UCL Mental Health Research at the time of COVID
By iomh, on 12 May 2021
This blog was written by Ana Antunes-Martins, Research Coordinator for UCL Institute of Mental Health.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had multiple effects on mental health, some of which are likely to be long-lasting. UCL mental health researchers have been busy investigating how the infection affects the nervous system, how we adapted to life in lockdown, and how we have been coping with the hardships brought by the pandemic. This blog post is a broad overview of UCL’s contributions to the fight against the ‘mental health pandemic’ over the last year. For more in-depth discussions of specific mental health topics and COVID, read our series of blog posts published on the IoMH website over the last year.
Learning from previous coronavirus outbreaks and early COVID-19 data, in July 2020, Jonathan Rogers and Tony David suggested that lasting mental disorders may follow severe COVID-19 infection in some patients (1). They also found that, while thoughts of suicide and self-harm have shown increases in some groups around the world (e.g., the young and those suffering from the viral infection), suicide has not generally increased (2). Perhaps increased social cohesion – the feeling that we are stronger together – has been a protective factor.
But we cannot necessarily rely on this. A group of clinical academics led by Michael Bloomfield banded together to form the COVID Trauma Response Group. The group recommends that COVID survivors should be monitored to address risks of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Long-COVID sufferers also describe mental health symptoms (fatigue and so-called ‘brain fog’). Two NIHR/UKRI-funded studies will follow Long-COVID patients to understand how the disease progresses, whether it can be treated, and who is most vulnerable. One of these studies, led by the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, will focus on adults, while the other, led by Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, will focus on those who contracted the virus as adolescents.
Beyond the direct effects of the virus, the pandemic caused sudden changes to our lives and livelihoods and put massive strains on society. To understand how these challenges impacted our mental health and wellbeing, UCL researchers conducted interviews and surveys with large numbers of people. Some of these studies were added to ongoing research, while others were set up from scratch. For example, studies at the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies are taking advantage of birth cohorts (samples of the population followed regularly since birth) to investigate how mental health and behaviours compare to pre-pandemic levels and change as the pandemic progresses. Another large study is the COVID-19 Social Study, led by Daisy Fancourt, which was set up in March 2020 to keep track of the feelings and habits of 70,000 adults in the UK every week.
These types of studies provided snapshots of our lives during the pandemic: how depressed, worried, lonely, and anxious we felt and how much we slept, exercised, and drank alcohol, and whether we ate our 5-a-day (3,4). Most importantly, because the studies followed such a large slice of the population, researchers could pinpoint which groups struggled the most. Amongst adults: women, younger adults, and those facing financial hardship, those with mental illnesses before the pandemic, and those who were lonely fared poorly in several mental health and wellbeing measures.
UCL researchers homed in on these groups. In many cases, people in these groups already suffered from poor mental health before the pandemic, and the pandemic just made it worse: women’s psychological distress was worsened by increased childcare responsibilities (5), young people were more affected by job uncertainties and worried about the future and consequently more depressed, anxious, and lonely (6), those with precarious working conditions had worse physical and mental health outlooks, and even increased mortality during the first year of the pandemic (7).
The sudden changes brought by the pandemic were particularly challenging to those who already had mental health disorders and saw their support networks and access to healthcare compromised. The Mental Health Policy Research Unit (MHPRU), led by Sonia Johnson, is researching ‘what works’ in mental health services. For example, a literature review of mental health services worldwide, identified the evidence needed to inform policy and best practice (8). Central to this research is the voices of those with lived experience. In this spirit, the MHPRU and the Loneliness and Social Isolation Network work with ‘experts by experience’ to co-develop surveys and interviews to understand the specific challenges faced by the patients and how they can be supported, especially in navigating remote health care (9).
Loneliness is a big player in poor mental health. The good news is that maintaining remote contact with friends and family (10) and engaging in arts (11) may be helpful tools to combat loneliness and improve mental health. The ‘Community COVID’ study led by Prof Helen Chatterjee will address how well ‘creative resources’ work to improve mental health and how we can make the most of them.
Children and adolescents had their routines and social lives completely changed by school closures. Researchers at the UCL Institute of Education and the Anna Freud Centre are devoting significant efforts to understanding pupils’ experiences from different ages and socio-economic backgrounds (12,13). They ask who coped better and worse (and why), what pupils found most upsetting, what they did to improve their moods, how families managed, and whether school staff could cater to children’s wellbeing remotely. But research is only worthwhile if it can help people, and these researchers are doing precisely that, by producing up-to-date homeschooling resources and lay summaries to help families support their children’s wellbeing.
So, what next? Fourteen months since the beginning of the pandemic, the UCL mental health research community has generated invaluable data and resources to help society and individuals cope better and hopefully, to some extent, reduce the long-term repercussions of the pandemic. Lessons learned to date have informed clinical mental health practice, education, social and community support strategies, and will have impacts well-beyond the pandemic. Of course, there are many unanswered questions, and studies that are just starting, and we look forward to hearing what this new research holds.
- Rogers, J. P. et al. Psychiatric and neuropsychiatric presentations associated with severe coronavirus infections: a systematic review and meta-analysis with comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Psychiatry 7, 611-627, doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30203-0 (2020).
- Rogers, J. P. et al. Suicide, self-harm and thoughts of suicide or self-harm in infectious disease epidemics: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Epidemiol Psychiatr Sci 30, e32, doi:10.1017/S2045796021000214 (2021).
- Villadsen, A. et al. Mental health in relation to changes in sleep, exercise, alcohol and diet during the COVID-19 pandemic: examination of four UK cohort studies. medRxiv 03.26.21254424; doi:https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.03.26.21254424
- Saunders, R., Buckman, J. E. J., Fonagy, P. & Fancourt, D. Understanding different trajectories of mental health across the general population during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Medicine, 1-9, doi:10.1017/s0033291721000957.
- Xue, B. & McMunn, A. Gender differences in unpaid care work and psychological distress in the UK Covid-19 lockdown. PLoS One 16, e0247959, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0247959 (2021).
- Sheridan Rains, L. et al. Early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health care and on people with mental health conditions: framework synthesis of international experiences and responses. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 1-12, doi:10.1007/s00127-020-01924-7.
- Gillard, S. et al. Experiences of living with mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK: a coproduced, participatory qualitative interview study. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol, doi:10.1007/s00127-021-02051-7 (2021).
- Sommerlad, A. et al. Social relationships and depression during the COVID-19 lockdown: longitudinal analysis of the COVID-19 Social Study. Psychol Med, 1-10, doi:10.1017/S0033291721000039 (2021).
- Mak, H.W. et al. Predictors and Impact of Arts Engagement During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Analyses of Data From 19,384 Adults in the COVID-19 Social Study. Front Psychol, doi: 3389/fpsyg.2021.626263 (2021)