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Case study: What impact will COVID-19 have on our mental health?

This study aims to assess the long term psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

An interview with:

  • Professor Shanaya Rathod - Consultant Psychiatrist & Director of Research at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust and Mental Health Clinical Lead at NIHR CRN Wessex.

We are rapidly expanding our knowledge of the clinical effects of COVID-19 on people around the world. Not just how we’re treating it, but the potential impact of long COVID and future ramifications. 

But what about the mental health impact? The news has been awash with stories about the spike in domestic abuse cases reported to the police during 2020 and the rising numbers of young people needing mental health support. But these remain anecdotal until we can provide a growing wealth of research that shows the effects clearly.

In March 2020, during the first UK lockdown, it was clear to me that we needed to rapidly start building a body of research that would help us understand the impact the pandemic has had on mental health. With so much being restricted, it’s essential for us to gain an insight into the effect this has had on people’s mental wellbeing and what they need in order to thrive. 

We put together a study, knowing that we would have to create something that would be accessible given the circumstances. We devised an online questionnaire to assess the impact and over over 150 NHS Trusts, primary care centers, universities and the Centre for Applied Research and Evaluation International Foundation (Careif) became involved in the UK. Additionally, 10 countries agreed to participate so that we could compare the impact globally. 

It was important that the study was as inclusive as possible – mental health isn’t something that only impacts a certain age group, ethnicity or class. The pandemic itself has affected everyone, so capturing a broad cross section of society was essential; anyone over the age of 18 could take part. 

The study was conducted in three phases to capture the ongoing impact of the pandemic and resultant restrictions. Phase 1 recruited 29,133 participants; Phase 2 recruited 83,851 and phase 3 recruited 75,204 participants in the UK. We are currently analysing the data and have published the initial results in the following papers: 

  • World Journal of Psychiatry: Impact of lockdown relaxation and implementation of the face-covering policy on mental health: A United Kingdom COVID-19 study. 
  • Journal of Affective Disorders: Psychological impact of COVID-19 pandemic: Protocol and results of first three weeks from an international cross-section survey – focus on health professionals. 

Overall, evidence has shown that people’s mental health and wellbeing must be prioritised – because it’s not just the immediate impact of the pandemic that will influence mental health. The aftermath will affect people's jobs, homes and relationships in addition to normal life challenges. The number of responses received were exceptional and we would like to thank everyone who has participated and been involved in the study in any way. 

The third phase of the trial recruited just over 75,000 people and it was really interesting to see the impact on people as we came out of the lockdown in early 2020. 

It’s important for us to create and add to a global data set so that we are better prepared for the future. At the moment we have such a small picture of the mental health landscape – this study will hopefully feed into the larger evidence base for better planning, resources and help for everyone to manage their mental wellbeing, especially during difficult times. 

Mental health is very much an interdependent aspect of our health. So many pieces have to be in place for us to thrive mentally – safety, nurture, security, connection, support. Working parents need access to reliable childcare to do their jobs. Students need access to their teachers and their peers to continue their education. Elderly individuals need support services and contact to avoid isolation. The list goes on and on. 

We need to be better prepared for the future – building that resilience in individuals to overcome life’s challenges. Understanding what people need help with is vital for us to establish support networks to enable everyone to thrive and I’m hopeful that this research will become a cornerstone for mental wellbeing development and planning across the world.