Looking back to move forward: Reflections on the strengths and challenges of the COVID-19 UK mental health research response

Dr Ola Demkowicz and Dr Margarita Panayiotou, researchers and lecturers at the University of Manchester, are co-authors of a paper recently published in Frontiers Psychiatry offering perspectives on the UK mental health research response to COVID-19. Here, alongside a fantastic short video, Ola and Margarita introduce the 4 key reflections which the paper sets out. To read the full paper, please click here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown unfolded, mental health researchers across the globe worked quickly to research and better understand the impact of the crisis on mental health. Within months, hundreds of different studies were initiated to this effect in the UK.

The speed and effort of this response is commendable – however, running alongside this were conversations and debates within the UK mental health research community about the nature of that response. Were we working together as a community as well as we could? Were we supported to do so? Were we asking the right questions, involving and reaching everyone we ought to, generating the best data we could? And what impact will this pandemic have for our community and its members?

Many researchers asked different versions of these questions, and more, in 2020. Against this backdrop we, thirteen members of the UK mental health research community, came together to share our reflections and think about the strengths and the challenges of the first six months of our research response. Our new paper sets out four key reflections as a group, exploring activity so far and considering how we can map our next steps as a community.

In the paper, we highlight issues relating to fragmentation in our infrastructure, including overlapping emphasis on specific priorities and duplication of effort across multiple teams investigating similar areas. We consider use of co-production and PPIE in our mental health research response, and question whether our haste meant we overlooked the value this can add. We explore the extent of robustness and openness in our work – including the overall limited use of qualitative inquiry, the nature of our data and handling of it, and ways in which open methods have (and have not) been applied. Finally, we raise concerns about the impact of the pandemic for inequality in our workforce, as members of our community face even greater precariousness and barriers (ironically, at a time when producing rapid mental health evidence is accepted as urgent). 

Our hope is that this paper can support discussion and reflection among the mental health research community, both in responding to the pandemic and in considering how we can continue to build and develop our infrastructure and community. There is a lot we can learn from the last year, and we have to be willing to look back in order to move forward.