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Highlight notice – COVID-19 and mental health


03 June 2020


1.0 - June 2020


Research to understand the epidemiology of COVID-19, including its prevention and control, will be critical for mitigating the severity of the pandemic. Rapid progress in addressing this depends upon a coherent and integrated response from researchers, industry, the health and care systems, and the public.

To address this need, NIHR and UKRI have launched a rolling call for rapid research proposals that address emerging priorities and have potential to deliver public health impacts within 12 months, or sooner if feasibly and scientifically possible. 

This call has a number of highlight notices against it to seek research proposals on specific topics. This highlight notice on COVID-19 and mental health has been launched under this call.


Mental health research is critical to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological, psychiatric and social functioning, and how to effectively mitigate this impact.

Extant research, including studies of previous stressful and traumatic events, indicates that the pandemic will likely have negative effects on individual and population mental health. Emerging findings from general population surveys currently being conducted have highlighted concerns about the effects of social isolation on wellbeing, for example, and increased levels of anxiety and depression symptoms compared to usual reported levels.

There is also concern about the effect of the pandemic on particularly vulnerable groups, including frontline health and social care workers. Furthermore, there is evidence that coronavirus infection can cause acute neuropsychiatric syndromes and in the longer term is often followed by high levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD in recovering patients.

We need research that can rapidly identify those groups – in the population and clinically – that are at greatest risk of adverse outcomes, accurately characterise the nature of their vulnerability and need, and effectively support them in ways that reduce the mental health impacts of the pandemic, reducing psychiatric morbidity and promoting wellbeing.

The Academy of Medical Sciences and MQ: Transforming mental health have already convened a group that has outlined a number of mental health research priorities relevant to COVID-19. The resulting Lancet Psychiatry position paper presents some key areas of immediate and longer term priority, across all areas of mental health science from neuroscience to social science.   

This highlight notice is to call for research proposals with potential for significant public mental health impact within 12 months and encourage proposals focusing on preventative approaches and interventions.

The aim is to reduce the emergence of new, and exacerbation of existing, mental health problems, and to improve outcomes for people whose mental health has already been adversely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 


This highlight notice invites research proposals focused on the rapid identification and mitigation of the acute mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This includes understanding how the measures imposed to reduce the spread of the virus in the UK stand to impact on immediate mental health, and the role of other factors, including, but not limited to, SARS-CoV2 infection, stress, stigma, isolation, bereavement and trauma (including trauma following intensive care treatment in COVID-19 patients with severe illness).

Identifying those psychological, social and biological factors associated with vulnerability and resilience is also critical if we are to intervene effectively and mitigate the short- and medium-term risks of mental ill-health.

Proposals may take a whole population view and examine the impacts of COVID-19 on, for example, anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, addiction and eating disorders.

However, research is particularly encouraged that focuses on groups who may be more vulnerable, such as frontline health and social care staff and other groups of key workers, people with existing mental health problems, those who recover from COVID-19, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and those experiencing social inequality such as lack of employment, housing or existing health inequalities.

Research could include, for example:

  • Analysis of existing, or newly collected or linked, representative data sets to understand differential mental health outcomes for certain groups and identification of modifiable risk and protective factors. Outputs will be expected to demonstrate potential for public health impact within 12 months; for example, helping policy makers understand the extent and distribution of need, to guide responses, or informing the implementation of effective intervention or prevention strategies. 
  • Identification, development and evaluation of evidence-based scalable interventions (both digital and non-digital) that can be delivered under pandemic conditions, both adapted and repurposed, to reduce mental health issues and improve health. This includes interventions and preventative approaches, and rapid identification of the best methods to optimise behaviour change and help people to manage their mental health. 
  • Validation of biomarkers that can be used to measure the effects of viral infection and inflammation on the brain and predict therapeutic responses to interventions targeting biological mechanisms of mental health problems in those who recover from COVID-19 (including depression, anxiety, PTSD and neuropsychiatric syndromes).

Guidance for applicants

Applicants should, where possible, take advantage of existing COVID-19 platform studies, cohorts and other longitudinal population studies with prospective mental health measures, data platforms and administrative data. Collaboration across groups, sites and centres is encouraged to enhance representative population coverage and the range of data available to comprehensively address key questions.

If new data collection is required, either as part of a new or existing study, it must generate important information unavailable elsewhere. It is a requirement that data collected should be analysed within the period of the award to rapidly inform policy and practice needs.  However, it is also acceptable for data collected to include evidence valuable for informing understanding of the long-term mental health impacts beyond the lifetime of the award. All data collected should be deposited for re-use in suitable data archive(s) where feasible.

Ambitious proposals aimed at developing a platform, or establishing consortia, to bring together the expertise of multiple groups, centres or disciplines to coordinate and address a number of these priority areas in parallel and accelerate opportunities for impact are welcomed.

Collaboration with, and involvement of, people affected by the research - including patients, people with lived experience of mental health problems, carers and the public - will be imperative to bringing about real world impacts against these priority areas. Interdisciplinary research is welcomed, where appropriate.

Research needs to be timely, with potential to deliver public health impacts within 12 months, particularly to mitigate poor outcomes for the most vulnerable groups.

The committee will look across the range of proposals to ensure there is no duplication and may request, where similar work is proposed, that academic groups or institutions join together to capitalise on the expertise and improve the scope and outcomes of the research.

How to apply

This highlight notice will be supported through the joint UKRI-NIHR COVID-19 rapid response rolling call.

Applicants must apply by first completing the NIHR form for prioritising COVID-19 studies. Applicants requiring funding should then follow the link to the full funding application form and submit this by 9am on 22 June 2020.

All applications will be reviewed by a group of appropriate subject matter experts. To enable simultaneous consideration of as many relevant applications as possible, we strongly recommend that applications be submitted by 22 June 2020.

We will aim to notify applicants of outcomes in mid-July.

Any queries should be directed to

Applicants should not wait for badging from the Urgent Public Health Group before submitting a full application for funding.  

Other funding routes

Where important mental health research addressing COVID-19 has potential to make a significant contribution to the understanding of, and response to, the outbreak but not within a 12-month time frame, other routes for funding through NIHR and UKRI are available:

  • The UKRI rolling call funds proposals that need to start now, either for sample/data collection within the pandemic context, or for research to address mental health impacts that will manifest over longer than a 12-month period.
  • Standard UKRI response-mode funding should be sought for applications with potential mental health impacts beyond 18 months.
  • The NIHR will shortly be inviting applications to better understand and manage the health and social care consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic beyond the acute phase, through its COVID-19 Recovery and Learning call. This call will also accept mental health research proposals that will deliver outcomes within 24 months.

Where important mental health research is focused primarily on an international context, the following funding routes may be more appropriate:

  • Proposals addressing and mitigating the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak in low- and middle-income countries should apply to the GCRF/Newton Fund Agile Response Call and the Global Effort on COVID-19 (GECO) Health Research call.