Global impact of COVID-19 on mental health

Tuesday, 28 April, 2020

Global impact of COVID-19 on mental health

Mental health experts across the world have come together to highlight the need for mental health and brain research to be central in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A paper published in The Lancet Psychiatry highlights an urgent need to tackle the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and potentially the brain, calling on research in these areas to form a central part of 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 investigated mental health impacts.

The authors call for more widespread mental health monitoring and better ways to protect against, and treat, mental ill health, which will require new funding and improved coordination.

Scientia Professor Helen Christensen (AO), Director and Chief Scientist at the Black Dog Institute, was among 24 leading experts on mental health — including neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, public health experts and those with lived experience of a mental health condition — who came together to create the roadmap. The expert group was established and supported by the Academy of Medical Sciences and the mental health research charity MQ.

The paper says digital support is important long term not just because of lockdown, but because less than a third of people who die by suicide have been in contact with mental health services in the last 12 months before their deaths.

It calls for ‘moment to moment’ monitoring of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide as well as other mental health issues globally. It also calls for the rapid rollout of evidence-based programs and treatments, which can be accessed remotely to treat mental health conditions and increase resilience to keep people mentally healthy.

The authors stressed there will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to keeping people mentally healthy and any new approaches will need to be tailored to particular groups of people, such as frontline medical and social care staff.

Two polls rolled out across the UK general public and through MQ showed people have substantial concerns about mental health in relation to the pandemic. Results from the Ipsos MORI poll of 1099 members of the UK public, and a survey of 2198 people by MQ, can be found here.

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.

The paper 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, to be physically active or to 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.

Previous outbreaks of infectious disease have been known to have an impact on population mental health; 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. The 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.

University of Glasgow Professor of Health Psychology Rory O’Connor said that “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,” Professor O’Connor said.

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