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UCL mental health research in older adults during COVID-19

iomh22 October 2021

By Dr Kathy Liu, MRC Clinical Research Training Fellow, UCL Division of Psychiatry

By the first national lockdown on 26 March 2020, many were aware that COVID-19 and related restrictions have a disproportionate impact on older adults and individuals affected by dementia. UCL mental health researchers responded rapidly to try to understand how older adult mental health and dementia wellbeing were affected and what should be done. This blog summarises some of the insights and research contributions we made.

Higher infection and death rates from COVID-19

An international study led by Dr Aida Suárez-González from UCL found that by August 2020, people with dementia made up around a third (31%) of COVID-19 related deaths in the UK1. The study group, including UCL researcher Prof Gill Livingston, linked this to high death rates in care homes where most residents have dementia. In the UK, older people were admitted to care homes without knowing if they had COVID-19 or not. These individuals were also often not allowed to access healthcare and were isolated and confined, with visitors to care homes banned.

Dementia and Alzheimer disease was the most common main pre-existing health condition in deaths involving COVID-19 between March and June 2020. Published by the Office for National Statistics.

Negative impact of COVID-19 restrictions on dementia wellbeing

To assess the effect of COVID-19 isolation measures on people with dementia, Dr Suárez-González, Prof Livingston, and colleagues analysed findings from existing studies2. They found that isolation measures had a negative impact on memory and thinking and mental health, with almost all studies reporting a new onset or deteriorating distressing behavioural or psychological symptoms in people with dementia.

Increased prescribing to treat behavioural or psychological symptoms

Antipsychotic drugs can be used to treat distressing behavioural or psychological symptoms in dementia, such as agitation and psychosis, when non-drug approaches have failed. However, they have limited effectiveness and serious side effects. Prof Robert Howard from UCL led an investigation and found that rates of antipsychotic prescribing increased in people with dementia in England from March-July 20203. This highlights the need to monitor and reduce the rates of antipsychotic prescribing once COVID-19-related risks have decreased.

Monitoring COVID-19 infection and death rates in mental health hospitals

Infection control measures in hospitals are important to minimise COVID-19 infection and deaths in patients and healthcare staff. Prof Gill Livingston led a study including UCL researchers Dr Andrew Sommerlad, Dr Louise Marston and Dr Kathy Liu, and many NHS doctors, to measure infection and death rates in patients aged over 65 years or diagnosed with dementia between March-April 20204. Patients had been admitted to one of 16 psychiatric wards in NHS mental health hospitals in London. Data could be obtained rapidly as COVID research regulations allowed the use of anonymised hospital patient data without the need for individual consent, and regulatory bodies prioritised applications for such studies. The NHS doctors on the team also contributed their time and made efforts to help collect data rapidly. The study group found that mental health hospitals experienced a delay in accessing personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 tests compared to other hospitals. This likely contributed to higher infection (38%) and death (15%) rates compared to community levels, despite the government policy of parity of esteem for physical and mental health.

Mental health hospitals experienced delayed access to PPE and COVID-19 tests during the first wave. Image by leo2014 from Pixabay.

After the study findings and recommendations were published, the research group repeated the measurements during the second pandemic wave between December 2020-February 20215. There were improvements in infection control measures and better outcomes for patients. Infection rates were lower (25%) with correspondingly fewer deaths. Vaccinations may offer additional protection against COVID-19 in future, but measures such as regular testing of inpatients remain appropriate, as a significant proportion of COVID-19 positive patients were asymptomatic (29%).

Reduced face-to-face approaches and adaptations by mental health services

UCL researcher Dr Rohan Bhome led a study6 to explore the perspectives of staff who worked in older adult mental health services between April and May 2020. The study highlighted areas that mental health services could develop to address staff and patient wellbeing during the pandemic. The team, including UCL researchers Dr Jonathan Huntley, Christian Dalton-Locke and Prof Gill Livingston, found that staff were concerned about barriers to infection control in hospitals and a lack of usual support for older people who lived at home. Staff responded positively to the shift to increased remote working but noted that some patients could not use the technology required for remote assessments.

   Staff working in older adult mental health services were concerned that some patients could not use the technology required for remote assessments. Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay.

Negative impact on carers

Most family carers, including those caring for older people and individuals with dementia, are unpaid. Prof Gill Livingston was part of a team that published a report highlighting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family carers7. Many carers increased their care hours during the pandemic. Access to support services, such as respite care and day centres, was severely restricted or more usually stopped. Some carers were also reluctant to continue with home care services due to concerns about the risk of infection. The report offered recommendations and policy considerations to improve outcomes for all carers.

   The wellbeing of carers was often negatively affected by the pandemic. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

Directions for future dementia research

UCL researchers led by Dr Kathy Liu, with Dr Andrew Sommerlad, Prof Robert Howard and Prof Gill Livingston were part of a group that carried out a research update on dementia wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic8. The project was commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care Dementia Programme Board. It incorporated findings from over a hundred studies on dementia wellbeing and COVID-19, using a framework published by NHS England (see figure below). From the findings, the group collectively identified key knowledge gaps to help researchers and organisations direct future research.

Published by NHS England 2020

Conclusion

UCL mental health researchers have worked rapidly to try to understand the impacts of the pandemic on older adults and individuals affected by dementia and make recommendations. Our future work will aim to explore and resolve outstanding research questions to improve the quality of life of these individuals and their carers.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Suárez-González, A. et al. Impact and mortality of COVID-19 on people living with dementia: cross-country report. https://ltccovid.org/2020/08/19/impact-and-mortality-of-covid-19-on-people-living-with-dementia-cross-country-report/ (2020).
  2. Suárez-González, A., Rajagopalan, J., Livingston, G. & Alladi, S. The effect of COVID-19 isolation measures on the cognition and mental health of people living with dementia: A rapid systematic review of one year of quantitative evidence. EClinicalMedicine 39, 101047 (2021).
  3. Howard, R., Burns, A. & Schneider, L. Antipsychotic prescribing to people with dementia during COVID-19. Lancet Neurol. 19, 892 (2020).
  4. Livingston, G. et al. Prevalence, management, and outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 infections in older people and those with dementia in mental health wards in London, UK: a retrospective observational study. Lancet Psychiatry 7, 1054–1063 (2020).
  5. Liu, K. Y. et al. Infection control and the prevalence, management and outcomes of SARS-CoV-2 infections in mental health wards in London, UK: Lessons learned from wave 1 to wave 2. Undergoing peer review for publication (2021).
  6. Bhome, R. et al. Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Older Adults Mental Health Services: a mixed methods study. bioRxiv (2020) doi:10.1101/2020.11.14.20231704.
  7. Onwumere, J. et al. COVID-19 and UK family carers: policy implications. Lancet Psychiatry 8, 929–936 (2021).
  8. Liu, K. Y. et al. Dementia wellbeing and COVID-19: Review and expert consensus on current research and knowledge gaps. Int. J. Geriatr. Psychiatry (2021) doi:10.1002/gps.5567.

 

UCL Mental Health Research at the time of COVID

iomh12 May 2021

researcher testing with pipette

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.

 

References

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2021/apr/more-half-16-25-year-olds-fear-their-futures-and-job-prospects
  7. https://www.ifow.org/resources/the-good-work-monitor
  8. 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.
  9. 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).
  10. 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).
  11. 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)
  12. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/research/covid-19-research-ucl-institute-education/research-related-covid-19
  13. https://www.annafreud.org/coronavirus-support/our-research/

Starting a PhD in the middle of a pandemic by Humma Andleeb

iomh18 March 2021

profile photo of phd student humma andleeb

This is a series of blogs about my experience of the UCL-Wellcome Mental Health Science PhD programme. It will cover applying for the programme, the interview and lead up to enrolment stage of the programme as well as my experience of the programme and my PhD. I am publishing these blogs for prospective students in response to the queries I have received about the programme in response to my Twitter thread  on successfully securing a place on the programme.

Over the last year, all of us have had to drastically alter our lives in some way, whether that be home-schooling your children, working from home, practising extensive social distancing and hygiene in public spaces or staying at home for extended periods of time.

Just days before the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, I had been offered a place on the UCL Wellcome PhD programme in Mental Health Science. Amongst the chaos, with the ever-extending lockdown, it was hard to plan or think about the future not knowing what would unfold over the coming months. I was increasingly anxious as people started losing their jobs facing unemployment without financial support, here I was about to leave a secure job to pursue a PhD. Honestly, I had to question whether it was the right time to take on a PhD and whether I was taking too much of a risk in the circumstances.

As the months followed and I was asked to shield whilst the pandemic picture grew much worse all over the world, my mental health took a rapid decline and my motivation dropped to an all-time low. Not being able to visualise the future and whether I would be able to take on the PhD if I would still be required to shield was causing me a lot of stress. Thankfully, the programme committee reassured me that they would find a way to accommodate the situation whatever it would be come September. Encouragingly, we were able to have a relatively relaxed summer and things seemed to be looking bright leading up to the start date but, quite suddenly, things started to worsen as schools opened in September and universities were set to open campuses for students. Nevertheless, I handed in my notice and began preparing for this new and once-in-a-lifetime venture.

Before the start, we were told by UCL that most teaching and work would be delivered online unless it was absolutely necessary to be on campus (for example, if you needed to be in a lab), as undergraduate students were to be prioritised for on-campus learning until at least January, but we would have the opportunity to meet the rest of the cohort and the committee at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN) for our weekly skills seminar (social distancing regulations in place, of course).

Considering all that was happening, it was helpful that we had the month of October to scope out potential rotation projects for the year with potential supervisors on the programme but still have the opportunity to attend a weekly seminar at the ICN. Knowing that most of our studies would be virtual until January (at the earliest), I made the decision to move back to my family home in the Midlands so I could spend time with my grandma and family (plus the bonus of saving money on rent!). I commuted to London for the weekly seminars and lunch with the rest of the cohort. This was short-lived as COVID-19 cases began to rise rapidly and the skills seminars switched to virtual when the November lockdown was announced, just as we started our first rotations. My first rotation was using existing datasets so could all be done virtually but as the rotations are short (10-12 weeks long), most projects were unable to offer data collection opportunities and if they were, these were currently all being done virtually. Essentially, everyone was in the same boat.

Overall, it was daunting starting a PhD in the middle of a global pandemic, especially in the context of giving up a well-paid job when unemployment was rising, but it was a now-or-never decision. I truly felt like I was at the stage in my career to take this on professionally, so it was a risk that was worth taking for me! My former colleagues at McPin were incredibly supportive in helping me navigate this change and gave me the validation I needed that this was something that was right for me. It really helped being able to meet with the rest of the cohort on Zoom and then in person weekly (especially great that we all got on so well). We immediately made a WhatsApp group to keep in touch and also met virtually on Zoom for the skills seminars. In my opinion, the most difficult thing has been working with a lab group that you work with every day but never getting the opportunity to meet with them. You end up in a sort of awkward position of having spent a lengthy amount of time being part of the lab, but there being this barrier of not knowing someone’s persona in real life or fully understanding the lab banter that you have never physically been a part of.

Suicide and COVID-19: ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’

tonydavid8 February 2021

Suicidologists, not famed for their optimism, are bracing themselves for an increase in suicide rates following the pandemic. Some have called it a perfect storm (1). It is not an easy subject to discuss for two main reasons. A person bereaved by suicide described it to me as like having a hand grenade explode in your living room. But precisely because suicide is such a singular event, it can only really be studied – in a way that useful lessons can be learned – from a distance, looking at large numbers and trends over time, by taking a kind of aerial view. The other reason is contagion. That’s why there are strict guidelines from the ‘Samaritans’ and others, on the way suicide is reported in the media (2) – which include avoidance of sensationalism, of the idea that the act is heroic, dwelling on methods, and that suicide was inevitable – for fear of copycats. Indeed the worst kind of newspaper reports did emerge early in the pandemic from India of people unexpectedly and violently taking their own lives after being told they had the virus but this did not continue and mercifully did not foretell of any similar trends. And I am conscious of even now having to be careful about my use of language even in the context of an article intended for a largely academic and educated audience (3,4).

Even asking about suicidal thoughts in a clinical context has made people anxious that it ‘puts thought into people’s heads’. Reassuringly, summarising several studies on this question, authors of a systematic review conclude that it is safe and can, as would be hoped, relieve distress (5). Our instincts and those motivating the bulk of mental health awareness campaigns tell us that it is good to talk. I should add that listening to someone who looks you in the eye and tells you of their intention to kill themselves feels like that grenade has just landed in your lap. It’s not an easy subject to talk or hear about.

Knowing of the possibility of suicide is arguably the uniquely human existential curse, as elaborated by 20th Century philosophers like Heidegger. But does being reminded of it really make a difference? Goethe’s hapless hero Werther takes his own life due to unrequited love. This sparked a minor craze in the mid 1770s of imitations by romantic young men donning the same blue coat and yellow waistcoat, and leaving the tell-tale eponymous novel by their sides. The moral panic that ensued has repeated itself many times with ‘13 Reason’s Why’ being a notable recent example (6).

Such outbreaks, spatial-temporal clustering to use the technical term, are fiendishly hard to prove statistically (7). In the age of social media and the internet the ‘where’ of a suicide hardly matters – unless within an institution like a prison or a psychiatric hospital – and the timing of a cluster is not obvious either; the next day, week, month? Indeed if there is to be an increase in suicides in the wake of this pandemic when should we expect it? Suicide statistics accumulate slowly and in the UK may wait months for a coroner’s verdict. Suicide is, thankfully, rare enough that it takes a while to see enough instances to say whether rates have increased even nationally, in comparison to, for example, the same time last year, even using provisional statistics.

Efforts have been accelerated around the world by the pandemic to provide real-time surveillance information so that rates can be tracked and if rising, perhaps mitigated (8). Early reports from Queensland Australia (pop approx. 5m) have made use of police reports to the coroner. There were tragically 434 suicides from February through August 2020, a rate which did not differ compared to the preceding 5 years (9). The social context of the suicides did not show any particular emphasis on say unemployment or domestic violence and just 36 were judged initially at least as being related to Covid-19 – in what way, was not made explicit. A study from Japan (10), which has suffered less than the most European countries from the pandemic, normally has an average of 1596 suicides per month but this dropped by 14% between February and June last year but then increased by 16% in July to October. Interpreting such fluctuation is tricky. Could it be that suicide was delayed during the first wave only to rebound or are we seeing a cumulative effect? The study authors wonder whether it has to do with the prospect of withdrawal of government financial support packages. Work in progress reported by the UK’s National Confidential Enquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health shows no increase in the monthly average from April-August 2020 compared with Jan-March (11). A similar picture of no increases is emerging from Norway (12) and preliminary data from the US (8).

The nearest we have in the UK to official rolling figures are monthly statistics on mortality in people under 18 (13). In the 82 days before the first lockdown in March 2020 there were a heart-rending 26 deaths by suicide compared with 25 in the first 56 days after, an post-lockdown increase in rate by about 40% but with a very wide margin of error such that the difference fails to meet conventional levels of statistical significance. A third of the young people were known to services.

Experience from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in Hong Kong in the spring of 2003 – also caused by a coronavirus (14) showed an uptick of about 30% in deaths by suicide paralleling SARS mortality – over its 4 month course (15). This affected older women particularly, a group more prone to suicide in China for some reason unlike the general rule around the world that older men have the highest rates. However the summer peak did not occur leading the authors to wonder if suicide had simply been brought forward by the epidemic (16).

What of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19? Very little data on suicide are available but one US (17) and one Swedish study (18) using fairly reliable contemporaneous figures found no increase. It’s true, that there was a lot going on then! The Great War (like all wars) showed the expected drop in suicide, perhaps due to an increase in social cohesion, followed by an increase which coincided with Spanish flu, so teasing out the effects of each is impossible. As an aside, rates following the two world wars did rise again but not quite to pre-war levels and then peaked around the great depression. Rates in Europe and the UK have been gradually falling ever since. Indeed if there is a predictable harbinger of increased suicide on the large demographic scale it is economic hardship. It is therefore suicide rates over the next few years that will be most scrutinised.

There is no vaccine for suicide but there are some ways to increase immunity. Social proximity, economic support for those in poverty, agile and responsive mental health services, control of alcohol consumption being the most obvious.

One of my patients etched on my memory suffered depression severe enough to require in-patient care. He was driven to despair by religious guilt over a seemingly minor misdemeanour. As his mood improved with antidepressants and psychological support there seemed to be a glimmer of light, and he’d had enough of all that ‘religious nonsense’. I was reassured only for him to take his own life dramatically during a period of home leave a few weeks later (see 19). My lesson: whatever binds people together in society – shared values, beliefs, rituals – keeps us alive, regardless of their rationality.

In sum, when it comes to suicide, especially in the midst of a pandemic, it may be good to talk but it depends what you say. We might remember the WW2 safety slogan – “careless talk costs lives”. Perhaps the next mental health awareness campaign should be promoting the benefits of listening. Listening to what people are saying as well as what evidence and data are showing; we all need to try and learn from that.

And for every Werther there is a Papageno from the Magic Flute or George Bailey in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – numinous tales of people turning away from suicide thanks to others sharing ways to value continued living – despite moments of desperation. Don’t ever say it’s inevitable.

Professor Anthony David

Director, UCL Institute of Mental Health

 

References:

  1. Reger MA, Stanley IH, Joiner TE. Suicide mortality and coronavirus disease 2019—a perfect storm? JAMA Psychiatry. 2020. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2764584
  2. World Health Organization. Preventing suicide: A resource for media professionals. 2017 https://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/resource_booklet_2017/en/.
  3. Gunnell D, Appleby L, Arensman E et al. Suicide risk and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lancet Psychiatry 2020. 7: 468–71. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32330430
  4. Hawton K, Marzano L, Fraser L, Hawley M, Harris E, Lainez Y. Reporting on suicidal behaviour and covid-19—need for caution. Lancet Psychiatry 2021. 8:15-7. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30484-3.
  5. Polihronis C, Cloutier P, Kaur J, Skinner R, Cappelli M. What’s the harm in asking? A systematic review and meta-analysis on the risks of asking about suicide-related behaviors and self-harm with quality appraisal, Archives of Suicide Research, 2020. DOI: 10.1080/13811118.2020.1793857
  6. Ortiz P, Khin E. Traditional and new media’s influence on suicidal behavior and contagion. Behaviour Science and Law. 2018. 36:245–256.
  7. Niedzwiedz C, Haw C, Hawton K, Platt S. The definition and epidemiology of clusters of suicidal behavior: a systematic review. Suicide Life Threatening Behavior.2014. 44, 569–581.
  8. John A, Pirkis A, Gunnell D, Appleby L, Morrissey J. Trends in suicide during the covid-19 pandemic: Prevention must be prioritised while we wait for a clearer picture. BMJ 2020;371:m4352
  9. Leske S, Kõlves K, Crompton D, Arensman E, Leo DD. Real-time suicide mortality data from police reports in Queensland, Australia, during the COVID-19 pandemic: an interrupted time-series analysis. Lancet Psychiatry 2021; 8: 58–63
  10. Increase in suicide following an initial decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. Tanaka T, Okamoto S. Nature: Human Behaviour. 2021. doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01042-z
  11. National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Safety in Mental Health. Suicide in England since the COVID-19 pandemic- early figures from real-time surveillance. 2020. http://documents.manchester.ac.uk/display.aspx?DocID=51861
  12. Qin P, Mehlum L. National observation of death by suicide in the first 3 months under COVID-19 pandemic. Acta Psychiatr Scand 2020.pmid: 33111325
  13. National Child Mortality Database. Child suicide rates during the covid-19 pandemic in England: real-time surveillance. 2020. https://www.ncmd.info/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/REF253-2020-NCMD-Summary-Report-on-Child-Suicide-July-2020.pdf
  14. Rogers JP 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 2020. 7: 611–27. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32437679
  15. Chan SM et al. 2006. Elderly suicide and the 2003 SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2006. 21: 113–18.
  16. Cheung YT, Chau PH, Yip PSF. A revisit on older adults suicides and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in Hong Kong. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 2008. 23: 1231–38
  17. Wasserman IM. The impact of epidemic, war, prohibition and media on suicide: United States, 1910–1920. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior 1992. 22: 240–54.
  18. Rück C, Mataix-Cols D, Malki K, Adler M, Flygare O, Runeson B, Sidorchuk A. Will the COVID-19 pandemic lead to a tsunami of suicides? A Swedish nationwide analysis of historical and 2020 data. medRxiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.10.20244699
  19. David A. Into the Abyss: a neuropsychiatrist’s notes on troubled lives. Oneworld Publications, 2020, London.

 

When Private Optimism meets Public Despair: People adapt to threats like Covid-19 by maintaining positive and protective biases while reducing negative perceptions and emotions

Maria Thomas29 June 2020

This blog was written by PhD Student Laura K. Globig from the Department of Experimental Psychology, UCL. 

woman wearing face mask

Humans tend to be optimistic. They overestimate their financial prosperity and marriage longevity, while underestimating their risk of disease, such as cancer or suffering other hardships, like being burgled (Sharot, 2011, Weinstein, 1980).

What is surprising about such observations is that anecdotally, people also often express pessimism regarding the state of society as a whole. Following the financial collapse of 2008, polls showed that people were extremely pessimistic about the financial future of their country. By contrast, they were optimistic about their own financial prospects (Ipsos MORI, 2008).

Now these seemingly opposing but coexisting beliefs integrate to shape a person’s response becomes especially relevant when danger faces the self and others. How someone estimates their own vulnerability will likely affect their well-being and the choices they make. Simultaneously, someone’s predictions about the vulnerability of society at large could also affect their personal well-being and behavior. The latter is particularly pertinent, when one’s own behavior can affect others’ well-being.

As COVID-19 swept the globe and stay at home orders were issued we surveyed a representative sample of 1145 Americans in 30 states across two timepoints. Our aim was two-fold: 1) To investigate how people perceived the danger COVID-19 posed to themselves and to their fellow citizens. 2) To determine how these perceived risks influenced their own well-being and behavior.

We found that people believed they were at lower risk of getting COVID-19 relative to others their age and gender. We refer to this as private optimism. At the same time, people also believed that COVID-19 posed a tremendous danger to the health of the human population as whole. We refer to this as public pessimism.

We found that private optimism can be explained by people’s sense of control. People believe their fate is in their own hands, and thus they believe they can avoid negative outcomes (Zakay, 1984). During the pandemic, this may relate to people believing they are in control over being exposed to the virus. This then leads them to believe they are less likely than others to catch the virus. But because this sense of control does not extend to society, they are less optimistic about global issues. We cannot control how others behave during the pandemic.

Those who were optimistic about their own chances of being infected were also happier and less anxious compared to those who were not. How people estimated the danger posed by COVID-19 to society as a whole however did not influence personal happiness, but did affect anxiety. Those who were pessimistic about the danger to society, were more anxious. Thus, our perception of our own vulnerability can influence both positive and negative aspects of well-being, while how vulnerable we perceive others relates specifically to anxiety.

When it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, to what extent we adopt preventative measures, such as social distancing, not only mitigates our own risk of getting infected, but also that of others. It enables us to protect those who are particularly vulnerable.

Our study shows that public pessimism predicted how likely people were to adhere to public health advice to slow the spread. That is, people who believed the virus posed a great danger to society as a whole reported putting greater effort in social distancing, hand washing and avoiding touching their faces. How people considered the risk to the self, however, did not affect compliance. This suggests that people predominantly engage in protective behaviors for the benefit of others.

Finally, we also observed that people adapted well to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Their well-being increased as lockdown progressed. Compared to the start of lockdown, people were less anxious and reported an increased sense of control. They considered the danger of COVID-19 to humanity as less than they did at the beginning of lockdown. Private optimism and happiness remained stable throughout. This suggests that humans adapt to threats by maintaining positive and protective biases while reducing negative perceptions and emotions.

We surveyed Americans across 30 US states, thereby allowing us to sample a diverse representation of US citizens. Notably, we did not observe an effect of state or number of COVID-19 cases or COVID-19 related fatalities at the time of testing. It is therefore likely that our findings will also apply to other countries, such as the United Kingdom.

Rather than an effect of location, we did find that political orientation, age, gender and socioeconomic status had a differential effect on well-being and behavior. Older individuals and females were more like to comply with government advice related to COVID-19 mitigation. Moreover, those with high income were happier. Finally, males and republicans were more likely to express private and public optimism. Additionally, younger individuals were also more likely to express private optimism. Future research is needed to explore how government policies in response to COVID-19 influence well-being and behavior. There may well be differential effects on an international scale.

Given the recent decline in COVID-19 cases and easing restrictions, it is possible that risk perception in general will decrease, due to the actual risk of infection being reduced. Nevertheless, some preliminary data we collected indicates that people still consider the risk of getting infected themselves as low, relative to others of same age and gender. More work is needed to explore how this optimistic tendency relates to reports of an increasing number of people believing they have already contracted the virus and are thereby immune. As official statistics indicate the true percentage of the population that has actually tested positive for COVID-19 is still relatively small. Therefore, it is in fact possible that the belief to have had COVID-19 already is in itself, also a form of private optimism in which people falsely believe they are immune, and thereby no longer at risk of infection.

One might believe that private optimism may deter individuals from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available. However, vaccinations rely on the concept of herd immunity and thereby only work to prevent the spread of infectious diseases if the majority of the population is vaccinated. They could therefore be considered a form of behavioral compliance to protect those who are vulnerable and thus one’s willingness to get vaccinated likely relies more on how we estimate the danger to the human population. Of course, this relies on effective communication and education of the public.

There is reason to believe, that the paradoxical existence of private optimism and public pessimism generalizes to other threats such as war, financial collapse and climate change. For example, we speculate that people’s tendency to make “green choices” is linked to the belief that climate change poses a threat to humanity, regardless of whether they believe that they are themselves at risk. Such knowledge can be useful for advocates and policy makers in framing information to encourage individuals to select actions that protect themselves and others from natural and man-made threats. In the future we also hope to explore the mechanistic link between sense of control, private optimism and well-being further. If we can strengthen people’s sense of control, we might be able to harness the positive effects on personal well-being in times of crisis.

 

References

Globig, L. K., Blain, B., & Sharot, T. (2020, May 29). When Private Optimism meets Public Despair: Dissociable effects on behavior and well-being. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/gbdn8

Ipsos MORI. (2008). Political Monitor, March 2008, [UK]. [Data set].  Retrieved from: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ipsos-mori-political-monitor-march-2008

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current Biology, 21(23), R941–R945. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.030

Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 806–820. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.39.5.806

Zakay, D. (1984). The Influence of Perceived Event’s Controllability on Its Subjective Occurrence Probability. The Psychological Record, 34(2), 233–240. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03394867

Researching student mental health during the pandemic: a PhD student tries to remain objective

Maria Thomas4 May 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Tayla McCloud, UCL Division of Psychiatry.

Woman anxious at desk with laptop

It is difficult to think of anyone who is unaffected in some way by the current coronavirus pandemic and resulting UK lockdown. Whilst practical adjustments and physical health concerns spring to mind, there are myriad mental health implications, too.

Results from two early online surveys conducted by the mental health charity MQ and the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) showed that the main concerns among people with lived experience of a mental illness and others in the general population were the impact of the pandemic on anxiety, isolation, and access to support. These are likely to affect everyone to differing degrees throughout the lockdown.

On April 15th, a team of prominent psychiatric researchers published a piece in Lancet Psychiatry calling for high-quality research monitoring the mental health impact on the general population overall and in specific vulnerable groups. These are defined as including children and young people affected by school closures, older adults who may be isolated, and frontline healthcare workers. This is undoubtedly of utmost importance.

One group also experiencing a lot of disruption, though, is university students. Universities have been forced to close physically, meaning that this year’s exam and graduation season has been upended. Teaching is being conducted remotely and assessments have mostly been moved to different formats online. Like primary and secondary education students, university students will be adjusting to a completely new routine and way of learning.

Unlike primary and secondary students, though, for university students studying ‘at home’ may mean moving back in with parents in a completely different city, town or even country to where they usually study. This is likely to be a considerable upheaval at an already difficult time, with concerns around when it will be safe to return, but students who do not go back to where they lived before university risk being left to live alone without their usual support networks as many others leave.

Most university courses are attempting to continue as close to normal as possible, delivering teaching remotely, which means assessments are still largely going ahead. This means that students are under a lot of pressure to be as productive and focused as usual during what is a very tough time psychologically. Without access to libraries and equipment, they also may not have the resources or study spaces they usually have in which to complete their work. Under-performance, as well as the pandemic itself, could negatively impact their future career.

For these reasons, among others, university students may be at increased risk of experiencing negative mental health consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. It is, however, difficult to know this without relevant data.

SENSE Study Logo

This is where my PhD project, the SENSE study, comes in. SENSE is a longitudinal survey of the mental health of UCL students, conducted online beginning in October 2019. The last wave was in February 2020 and the next wave will begin shortly, in May. It covers such areas as students’ demographics, accommodation, financial situation and social lives, and we are adding new questions relating to the pandemic. This means that we will be able to compare UCL students’ mental health before and during the UK coronavirus outbreak. This could help us to understand more about which groups are more vulnerable to the impact of UCL’s closure and the UK lockdown, potentially highlighting areas for intervention. Follow @SENSEstudy on Twitter for updates, or visit our website www.sensestudy.co.uk.

I am also involved in a new study, You-COPE, which aims to measure the mental health of young people aged 16-24 in the UK throughout the lockdown and public health response and in the months afterwards. Follow me on Twitter (@TaylaMcCloud) for updates on this when it launches. This will include university students as well as non-students, and as such will complement the SENSE data findings and allow comparisons between these two groups.

I am attempting to continue this PhD work as usual, whilst conscious that I am a university student living through the coronavirus pandemic researching the mental health of university students during the coronavirus pandemic. It can be difficult to continue work as a “professional” when your work involves focusing on how students are being negatively affected.

Being a student who is researching student mental health is often quite odd like this. I talk about ‘university students’ in the third person, making hypotheses about this abstract group that it is easy to forget I am part of. I often bring my own university experience into the conversation as an example, as do my supervisors, but I am usually referring to a (somewhat) far away undergraduate version of myself and not my present experience. PhD students occupy a confusing space somewhere between staff and student that means we never quite feel like either.

The current coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting UK lockdown and UCL closure, has undoubtedly impacted my PhD work, as well as seemingly every other aspect of my life. I am trying to use this as an advantage; considering how I can use my experience as a UCL student during this time to inform my research, and my interpretation of the findings of this research. I hope that this will add value to the research I am conducting, and that SENSE and You-COPE will be able to shed new light on our understanding of the mental health of university students at a time when they may be particularly vulnerable.

A PhD student’s experience of the lockdown so far – it’s not all bad!

Maria Thomas27 April 2020

This blog has been guest written by PhD Student Anne Gaule, UCL MRC Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience and Mental Health and research student in Department of Clinical, Education and Health Psychology, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences.

school closed sign on school gate

Much like most PhD students I imagine, I followed the news over the last weeks of February closely, wondering how I was going to be able to continue with my research if we entered a lockdown. I am in my third year of the four-year UCL MRC Doctoral Training Programme in Neuroscience and Mental Health. My PhD focuses on social information processing in adolescence, and how this may be affected in children with a history of conduct disorder. This means that a key part of my project is data collection in schools.

At this point I have nearly finished collecting data for one task. I have also been developing new tasks that are engaging and suitable for children whilst having the power required for my stats. Fortunately, (and surprisingly) everything was going according to plan and I was on track to start my piloting and data collection. Unfortunately, I’d planned to start this in March 2020.

For some background, the three new tasks that I have developed need to be run individually with each child at their school and with experimenters present. I have also developed a child version of an adult questionnaire to complement these tasks that needs validation before it can be used. For the new behavioural tasks, I need at least 90 children to take part – on top of piloting.  For the questionnaire, 600 children must take part in order to run full analyses. To submit my thesis by the summer of 2021, I was hoping to have finished collecting data by October 2020 (the optimistic scenario), Christmas at the absolute latest. With around 250 questionnaires completed so far and my new tasks only at the piloting stage, I still have some way to go and the disruption from COVID-19 is putting serious brakes on this process.

My PhD project is a collaboration between our research team and the schools we work with and, as such, it requires time and organisation on both sides. When working with schools, whether mainstream or alternative provision, I am primarily working with teachers who are under an incredible workload. Despite already being overwhelmingly busy, they are generously offering to give up their time in order to help us to carry out this research – which we are all hoping may, in the long run, benefit the children they teach. I am hugely grateful to these teachers and I try my hardest to work around their schedule when setting up recruitment and data collection.

Practically, this translates to a huge number of phone-calls and emails – not to mention keeping track of who you’ve been in contact with and when. We also need consent from parents, which involves the school sending forms and leaving a two-week response period (and getting in touch with busy parents can be as tricky as getting in touch with busy teachers). Once we begin working with a school we need a quiet space on school grounds where we can work with the children relatively undisturbed – not necessarily easy during a busy school day. Finally, testing sessions themselves can also be challenging. We try our hardest to accommodate the children we work with, who are participating entirely voluntarily even if they have parent consent. If a child is having a bad day, we will come back on a different day, or break down the session into smaller sessions. The challenging behaviour of some of the children means the sessions sometimes won’t run smoothly or may take longer than planned. Consequently, an extended period of time has to be factored in for data collection on a project such as this. You can imagine how it felt when, after months of work to set up the data collection operation and with several schools having agreed dates in March for us to work with the children, I then had to cancel all of them. Naturally my anxieties about data collection are not comparable to the impact of this crisis on the schools that we work with – many of whom have vulnerable students whom they continue to support during this crisis. However, it’s hard to see how and when the face-to-face testing can move forward until there is more clarity on when we will emerge from this crisis.

Despite these anxieties, I want to reflect on the fact that I have also been incredibly lucky. I have received a huge amount of support since UCL has closed. For starters, my programme was very quick to notify us that, no matter what stage we are at in our PhD projects, we are all guaranteed an extension of some kind. This has been a huge load off my mind. My supervisor has provided guidance on how to adapt those aspects of my projects that can be conducted online (the questionnaire, for example, is easily transferable) and we have also discussed working on the literature review aspects of my thesis. As all the work I do involves children under the age of 18, whether vulnerable or not, I have had to submit amendments to my ethics in order to adapt various aspects of my data collection – such as taking parental consent online, and recruitment via social media instead of contacting schools directly. Here again I was happy to find that UCL has provided clear guidelines on which projects needed to submit ethics amendments for minor adaptations to protocol for online testing, and the best way to go about doing so. My department has been sending me updates about the UCL’s news and response to the crisis – including specific updates for doctoral students – and also immediately sent us guidance on how to set up to be able to work remotely, so I’ve had continued access to all of my files. My lab has set up regular meetings so that we feel less isolated now that we are no longer to leave our homes.

The immediate support from my programme, department, and supervisor has been a huge relief. I have actually started to enjoy the time I now have to read and to begin writing my thesis. I also believe that as the lockdown conditions ease, I may be able to collect data with the help of other team members, and complete my PhD on time.

Links

National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery: response to the COVID-19 emergency by Jennifer Foley, Edgar Chan, Natasja Van Harskamp & Lisa Cipolotti, UCL Queen Square, London.

tonydavid17 April 2020

The Department of Neuropsychology of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery: response to the COVID-19 emergency

  

Jennifer A. Foley, Edgar Chan, Natasja Van Harskamp & Lisa Cipolotti

Department of Neuropsychology, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London.

 

At the time of writing, over 137,000 people worldwide have died with COVID-19 coronavirus. Since the first UK death less than one month ago, almost 13,000 people have now died, with numbers continuing to rise. The UK is in lockdown: ‘non-essential’ businesses and places of worship are closed. Similarly, schools are closed, except for children of key workers. People are only permitted to leave their houses for food, health reasons, one hour of exercise or essential work.

The COVID-19 emergency has required us all to rethink how we work. In the NHS we have had to restructure our clinical services.  At the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (NHNN), a leading tertiary referral neuroscience specialist centre in the UK and part of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH), two inpatient wards have been dedicated to COVID-19 patients. In response to the rising bed pressure at UCLH, the Hyper-Acute Stroke Unit has been transferred to the NHNN and a new ‘Emergency Stroke Unit’ created. As a consequence, the discharge of inpatients has been greatly expedited. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the NHNN has been placed in lockdown; all visitors are prohibited, even for patients who are very sick and dying. Non-urgent outpatient clinics have been cancelled, with those remaining mostly provided by telephone. Outpatients deemed to be ‘extremely vulnerable’ by Public Health England have been advised to shield for 12 weeks and instructed not to leave their houses, even for shopping or medication.

Clinical staff has to work at a quicker pace, in longer shifts and in smaller teams because of increased staff sickness. They must provide more general medicine and have to learn how to use personal protective equipment (PPE). Academic staff has been redeployed clinically and some staff members have been redeployed to the new London NHS Nightingale Hospital. All staff have to work knowing that they might contract COVID-19, potentially placing themselves and their own household at risk.

In response to the COVID-19 emergency and the changes in clinical care at NHNN the Department of Neuropsychology reconsidered its priorities and how best to quickly respond to the new needs. We developed brand new services to support our staff, patients, and families and carers and took urgent action to provide top-class neuropsychological care. Here, we provide a description of how we have achieved this over the past two weeks.

 

The Department of Neuropsychology at NHNN

Neuropsychology is a highly specialised branch of clinical psychology, whose main focus is on addressing fundamental questions about the relationship between brain and mind. We investigate how changes in brain functioning caused by neurological disorder affect how we think and how we behave. Neuropsychologists are not only trained in general mental health, but also have additional qualifications and substantial specialist knowledge in the neurosciences.

The Department is one of the most renowned and prestigious in the world. Each year we treat approximately 6,700 patients. Our main clinical role is in the assessment, management and treatment of patients with complex neurological, neuropsychiatric and neurosurgical conditions. To meet this need, we have developed a flexible, adaptive and rapid neuropsychological assessment protocol, designed for speed of administration, reliability/validity, as well as detecting change from baseline. Our assessment comprises a brief clinical interview and formal evaluation of thinking skills, including general intelligence, memory, language, perception, frontal ‘executive’ functions and speed of information processing, in addition to assessment of mental health. These thinking skills are assessed with tests developed to be reliable, valid and graded in difficulty, and suitable for people of diverse backgrounds and abilities.

We have also developed a wide range of specialised treatment programmes. These mainly focus on group interventions to help patients cope with the neuropsychological sequelae of neurological conditions. We provide strategies to help reduce the impact of deficits of memory, planning, attention and other cognitive impairments on daily living. We also provide one-to-one support to mitigate anxiety and depression, and to support adjustment to the life changes precipitated by a variety of neurological conditions.

The Department plays a role in generating world-class clinical research, publishing approximately 40 peer-reviewed research papers each year. Our research strategy aims to improve diagnostic assessment and further the understanding of brain disorders and cognitive functioning. Recent focus has been on acquiring knowledge to help improve NHS neuropsychological service provision through: development of new tests to allow better identification of frontal executive and nonverbal memory impairments; development of new brief cognitive screening tools; and improved characterisation of the reliability and stability of neuropsychological tests over time, to allow objective monitoring of patients’ thinking skills. We also undertake research addressing questions regarding the neural architecture of cognitive domains, such as frontal executive functions, memory and language, and the characterisation of specific neurological conditions.

Support services for staff

The perceived availability of direct psychological support for staff is crucial for psychological wellbeing in times of crisis (e.g. Khalid et al., 2016). Hence, we have established a psychological support service for all staff. We have developed twice-weekly, face-to-face, walk-in clinics and daily telephone clinics. Our experience, so far, indicates that staff members greatly appreciate our support services. Despite the fact that our services started very recently, we have good intake that continues to increase.

Recent studies emerging from China specifically focusing on the COVID-19 emergency reported that overall there was little uptake of formalised psychological support (Chen et al., 2020; Zhu et al., 2020). It remains unclear what type of support is most effective. Some studies have suggested that it is more helpful to focus on enabling staff members to meet their basic needs: health (adequate PPE), shelter (especially if having to isolate from family members), food and sleep (Chen et al., 2020; Khalid et al., 2016; Khee et al., 2004). Some of these studies have relatively little data (Chen et al., 2020), include few or closed questions (Dai et al., 2020), and/or non-anonymised data collection (Lee et al., 2005; Khee et al., 2004). These factors may somewhat limit the generalizability of their findings. Notably, no formal study has assessed staff members’ psychological needs during crisis in the UK. Therefore, we have developed an online survey to assess staff members’ distress and psychological needs, including access to basic provisions and usual coping strategies, as well as desire for informal or formal psychological support. The data will help us refine our support service response and inform future practice.

Neuropsychological services for inpatients

The Department has developed a highly specialised service to meet the demands of the increased number of acute stroke and neurosurgical inpatients within the time constraints of a very fast medical environment. We continue to provide comprehensive cognitive assessment where necessary, while also adopting a briefer specialist assessment model that draws upon previous work (e.g. Chan et al., 2019). In addition, we have developed a fast-turnaround reporting system to support early discharge and strengthened our work with multi-disciplinary teams to provide support for complex cognitive and behavioural difficulties. The quick discharge of patients with significant cognitive impairment has resulted in patients receiving only minimal rehabilitation in hospital. To support rehabilitation planning, we have focussed on building stronger links and outreaching to community services and relevant charity organizations such as Stroke Association.

Neuropsychological services for outpatients

Outpatient diagnostic services have been significantly delayed resulting in reduced care for patients with chronic and life-limiting neurological conditions. However, acknowledging that some assessments remain essential even during these times, we are continuing to provide face-to-face outpatient cognitive assessments for all urgent cases, with both clinicians and patients wearing PPE. We have deemed this to be necessary given the limited empirical evidence for either the validity or utility of diagnostic tele-neuropsychology (e.g. Bunnage et al., 2020).

For outpatients who have little social contact, isolation and delayed clinical care threatens to create a pandemic of loneliness (Armitage & Nellums, 2020; Van Bavel et al., In Press). The impact of this, exacerbated by increased exposure to negative framing within the media, will heighten stress responses. This may have a potential catastrophic impact upon mental health outcomes (Garfin et al., 2020). As far as we are aware, there are no evidence-based guidelines on how to manage patients’ distress at this time. Nonetheless, it is clear that patients need to be supported. Hence, we are offering all patients offered a rescheduled neuropsychological outpatient appointment a telephone consultation for interim psychological support. To relieve the burden upon already stretched clinical nurse specialists, GPs, community teams and voluntary sector helplines, we have also extended this service to all of the NHNN outpatients and stroke patients within North Central London.

Furthermore, those who had psychological difficulties before the current COVID-19 crisis are most vulnerable to exacerbated distress (Duan & Zhu, 2020). Therefore, we have not stopped any ongoing neuropsychological therapies and continue to accept all new routine referrals for ongoing psychological support. These appointments have now been converted to telephone clinics.

Support services for patients’ families and carers

For family members of inpatients with neurological conditions and/or COVID-19, we have started providing telephone consultations. For families and carers of stroke and neurosurgical patients, we have developed telephone psychoeducation about cognitive and emotional sequelae, and signposting for any ongoing needs.

Conclusion

In sum, we hope that our new support services not only contain and mitigate psychological distress, but also will allow us to research the psychological needs of staff, patients, their families and carers. By redesigning our existing neuropsychological services, we do not delay, but instead respond rapidly to the significant changes and increased demands caused by the COVID-19 emergency. These new services may be helpful in providing empirical evidence to determine which interventions are most useful. This will in turn inform future guidelines, should we have to face a resurgence of COVID-19 or another pandemic.

References

Armitage, R. & Nellums, L.B. (2020). COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly. The Lancet. Public Health; Mar 20.

Bunnage, M., Evans, J., Wright, I., Thomas, S., Vargha-Khadem, F., Poz, R., Wilson, C & Moore, P (2020). Division of Neuropsychology Professional Standards Unit Guidelines to colleagues on the use of Tele-neuropsychology. Division of Neuropsychology, British Psychological Society; Apr 20.

Chan, E., Garritsen, E., Altendorff, S., Turner, D., Simister, R., Werring, D. J., & Cipolotti, L. (2019). Additional Queen Square (QS) screening items improve the test accuracy of the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) after acute stroke. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 407, 116442.

Chen, Q., Liang, M., Li, Y., Guo, J., Fei, D., Wang, L., He, L., Sheng, C., Cai, Y., Li, X. & Wang, J.(2020). Mental health care for medical staff in China during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7, e15-e16.

Dai, Y., Hu, G., Xiong, H., Qiu, H. & Yuan, X. (2020). Psychological impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak on healthcare workers in China. medRxiv.

Duan, L. & Zhu, G. (2020). Psychological interventions for people affected by the COVID-19 epidemic. The Lancet Psychiatry, 7, 300-302.

Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. Health Psychology; Mar 23.

Khalid, I., Khalid, T. J., Qabajah, M. R., Barnard, A. G. & Qushmaq, I. A. (2016). Healthcare workers emotions, perceived stressors and coping strategies during a MERS-CoV outbreak. Clinical Medicine & Research, 14, 7-14.

Khee, K. S., Lee, L. B., Chai, O. T., Loong, C. K., Ming, C. W., & Kheng, T. H. (2004). The psychological impact of SARS on health care providers. Critical Care and Shock, 100-106.

Lee, S. H., Juang, Y. Y., Su, Y. J., Lee, H. L., Lin, Y. H., & Chao, C. C. (2005). Facing SARS: psychological impacts on SARS team nurses and psychiatric services in a Taiwan general hospital. General Hospital Psychiatry, 27, 352-358.

Van Bavel, J. J., Boggio, P., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M., Crum, A., Douglas, K., Druckman, J., Drury, J. & Ellemers, N. (In Press). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behavior.

Zhu, Z., Xu, S., Wang, H., Liu, Z., Wu, J., Li, G., Miao, J., Zhang, C., Yang, Y., Sun, W. & Zhu, S. (2020). COVID-19 in Wuhan: Immediate Psychological Impact on 5062 Health Workers. medRxiv.

 

Call the Psychiatrists?

tonydavid15 April 2020

Call the psychiatrists?

Stereotypes abound regarding different medical specialists and their personalities. From aggressive, macho surgeons, nice-but-dim GPs to the mad-as-their-patients psychiatrists. The coronavirus outbreak has thrown other specialists into the spotlight. Critical care doctors are a new breed. Not selected for their bedside manner – their patients are usually anaesthetised. They are particularly skilled applied physiologists who understand oxygen saturation. In other words, a bit nerdy. Who knew they were brave too? The academic discipline of epidemiology – tired of explaining that theirs is the study of diseases in populations not ‘epidemics’, this is their moment to prove they have the statistical smarts to interpret the data, discern the trends and test the advice. Ironically, until COVID-19, public health specialists were perhaps the most beleaguered of all the non-coal face doctors practicing in the UK with large cuts to their budgets in recent years. Now they are effectively in charge with politicians supposedly following their advice to the letter. Even within that group’s medical specialism, the tide had long since turned away from infectious diseases – which normally account for a fraction of deaths in high income countries – towards ‘non-communicable diseases’: neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, which are fast becoming the scourge of lower and middle income countries too.

Redeployment of ‘rear-guard’ staff to the frontlines followed by recall of retired healthcare workers to help with NHS cope with COVID-19 led to some amusing memes. The first was the blue woolly bespectacled face of Dr Grover being drafted in from Sesame Street to the ITU with the caption ‘stay home unless you want to be intubated by a psychiatrist’ and then Dad’s Army characters – ‘Don’t worry chaps, backup is coming’ with their pompous but insecure leader Capt. Mainwaring representing psychiatry.

We have all been asked to consider our mental health and offered myriad ways to preserve it during lockdown and social isolation. Much of the advice from the NHS has been reassuringly commonsensical and has pointed toward self-help and online resources.  Do psychiatrists have particular role to play?

The biological effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the nervous system are not well understood. Experience from China does not suggest that we should anticipate cases of encephalitis and its inevitable neuropsychiatric manifestations as a result of direct infection of the brain in cases of COVID-19 but vigilance is required. The virus has been detected in the central nervous system in people with severe multi-organ disease. Common symptoms such as dizziness and headache and loss of smell and taste are best not seen as brain-based but rather general indicators of systemic unwellness and upper respiratory tract inflammation. The Association of British Neurologists is setting up a system to collate cases of suspected neurological COVID-19 and clinical neuropsychiatry colleagues from Edinburgh to Exeter have offered to help.

Experts interpret the life-threatening pneumonitis of the disease as a consequence of an all-out immunological response to the infection rather than the infection alone – it seems Boris Johnson dodged that particular bullet – and neurology textbooks have whole chapters on immune-mediated ‘post-infectious’ syndromes. But the contrast with a truly neurotropic virus such as polio which preferentially attacks motor nerve cell bodies could not be more stark. Some will remember the paralysing fear of paralysis which gripped families in the 1950’s and the dreaded spectre of the clumsy ventilators of the time – iron lungs.

The likely legacy of SARS, MERS and now COVID-19 includes psychiatric fall out. In those earlier epidemics, there were high rates of anxiety, depression and PTSD in the short term – although such outcomes never affected the majority. We know about them because people who recovered from infections serious enough to require hospitalisation were asked to fill out questionnaires on their experiences as part of simple research surveys. Few of the studies had controls groups which would allow us to conclude whether such rates were particularly high or not. PTSD is a strange one in this context. Not that being rushed to hospital and seeing the person in the next bed gasping for air and perhaps eventually succumbing, isn’t horrific and likely to etch itself on your memory. And the scene may come back to haunt you as intrusive memories and invade your sleep. But is it really best considered a direct consequence – part and parcel – of your own illness given that your sole allowable visitor, uninfected by the virus, might have been similarly traumatised?

If there are any lessons from psychiatry at times like this is it is to hang on to a kind of natural and shared immunity which we may find deeply embedded within. Natural in the sense of non-technical. Several studies on ‘psychological debriefing’ after traumatic events, have shown that, not only does this not help it makes the situation worse. Perhaps it derails the natural processes – biological, psychological and social – that have evolved to deal with major adverse events. By ‘medicalising’ the process, however unwittingly, it seems that we expose people to more harm rather than inoculating them against it. Hence the UK wide Royal College of Psychiatrists’ sensible advice to resist the temptation to offer such services to colleagues in the frontline. We don’t need the argot of traumatisation and therapy to speak to each other of loss, or bereavement and the yearning for physical contact. Those in the frontline don’t need someone to encourage them to emote in a certain way, to list the pain and guilt, the numbness or indeed the quiet victories. They do need a good night’s sleep, personal protection, reassurance that their efforts are appreciated and the above all the chance to share and fashion stories with each other.

The urge to ‘do something’ is strong and many of my senior colleagues feel at best side-lined and at worst, guilty for not practicing physical medicine. But there is plenty for us to do. Accident and emergency departments still attract a steady stream of people whose repertoire of coping with distress is limited to stereotyped and concrete demonstrations through the medium of physical self-harm. It is expecting too much of them that they will find more adaptive ways of dealing with it at the moment. It’s difficult enough for professionals to find the right words for them, or indeed any words but we are best placed to try. Suicide – since it was first studied by Emil Durkheim in the 1890s – tends to fall at times of national crisis like war perhaps because of an enhanced sense of collective solidarity. Let’s hope that applies to this pandemic. Then there are those with serious and enduring mental illnesses – such as schizophrenia. Perhaps half a million of them in the UK, living in sheltered accommodation, hostels and bedsits, if they’re lucky. People for whom companionship and intimacy are seldom seen as unalloyed good but often as harbouring threat. Social isolation for them is the default. If you live in a world where, at the best of times, religion, TV, and the internet rather than a comfort or distraction, seem arranged to undermine your sense of self, imagine what it’s like to be in the midst of a pandemic caused by invisible lethal particles invading your body  – and your mind – where everyone is a bit paranoid.  When AIDS was much more of a pre-occupation than it is today, one of my patients described how her longstanding nemesis, the persecutory voice that followed her every thought, announced that he was suffering from the virus ‘himself’. Eventually the voice, that personification of threat, succumbed to the disease and fell silent. My patient enjoyed a few days of blissful respite until the virus in a final posthumous category-defying leap, infected her too, at least that was her conviction. Such people are our responsibility and they need our arm’s length support not to mention maintenance medication.

For those feeling under pressure to play a more active role, the Hippocratic dictum: ‘first do no harm’ is worth remembering. I was required to take a version of the hippocractic oath when I qualified, and it always seemed to me to be a low bar and dead-weight to idealism and ambition. But now it seems aspirational. Colleagues in behavioural science struggled to come up with a useful ploy to get people to stop touching their faces; it’s not as easy as you think. ‘Sit on your hands’ was what they settled upon. Good advice all round.

 

14th April 2020, London.

 

Professor Anthony David, is Director of the UCL Institute of Mental Health and author of “Into the Abyss: a neuropsychiatrist’s notes on troubled minds.” Oneworld Publications.

The mental health impact of COVID-19: looking forward. Why we need high-quality longitudinal studies.

Maria Thomas3 April 2020

This blog has been guest written by Dr Daisy Fancourt, Associate Professor of Psychobiology & Epidemiology at the UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care and leads the COVID-19 Social Study.

Researchers have been aware for years of the adverse effects of social isolation on mental health, incidence of physical illnesses such as coronary heart disease and stroke, and mortality risk 1,2. But COVID-19 has triggered the largest enforced isolation in living human history. So predicting how this will affect mental health is extremely challenging.

A handful of studies on previous periods of quarantine have already been published. A rapid review published in the Lancet last month identified 24 studies conducted during outbreaks such as Ebola, the H1N1 influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). These have found that it isn’t just social isolation itself that is a challenge. Factors such as boredom, inadequate supplies and information, financial loss, and stigma can have negative psychological effects including post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, guilt, and anger 3, with some effects lasting as long as 3 years following the end of quarantine. People from disadvantaged backgrounds (who may face greater financial burdens), young people (for whom there may be significant disruption to their planned education and career pathways), and people with lower educational qualifications appear to be especially vulnerable 3. Even once quarantine measures are lifted, studies have found the persistence of problems including long-lasting changes in health behaviours (e.g. insomnia and lasting increases in alcohol abuse), fragmentation of social engagement (e.g. avoidance of public spaces and contact with others), and adverse effects on work (e.g. reduced work performance, reluctance to work, and increased consideration of resignation) 3.

These effects are all especially concerning as they occurred after just 7-30 days of isolation. Our isolation is anticipated to last significantly longer than this and is happening not just in certain towns and regions but across the globe. Consequently, there could be major immediate and lasting implications for the NHS and mental health services. So it is imperative that we dynamically capture the experiences of individuals and identify potentially protective activities during this period of isolation so that more specific guidance can be given to mitigate against adverse effects. It’s also key that we track what the emerging mental health problems are to enable the development of evidence-based social policies and services that can support individuals beyond the end of this epidemic.

In light of this, UCL has launched a large-scale UK study into the effects of COVID-19 on mental health. The study aims:

  1. To understand the psychological and social impact of Covid-19
  2. To map how the psychosocial impact evolves over time as social isolation measures get stricter and once measures are relaxed
  3. To ascertain which groups are at greatest risk of adverse effects
  4. To explore the interaction between psychosocial impact and adherence to healthy and protective behaviours
  5. To identify activities during isolation that could buffer against adverse effects

Already, 50,000 people in the UK have taken part and are completing weekly online surveys. We’re producing weekly reports on findings and working with government, public health bodies and the NHS to help shape the support and advice that people are receiving. We’re also starting telephone interviews exploring the experiences of vulnerable groups in more detail.

We’re not alone in this endeavour. UCL is co-leading a new network of international longitudinal studies focused on mental health, working with teams internationally to harmonise measures and undertake collaborative analyses.

Mental health research right now is critical. Finding ways to support people whilst they stay at home will help reduce the pressure on NHS services both for mental health and other health conditions, and could increase adherence to government guidelines. Further, the findings from research will support us in understanding the adverse effects of isolation in more detail and in preparing for future epidemics.

Also, the findings from this research may not all be negative. Lessons following previous epidemics such as SARS include the amazing ability of people to bounce back and even find some positives amidst even the most adverse experiences. What’s more, Covid-19 has focused attention on which jobs really are the most important within society, giving prominence and status to individuals in roles now designated as ‘key workers’ that have previously not been so well acknowledged or valued. Whether this translates to changes in subjective wellbeing amongst these groups will be interesting to discover.

To take part in the study, visit www.covid19study.org or click on this link: https://redcap.idhs.ucl.ac.uk/surveys/?s=TTXKND8JMK. To find out more about the study and see reports, visit www.marchnetwork.org/research. If you are running a longitudinal mental health study of COVID-19, register details of it with the COVID-Mind International Network here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/covid-mind-network

 

Further reading

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., Ronzi, S. & Hanratty, B. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart 102, 1009–1016 (2016).
  2. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T. & Stephenson, D. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 10, 227–237 (2015).
  3. Brooks, S. K. et al. The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet 395, 912–920 (2020).