Global experts call for mental health science to combat pandemic's impacts

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | May 7, 2020

Story image

Emory anthropologist Carol Worthman is among 25 mental health experts who issued a call for global action on mental health science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

PrintPrint

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 infected about 8,000 people and killed hundreds. Although SARS was stamped out relatively quickly, and before it could spread globally, it left a lingering impact. One study found that most SARS survivors in two major hospitals had high levels of psychological distress a year after the outbreak.

“Just surviving the pandemic was not the end of the story,” says Carol Worthman, professor of anthropology at Emory University. “And the COVID-19 pandemic is much more pervasive than SARS. It affects everybody, worldwide. Even those who do not get COVID-19 will have to live with the fallout.”

Worthman is among 25 mental health experts who issued a call for global action on mental health science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, recently published by The Lancet Psychiatry. In a position paper, they stress the immediate need for creating neuro-psychological databases concerning the pandemic’s impacts on brain health, mental health and overall well-being. These databases are needed to support evidence-based responses to the pandemic and to develop longer-term strategies to promote mental health and well-being.

Even as nations mobilize to treat patients, develop drugs and vaccines, and salvage economies, coordinated efforts on a similar scale are needed for mental health, Worthman says. Her research focuses on how cultural and social factors interact with human health, for better or for worse.

“We’re used to thinking about physical diseases and mental illnesses as two separate things,” Worthman says, “but the two actually go hand-in-hand. Mental illness doesn’t just affect the lives of individuals, but of those around them. And like a virus, mental illness is invisible, in a way, and can be even harder to test and screen for.” Before the pandemic, depression already ranked in the top 10 causes of poor health worldwide and had climbed to the top four health problems related to healthy years of life lost.

The impacts of the lockdowns and social isolation on the mental health of vulnerable people are among the key questions that need to be tackled in an international response to COVID-19, the experts write. Their paper also stresses the need to research the best ways to move people to follow the advice of public health messages without unduly increasing stress and anxiety.

“People are especially hurting right now, they’re suffering, and they’re looking for ways to feel better,” Worthman says. “If we don’t develop pro-social ways to help people cope now and, in the future, we’re going to be living with the consequences for a long time.”

She points out that the 1918 flu pandemic, following on top of the first world war, helped set the stage for the social disruption and sense of hopelessness that fueled political movements and nationalism leading to the second world war.

One critical need is to gather data and develop strategies to support people currently working in high-intensity, high-risk settings during the pandemic, such as healthcare workers. “Burnout and higher suicide rates among healthcare providers had already been a growing problem for years,” Worthman says.

She cites the mental health effects of massive unemployment as another critical area. “Work is a huge part of peoples’ identities, not to mention their livelihoods,” she says. “Depression, anxiety, stress and lack of control are all things that undermine resilience. What can we do to help people stay resilient when they’re losing their sense of dignity and self-worth and predictability for their futures?”

Youth and adolescent mental health is another vital area to consider, Worthman says. “Young people are having to watch a remapping of the social-economic political world and try to find their way through it. Their future is our future and they need to be part of the solution. How do we mobilize youth to help them make their future as great as possible? Do we make supporting youth as important as saving airlines and other industries?”

COVID-19 is revealing and widening existing fault lines in social, economic and political systems. “We now have the challenge and opportunity to heal those ruptures even as we seek to heal ourselves of COVID-19,” Worthman says.