Covid-19: Mental health research and the pandemic response

by Rory O’Connor

On Friday 13th March I was meant to fly to Australia.  But on advice from the University (not that I am superstitious) a couple of days beforehand, I had made the difficult decision to cancel my trip.  This was fortuitous for a couple of reasons; first, obviously, if I had flown I probably would have been quarantined on arrival. Second though, was that the following week, as concern about Covid-19 was growing, I got an email from Helen Munn, the CEO of MQ: Transforming Mental Health, the mental health research charity.  She had been consulting with MRC, Wellcome, ESRC and other organisations and she invited me to co-chair a group to rapidly pull together a Position Paper on the Covid-19 mental health science research priorities (in partnership with the Academy of Medical Sciences). She was responding to concern from within the research community that, without a coordinated effort, the mental health science response to Covid-19 may become fragmented.

As I was unexpectedly still in the UK, I agreed but didn’t quite know what I had let myself in for!  However, less than a month later, after daily author meetings, an intense period of writing, editing, consulting, and rapidly surveying 3,000 people with lived experience, the Position Paper was published on 15th April in Lancet Psychiatry.  The long days and late nights and the tight turnaround were worth it, though. The Paper garnered global media coverage, it highlighted the importance of mitigating mental health risks and it has already started to inform the Covid-19 mental health and neuroscience research agenda in the UK.  Around the same time, I also became part of the Covid-19 International Suicide Research Collaboration. This initiative, led by David Gunnell (University of Bristol), is important because we know from other public health and economic crises that risk of suicide can increase in their aftermath. So we worked quickly to issue another Call for Action, also published in Lancet Psychiatry, to ensure that suicide prevention is given the urgent attention that it warrants.

In terms of understanding the mental health impact of Covid-19 (including lockdown, social distancing and economic measures), UofG is playing a leading role in tracking the mental health and wellbeing of the nation during Covid.  Within days of lockdown, I was fortunate to secure funding from Samaritans and Scottish Association for Mental Health and supported by the Mindstep Foundation to set-up a UK-wide nationally representative multi-wave study to track the population’s mental health over six months initially (UK COVID-MH study; n = 3077).  This study is a collaboration between colleagues in IHW (Katie Robb, Karen Wetherall, Seonaid Cleare, Jack Melson, Claire Niedzwiedz, Tiago Zortea, Heather McClelland) and the Universities of Edinburgh, Stirling, Leeds and Nottingham. I am particularly grateful to Jesse Dawson and Terry Quinn for expediting our ethics application so that the study could get up-and-running in super-fast time. We are also recruiting an additional Scottish only sample (n=2,500), funded by the Scottish Government, to track mental health outcomes over the next 12 months.  We plan to publish the initial findings from the UK survey in the coming weeks and we hope that our findings will inform policy and practice as we continue to recover from the pandemic.  Katie Robb (PI) and I, as part of the UofG’s CSO Covid Research portfolio, have also received funding to interview a sample of our survey respondents over the coming months.

Jack Melson and I, alongside Karen Wetherall, Seonaid Cleare and Cara Richardson have also been busy tailoring the Distress Brief Intervention (DBI), the Scottish Government’s flagship multi-agency response for people in distress, to be Covid-ready. In anticipation of the likely impact of Covid-19 on our mental health, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made new funding available to extend this crisis-response service and roll it out nationally. We were charged with developing new training and intervention materials in light of Covid-19 which we had to turn around in record-quick-time. We are delighted to be able to play our part in the government’s mental health response; indeed the first referrals by this new DBI-Covid 19 service were made on the 13th May – with plans for the service to go nationwide in June.

Finally, as part of the Scottish Government’s Academic Advisory Group on suicide prevention, Tiago Zortea is leading on a systematic review to explore the impact of public health emergencies on suicidal behaviour, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.  This is another collaborative effort; Tiago, Heather McClelland and I are working with Steve Platt (University of Edinburgh) and colleagues in Ireland and Canada to see what we can learn from previous emergencies. It is our hope that if we act now, we can mitigate suicide risk in the longer term.

A final reflection.  It is incredibly humbling and rewarding to work with such a dedicated group of people, both here at the University and well beyond. Everyone has a shared goal of trying to do whatever we can to help and protect the most vulnerable during this global COVID-19 pandemic, as we all navigate an uncertain future ahead together. 

22 May 2020.

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