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NIHR boosts its support for research to tackle mental health effects of COVID-19

Published: 03 June 2020

The NIHR is ramping up its support for research on the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, by seeking to fund new research on the acute mental health effects of the pandemic and offering priority delivery support for research on severe mental health problems.

Research to date shows that the COVID-19 pandemic is having negative effects on individual and population mental health. Emerging findings from general population surveys have highlighted increased levels of anxiety and depression compared with usual levels and negative effects of lockdown on wellbeing.

A group of experts convened by the Academy of Medical Sciences and MQ has outlined a number of research priorities in mental health and COVID-19. The immediate priorities include the effects of the pandemic on mental health in the whole population and in vulnerable groups; brain function and cognition; and the mental health of patients with COVID-19.

Funding mental health research

To support this research response, the NIHR has issued a new call for research proposals on rapid identification and mitigation of the acute mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, in partnership with UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The aim of this new appeal 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 affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This highlight notice, which forms part of NIHR’s rapid response rolling funding call with UKRI, seeks research proposals on how the measures imposed to reduce the spread of the virus could affect immediate mental health and the role of other factors, such as stigma, isolation, bereavement and trauma (including trauma following intensive care treatment in COVID-19 patients with severe illness).

The research funded by this highlight notice is expected to have an impact on public health within 12 months.

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, said: “The challenges of COVID-19 and the necessary actions taken by all of us to slow its spread have had a profound effect on the way we live our lives. As lockdowns begin to ease, the impacts of these changes are likely to linger for months, if not years, to come. 

“The research funded by this call will help us to understand the scope of these effects on our mental health, within a timeframe that will enable these findings to benefit those most in need.”

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, although the focus will be on projects that will deliver outcomes within 24 months.

Delivering mental health research

In addition, the NIHR has expanded its eligibility criteria for COVID-19 studies that require urgent delivery support from the NIHR Clinical Research Network. Urgent Public Health Research national priority status is now available to research on severe mental health problems - as well as to studies on therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.

Professor Nick Lemoine, Medical Director of the NIHR Clinical Research Network and Chair of the Urgent Public Health Group, said: “There are signs that COVID-19 is exacerbating severe pre-existing mental health problems, such as self-harm and eating disorders. 

“We’re encouraging researchers, NIHR-funded or funded by other organisations, to come to us with their projects on mental health and COVID-19 so we can ensure that this research is delivered as quickly as possible by the health and care system.”

So far two mental health studies have been awarded Urgent Public Health Research status, both of which are existing NIHR studies that have been repurposed to respond to COVID-19:

  1. Behavioural Activation in Social Isolation (BASIL-C19)
  2. Reaching Everyone Programme of Research On Violence in diverse Domestic Environments (REPROVIDE)

BASIL-C19 will trial an intervention aimed at preventing and mitigating the onset of depression and loneliness in older people and those with long-term conditions as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The study will form part of the *M*ulti-morbidity in *O*lder Adults with *D*epression *S*tudy (MODS), a five year programme of research funded by NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Research that is investigating how the NHS can effectively manage depression among older people. 

Professor David Ekers, Senior Nurse consultant in Tees Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust and Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of York, said: “We have been researching in this area for the past 10 years, and we are ideally placed to help establish ‘what works’ in maintaining good mental health during the lockdown. This represents a great alliance between the universities and the NHS to address one of the major challenges posed by COVID.”

The second study, REPROVIDE, will test the effectiveness of group sessions for men who are concerned about their abusive behaviour in relationships with women. The randomised controlled trial, also funded by NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Research, will recruit 336 men plus their current or ex-partners from the South West region and South Wales.

They men in the intervention arm will take part in behaviour change sessions with the aim of stopping their abuse; their current or ex-partners will get support as part of the intervention. Outcome measures include mental health of the men and their current or ex-partners. 

Professor Gene Feder is leading the research; he is a GP and Professor of Primary Care at the University of Bristol’s Centre for Academic Primary Care. He says: “The necessary social isolation policy implemented in the UK and globally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has both increased domestic abuse and highlighted its longstanding prevalence in all societies. 

“Effective support for survivors of domestic abuse is not enough; we need to prevent persistence and recurrence of abuse by working with perpetrators who want to change their behaviour. And we need to adapt our methods to fit new ways of working and meeting in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

Other research on how COVID-19 is affecting mental health and wellbeing is taking place across NIHR research infrastructure, schools and units. The NIHR Mental Health Translational Research Collaboration is collating an online register of COVID-19 mental health studies from the NIHR and other organisations, to help coordinate and facilitate high quality collaborative mental health research during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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