project page.

For a copy of the paper or to request an interview, please contact the Academy of Medical Sciences press office: Naomi Clarke on 07903 158979 or Claire Bithell on 07969 082520

Notes for editors

  • DOI for the paper: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30168-1
  • The summary of the surveys can be found here after publication: http://www.acmedsci.ac.uk/COVIDmentalhealthsurveys
  • Staff and activity costs for this work, including the Ipsos MORI survey were supported by a core grant the Academy of Medical Sciences receives annually from the Government Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) for policy, communications and public engagement. The stakeholder survey was funded by MQ: Transforming Mental Health.

*Survey information

Two online surveys were completed to enable the public and people with lived experience of a mental health condition to inform the Lancet Psychiatry paper.

  1. An online survey collected data on people’s two biggest concerns about the mental health and wellbeing implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as coping strategies. The survey was promoted via email to MQ’s supporter network as well as via social media. In total, 2,198 people completed the survey, submitting 4,350 concerns about the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and 1,987 responses about what has helped maintain mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic. A thematic analysis of the full dataset was carried out.
  2. Two questions were asked on Ipsos MORI’s online Omnibus survey to collect data on people’s concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on mental wellbeing, as well as what is helping people’s mental wellbeing at this time. In total, 1,099 interviews were completed with adults aged between 16 and 75 across England, Wales and Scotland. Quotas were set and data were weighted to the offline population to ensure a nationally representative sample by gender, age and region. Statistical analysis was carried out and any sub-group differences included are statistically significant at a 95% confidence interval unless stated otherwise. The More information can be found on the Ipsos MORI website. https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/Covid-19-and-mental-wellbeing

** Relevant publications:

  • Yip PS, Cheung YT, Chau PH, Law YW. The impact of epidemic outbreak: the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and suicide among older adults in Hong Kong. Crisis 2010; 31: 86–92.
  • Tsang HW, Scudds RJ, Chan EY. Psychosocial impact of SARS. Emerg Infect Dis 2004; 10: 1326–27.
  • Nickell LA, Crighton EJ, Tracy CS, et al. Psychosocial effects of SARS on hospital staff: survey of a large tertiary care institution. CMAJ 2004; 170: 793–98.

About the Academy of Medical Sciences

The Academy of Medical Sciences is the independent body in the UK representing the diversity of medical science. Our elected Fellows are the UK’s leading medical scientists from hospitals, academia, industry and the public service. Our mission is to advance biomedical and health research and its translation into benefits for society. We are working to secure a future in which: 

  • UK and global health is improved by the best research.
  • The UK leads the world in biomedical and health research, and is renowned for the quality of its research outputs, talent and collaborations.
  • Independent, high quality medical science advice informs the decisions that affect society.
  • More people have a say in the future of health and research.

Our work focusses on four key objectives, promoting excellence, developing talented researchers, influencing research and policy and engaging patients, the public and professionals.

www.acmedsci.ac.uk

About MQ: Transforming mental health  

MQ is the UK’s leading mental health research charity. We are transforming lives through research, helping to create a future where mental illnesses are understood, effectively treated and one day prevented.

Our scientists investigate a huge range of issues: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and more. We are bringing together everything from cutting-edge neuroscience to social studies to find the answers we need.

In everything MQ does, we are driven by one certainty: research can transform what it means to experience mental illness, starting now and for every generation to come. MQ is here to make sure change happens.

www.mqmentalhealth.org

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