Mental health through COVID-19: an ongoing research priority

  • 14 April 2021
  • Angel Yiangou

Since the pandemic began, mental health has been worsening for many, particularly health and care workers, younger people and those facing socioeconomic hardship.[1]

During the first UK lockdown in 2020, the Academy of Medical Sciences, together with MQ Mental Health Research (MQ), brought together 24 experts in mental health and neuroscience to identify what we needed to find out about the effect of the virus on the brain, and the effects of the pandemic on mental health. Their paper, published in the Lancet Psychiatry, identified the immediate and longer-term priorities for mental health sciences research in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and considered vulnerable groups in need of particular attention.

Surveys that we undertook in the week that the first lockdown measures were announced in the UK were used to inform the publication. The findings showed that even just a few months into the pandemic, people had substantial concerns about its impact on mental health.

“I have suffered from depression and generalised anxiety disorder nearly my entire life. Hearing about coronavirus constantly and being worried for the safety of my elderly relatives, and my mother who works as a nurse within the NHS, is really taking a toll.” – Survey response.

The Lancet Psychiatry paper prompted a highlight notice seeking research proposals for COVID-19 and mental health from two major UK research funders, the National Institute for Health Research and UK Research and Innovation. The Academy and MQ also hosted workshops to encourage the mental health sciences research community to work together to take forward the priorities identified in the paper, directly informing a successfully funded consortium on the coordination of high-quality data on mental cognitive and neurological health impacts of COVID-19.

Throughout this past year, we have also been working with young adults from the UK, India and South Africa to share their concerns around COVID-19. We’ve helped them co-create an online comic series Planet DIVOC-91 with international comic book artists and top scientific experts from a wide range of disciplines. These young adults were invited to share their pandemic struggles at an Independent SAGE meeting earlier this year. Hood, a 16-year old from London, told Independent SAGE:

“We were given a two-day warning to leave school. And then it got cut short, so we were meant to leave on Friday but left on Thursday. And the whole thing we were going to do on Friday was a send-off because we were there for five years. That’s the longest I’ve been at any school.

“And I understand why it was halted because of COVID, and obviously the school made the right decision. But it does affect mental health – when you’re with those people for so long, and you make those relationships, those bonds, and it gets cut off just like that. I haven’t talked to those friends in person now for a long time. It did affect me a lot.”

Six months into the pandemic, the virus showed no signs of disappearing, while the need to understand the impacts of COVID-19 and the associated restrictions on society was still evident, and reflected responses from our initial survey:

“Work is very important to me, it is where I have most contact with people as my social circle is miniscule and I only have two family members nearby. As a self-employed person, I have no money coming in, am missing a sense of purpose, am missing contact with others, I am constantly anxious about when I can start earning again.” – Survey response.

We kept up the pressure through a joint statement with MQ highlighting the importance of mental health sciences research as part of all COVID-19 related research. The statement outlined the need to support research into effective mental health interventions, and for interdisciplinary research to understand the long term physical and mental health impact of COVID-19.

A recent editorial piece in The Lancet Psychiatry (February 2021) has reiterated these calls: we must have high quality information on the immediate and long-term effects of COVID-19, and society’s responses to it, on mental health.

Worldwide, the UK is leader in mental health sciences research. We must capitalise on existing research infrastructure and expertise to mount a successful holistic response to the pandemic. To make this happen, it is vital that:

  • All research in humans into the direct and indirect effects of the virus must consider the mental health effects of COVID-19.
  • Funding must support the development of effective interventions to address the mental health issues identified, particularly those likely to extend beyond the pandemic.
  • Research funders must work with the research community to deliver interdisciplinary funding mechanisms that address body, brain and mind research holistically.

One year on from when we first started working on the connections between COVID-19 and mental health sciences at the Academy, there is an opportunity to reflect. The Academy and MQ will once again convene the mental health sciences community in the next few weeks, this time to assess what has been learnt about mental health since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, identify research gaps, and work out how to come together to address these.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have lasting effects on people for years to come.

If we do not place mental health at the centre of the COVID-19 research response, we will fail to learn how to intervene effectively in pandemic situations to support all those whose mental health is affected now and in the future, particularly the most vulnerable and underserved.

Among the many facets of COVID-19 that must be better understood, we must not lose sight of its impact on mental health, and ensure that mental health sciences research is placed at the centre of COVID-19 recovery.

[1] Kwong ASF, et al. (2020). Mental health before and during the COVID-19 pandemic in two longitudinal UK population cohorts. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 1-10.

Angel Yiangou has been Policy Manager at the Academy of Medical Sciences since December 2019, and has been involved in several of the Academy's COVID-19 rapid response projects, convening a number of stakeholders to develop policy reports. Prior to joining the Academy, she worked in the policy development team of Cancer Research UK.

Images - with permission from Planet DIVOC-91.