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COVID-19 and Mental Health

by Guest Author on 3 Jun 2020

The current COVID-19 pandemic may have far-reaching effects on our mental health. Here our Executive Chair, Professor Fiona Watt, outlines how the MRC, and the researchers it supports, are tackling these important issues.

Covid and MH post

The past few months have been challenging for all of us, and as we gradually begin to emerge from this initial lockdown phase it is clear that the social and psychological impacts of the pandemic could be with us for some time.

Professor Fiona Watt

Professor Fiona Watt

Uncertainty, anxiety and fear are all natural feelings in the current situation, but combined with other issues such as isolation, changes to health and social care provision and school closures, they can be risk factors for mental health. There is also still much that we don’t know about how the virus and the disease itself directly affect the brain and the mental health of those who are infected.

Mental health research is a long-term strategic focus at the MRC – in 2018 alone we spent £47.8M on research in this area. I know that research will be critical for understanding the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic may have on mental health and wellbeing, both now and in the future, and for developing the most effective approaches to reduce these impacts.

A number of the key research questions have been summarised by an expert group convened rapidly after lockdown by The Academy of Medical Sciences and MQ: Transforming mental health (see the resulting Lancet Psychiatry position paper). These show that the research needs will cross disciplinary boundaries and sectors, and how a collaborative approach will be so important to address them.

The work of our units, centres and institutes

I have been impressed with the agility of many of our MRC units, centres and institutes in quickly applying their relevant expertise to carry out research on the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge is undertaking studies to explore the impact of the pandemic on the development, education and mental wellbeing of children, and whether innovative interventions to help combat depression may be carried out effectively online. The UK Dementia Research Institute is well placed to tackle questions about the effects the virus may have on the brain, helping us to understand better how COVID-19 patients can be monitored and treated for the neurological effects. Link to all these projects.

How we will support mental health research related to COVID-19

At UKRI we have worked hard to make sure that urgent research addressing key questions about health and COVID-19 can be funded rapidly. Link to the twenty-one new projects funded through the first set of these calls in partnership with DHSC. One award is to Dr Isabel Oliver and her team at Public Health England who are studying the impact of isolation and wider public health measures on mental health and wellbeing.

We have launched a number of other funding routes in response to the pandemic to support mental health research addressing the most pressing needs, including the UKRI/DHSC rapid response call, the UKRI rolling call and a rapid knowledge mobilisation call under our Adolescence, Mental Health and the Developing Mind initiative. Today we launched a highlight notice for mental health under the first of these calls, encouraging the urgent research we need to mitigate the most immediate impacts on the mental health of the population. UKRI is also supporting research addressing the mental health needs of Lower and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) through the GCRF/Newton Fund Agile Response call and the Global Effort on COVID-19 (GECO) Health Research.

I urge researchers to coordinate and collaborate in response to these calls, to build on the existing excellent resources for mental health research and funded platforms related to COVID-19, and to draw on the valuable expertise of diverse disciplines and specialities. In this way we will be able to respond rapidly and effectively to the new challenges to our mental health and anticipate and address future needs as they emerge.

Many types of research are central to our response to this pandemic – including mental health research. The MRC remains committed to working in partnership to help our researchers take forward the best ideas.


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