Mental health and brain research must be higher priority in global COVID-19 response

A new paper involving a University of Exeter expert and published today in The Lancet Psychiatry highlights an urgent need to tackle the harmful impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and potentially the brain.

The paper calls for research on these areas to be central to the global response to the pandemic.

Professor Clive Ballard, at the University of Exeter Medical School is one of 24 experts to warn 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 has substantial concerns about mental health in relation to the pandemic – according to an Ipsos MORI poll of 1,099 members of the UK public, and a survey of 2,198 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.

Professor Ballard said: “Clearly, COVID-19 could be a ticking timebomb in terms of triggering widespread mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. This could have long-term effects, such as affecting brain function. During the SARS outbreak, we saw a 30 per cent increase in suicide rate. However, we know that taking meaningful action can help safeguard our brains. This paper identifies mental health research areas that urgently need to be addressed internationally, to reduce the negative impact of COVID-19, and highlights the need for a focus on particularly vulnerable groups such as older people, those with additional physical health problems and carers.”

Paper author Professor Emily Holmes from the Department of Psychology, Uppsala University in Sweden, said: “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.”

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