Mental Health Research Prioritized in Age of COVID-19

April 16, 2020

Frontline medical staff and other vulnerable groups should be the focus of mental health support.

Emily A. Holmes, PhD

Mental health should be in the forefront of research as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is likely to bring in a new set of mental health issues for people, according to a new position paper.

A team of experts, including Emily A. Holmes, PhD, Department of Psychology at Uppsala University, wrote the optimal structure of a mentally healthy life for individuals during the pandemic should be mapped out with the structure varying as a function of individual circumstances.

The proposal includes a framework for the prioritization and coordination of essential, policy-relevant psychological, social, and neuroscientific research to ensure that any investment is efficiently targeted to crucial mental health science questions throughout the duration of the pandemic.

“Deploying a mental health science perspective to the pandemic will also inform population-level behavior change initiatives aimed at reducing the spread of the virus,” the authors said. “International comparisons will be especially helpful in this regard.”

The recommendations also designate frontline medical staff and other vulnerable groups to be a priority for mental health support.

While a long-term policy still needs to be developed, investigators suggest immediate research priorities to monitor and report rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, and other mental health issues to better understand mechanisms and crucially to inform interventions.

One method to achieve these goals is to use more digital applications and remotely deliver programs designed to protect mental health.

In the new paper, the authors warn that the COVID-19 pandemic could have a profound and pervasive impact on the global mental health both in the short- and long-term. However, they warn only a small proportion of new scientific publications on COVID-19 have focused on the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

Holmes and colleagues said addressing this urgent need will require integration across disciplines and sectors and should be done in collaboration with people with lived experience.

One of the reasons mental health is a top priority is that it is believed that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) may infect the brain or trigger immune responses that have additional adverse effects on brain function and mental health in patients with COVID-19.

“There is an urgent need for research to address how mental health consequences for vulnerable groups can be mitigated under pandemic conditions, and on the impact of repeated media consumption and health messaging around COVID-19,” the authors wrote. “Discovery, evaluation, and refinement of mechanistically driven interventions to address the psychological, social, and neuroscientific aspects of the pandemic are required.”

The investigators also surveyed the public and people who have experiences with mental illness and found widespread concerns about the effect of social isolation or social distancing is having on well-being. They survey also revealed increased anxiety, depression, stress, and other negative feelings and concern about the practical implications of the pandemic response, including financial difficulties.

“The prospect of becoming physically unwell with COVID-19 ranked lower than these issues related to the social and psychological response to the pandemic,” the authors wrote.

While the paper provides a strategy for the UK, the investigators believe it can be adapted for and integrated with research efforts in other countries as well.

The study, “Multidisciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health science,” was published online in the Lancet Psychiatry.