Mental health during COVID-19

How are we all doing?
28 April 2020

Interview with 

Daisy Fancourt, University College London, Rory O'Connor, University of Glasgow, Lord David Willetts, Resolution Foundation,


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How are people coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, both overall and on a week to week basis. To find out, Adam Murphy spoke to Daisy Fancourt at University College London, who's looking at people's mental health week-by-week, and with Rory O'Connor from the University of Glasgow, who in conjunction with the Samaritans is conduction a longer term study. Then, Chris Smith spoke with Lord David Willetts, former Minister of State for Universities and Science, and President of the Resolution Foundation about how we can help people struggling...

Adam - In the midst of social isolation and the constant threat of illness, it's important to keep an eye not just on the physical health of people, but on their mental health. How are we all doing? Well Daisy Fancourt from University College London is part of a team that's doing a weekly checkup, as it were; asking people to go online each week to answer questions about what they're up to and how they feel.

Daisy - So far we've been looking particularly at how people's depression and anxiety levels are affected during the pandemic. And we know that prior to lockdown coming in, a lot of people got very worried about the virus and we saw that this had a negative effect on people's mental health. Since lockdown came in we've seen that this seems to have stabilised for a lot of people; we've even seen some slight decreases in things like anxiety. Now this is still above the normal levels for people, but it's promising to see that many people are managing to adapt. That said, we are also seeing that certain people are finding this time much tougher than others, particularly people who have a previous existing mental health condition, people who are living alone, people who have got lower levels of household income, and also younger adults for whom this might be making a greater change day to day than for people who are older.

Adam - This weekly approach is great for pointing out trouble spots - immediate issues like people being scared of food availability. But does it help longterm?

Daisy - Yes, and it's relevant to keep tracking this as well; because for now, people have started to get more confident about having access to food so we've seen those hoarding behaviours decreasing, but it's important to see what happens over the coming weeks as well because if there start to be more concerns again, then we might see these worries starting to go up in people. And this is really helpful to know because it means that we know what kinds of reassurances that people need, and we also know what kinds of things people are worried about which might be triggering behaviours like panic buying.

Adam - At the University of Glasgow, in conjunction with Samaritans, a new study is starting that compliments this weekly approach. There they've gathered a representative group of 3,000 people and are checking with them every few weeks to see how they're feeling, especially in terms like how 'entrapped' do they feel, and how 'defeated' do they feel. This will measure how we're dealing with this pandemic and what might keep us safe for the next one. Rory O'Connor is part of the team there at Glasgow.

Rory - We've already completed the baseline assessments. And the baseline assessment, we have asked a whole range of questions which tap into people's mental health and wellbeing, but also investigates their experience of coronavirus/COVID-19; what they're doing, activities that they're engaging in; as well as a range of other factors which we know are associated with mental health and wellbeing like entrapment, this notion of defeat. We've also looked at health anxiety, trusting government, a range of social support and resilience measures. We're following people up at least six times in total, but five times after baseline over the next six months. And we're also planning a longer-term 12 month followup. So we'll be able to not only understand in real time how people's feelings of entrapment are associated with depression or anxiety or suicidal thinking, but over time we'll be able to understand, do these things predict in the longer term as well as the short term. So what we're looking to do in this study, in addition to looking at more negative mental outcomes, we're also looking at positive wellbeing. And the key question we're trying to determine or answer is, "what are the things that people do; what activities, both physical activities or the way that they think, or doing things differently... is that associated with more positive wellbeing in terms of resilience, or in terms of feeling better about the world?" And crucially if we can understand these more positive outcomes, it helps us move forward; especially for example if there's a second outbreak, we'll know how to better respond so that people's mental wellbeing... it's not just that it's not adversely affected, but crucially that their mental wellbeing can be boosted.

Adam - And how important will considering mental health be, as we come out of this?

Rory - I think that protecting and responding to our mental health should be central to the pandemic response. We have to be vigilant and we have to be really, really protective of those who are losing their jobs, sadly, or are experiencing other difficulties; especially if maybe your mental health has been really affected during lockdown, we have to make sure that we do as much as we can to mitigate that risk in the longer term as well as the short term.

David - Well fortunately this is an interest where there's been a massive increase in research over the past 10 years. And the Office of National Statistics actually began tracking wellbeing back in 2010, it was a subject that David Cameron was very interested in. So we have got a long time series now of asking people how overall satisfied they are in their lives, what levels of anxiety they've got; so together with these extra research projects, I think we will get a pretty good picture of how the virus affects people, and then of course most importantly be innovative in how we help people.

Chris - And what do you think the government have in mind in that regard? What are they going to do? Because mental health and wellness and wellbeing, et cetera, has not been well-funded hitherto, in the UK at least, but that's echoed in many countries.

David - Yeah, and it clearly does require a higher priority. I know that Matt Hancock personally is very aware of the importance of it, and I thought what Sarah-Jane Blakemore was saying earlier in the program was very important. It is just possible that some of the innovative technologies we've got, the creation of online communities, is going to enable us to help some people better than we could in the past. Just like with education and Stephen Toope's interview, we may find many more people are able to learn more online. So it's a terrible crisis, but as with war it's also going to drive innovation at a speed we've not seen before, and let's hope that it really helps people who are finding this psychologically a challenge.



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