Mental health and COVID-19

Overworked, male mature health care worker sitting looking down

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The COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Research and innovation are vital to find the best approaches to mitigate its short and long term consequences.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) and Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have both treated mental health as a priority. They have invested millions of pounds into research and innovation in this field.

As the pandemic began, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) deployed rapid funding to support mental health research during and after the pandemic.

Risk factors for mental health

As Professor Fiona Watt, Executive Chair of MRC said

…it is clear that the social and psychological impacts of the pandemic could be with us for some time.

Uncertainty, anxiety and fear are all natural feelings… but combined with other issues such as isolation, changes to health and social care provision and school closures, they can be risk factors for mental health.

There is also so much that we don’t know about how the virus and the disease itself directly affect the brain and the mental health of those who are infected.

Children’s mental health

The MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit conducted one of the first longitudinal studies into children’s mental health during lockdown.

The study found that children’s symptoms of depression got much worse over lockdown, regardless of their:

  • age
  • sex
  • family socioeconomic status.

Find out more about the study on the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit website.

Impact on vulnerable children

Between July and September 2020, researchers at Cardiff University surveyed 142 children and their parents over video calls.

All the children had been identified as at risk of mental health issues before the pandemic.

The study found that there was a strong link between financial stress and mental health problems in parents. This in turn was associated with worsening mental health issues among children.

The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Advances.

Professor Stephanie van Goozen, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, said:

Our analysis shows how the financial stress caused by the pandemic is associated with, and possibly responsible for, increased mental health problems in children through its impact on parental mental health.

The findings make for distressing reading, especially when seen in the context of continuing economic uncertainty.

It is vital that these families get the extra support they need, both financially and emotionally.

Impact on NHS workers

UKRI funded a project at King’s College London that is investigating the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of NHS staff.

There have been several surveys reporting negative effects of the pandemic on the mental health of healthcare workers. But large-scale population-based studies are needed to confirm these effects and to what extent they persist.

The study will collate data on a mass scale and evaluate national and local staff support schemes. Their health and wellbeing will be assessed at regular intervals over 12 months using questionnaires and interviews.

Professor Sir Simon Wessely, Professor of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London said:

NHS staff have been under tremendous pressure throughout the pandemic, and while we know from smaller studies that the psychological health of staff has suffered, we have yet to conduct a large-scale study across England.

This information is vital to help us understand exactly how NHS staff have been affected, and how we can best support individuals with different needs.

How COVID-19 affects the brain

The UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI), which is MRC-funded, began tackling questions about how COVID-19 might affect the brain.

UK DRI supported a number of studies to investigate the neurological effects of COVID-19. One study provided evidence of acute problems with thinking and attention in people who have recovered from COVID-19.

Another study found that neurological complications of COVID-19 can include:

  • delirium
  • brain inflammation
  • stroke
  • nerve damage.

The findings suggest that in some cases these symptoms can even occur in the absence of the severe respiratory symptoms characteristic of COVID-19.

Impact on home care workers

A study led by Cardiff University found that over a quarter of domiciliary care workers in Wales sought medical help or received mental health-related treatment in the first 12 months of the pandemic.

The study’s interim report also found that 12% of care workers tested for COVID-19.

The researchers analysed the health data of over 15,700 are workers and interviewed 24 to build a picture of how Wales’s home care workforce fared during the pandemic.

Some of the challenges identified by care workers include personal protective equipment (PPE) being impractical, clients and families not adhering to safety protocols and pressure to attend work despite illness.

Professor Mike Robling, director of Population Health Trials at Cardiff University’s Centre for Trials Research and principal investigator on the study, said:

Our findings reveal the significant personal burden placed on care workers during the pandemic.

There are multiple factors at play: disrupted workforce organisation, staff availability, isolated working practices and uncertainties over work environments. It has been humbling to hear how care workers have adapted and risen to the challenge of supporting their clients during the pandemic.

Strategies to support individuals and teams are vital to address the emotional burden of pandemic working for carers and ensure continuity of care to clients. My concern is that this burden may be even greater and last longer than we have so far been able to demonstrate with the data we have.

Farmers’ mental health during the pandemic

The Landscapes of Support project was funded by ESRC to find out how Britain’s farming community, and its underpinning support systems, have been affected by the pandemic.

The 12-month project is led by the University of Reading and supported by the Universities of Sheffield and Exeter.

Its aim is to help policymakers and organisations support the levelling up of rural communities and to increase their resilience not only to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also future challenges.

Since March 2021, the team has:

  • conducted in-depth interviews with individuals who support farmers’ mental health
  • ran an online survey of over 200 farmers and over 90 employees and volunteers from supporter organisations
  • reviewed existing literature.

In January 2022, the team published a policy briefing that outlines its findings.

Long-term, multidimensional support

The briefing outlines that the COVID-19 pandemic is just one of many potential stressors for the farming community. The root causes of poor farming mental health must be addressed as well as improving support.

The briefing’s recommendations include:

  • vets, feed merchants and others who come into regular contact with farmers should be able to access basic mental health first aid training and be able to signpost support services
  • strategies should be identified to help the farming community normalise conversations about mental health
  • support services should be designed to be multidimensional, reflecting the complex mental health issues that can arise in this community
  • recognition of the importance of peer support and safe places to talk, like livestock marts and rural pubs.

Read the full policy brief (PDF, 484KB).

Last updated: 10 February 2022

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