Special issue of PLOS Medicine: The COVID-19 pandemic and global mental health

The editors of OLP Medicine together with guest editors Vikram Patel, Daisy Fancourt, Toshi A Furukawa and Lola Kola announce an upcoming special issue dedicated to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global mental health.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, just months after the first known cases were identified in December 2019. Two years later, the world has been transformed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus: lockdowns and physical distancing have decimated social support structures for many, while loss of income, loneliness, disruptions to routine healthcare and reduced physical activity have deepened pre-existing inequalities in health. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, a hidden pandemic of mental health disorders is already underway.

Before the pandemic, the global mental health landscape was already austere. The second leading cause of death among young people aged 15-29 is suicide, and 76-85% of people with mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) receive no care from the health system for their state. According to a recent WHO report, the first year of the pandemic resulted in a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. Young people are at higher risk of suicide and self-harm, and women’s mental health has deteriorated. With the pandemic likely to cause a 5-8% contraction in global economic growth, up to 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty, compounding pre-existing mental health issues and increasing the existing burden in countries where the supply of health care is limited. In children and adolescents, prolonged school closures are likely to have a significant negative impact on cognitive development and mental health. The increased anxiety associated with the uncertainties caused by the pandemic has pushed some people towards addictive behaviors and substance abuse.

Clearly, the public health emergency posed by COVID-19 requires coordinated joint efforts by national governments, global health communities, and all mental health actors in the public and private sectors. The United Nations and WHO intend to increase mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) in their COVID-19 response efforts across all sectors. Similarly, mental health guidelines have been developed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the International Organization for Migration and the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic has seen a dramatic increase in awareness and concerns about mental health, and has fueled the rapid adoption of digital technologies for care, including telemedicine platforms and self-care apps. That said, there remain significant unmet care needs which, along with the growing incidence of mental health conditions, are fueling the global mental health crisis that existed even before the pandemic.

Although globally relevant, the burden of the pandemic on mental health will not be equal in terms of lived experience. Key populations of interest include young people, women and girls, older or less physically mobile adults at increased risk of social isolation, people with pre-existing mental health conditions, and healthcare workers exposed to front lines of the pandemic. Additionally, the mental health and well-being of people who are already victims of existing social inequalities (whether demographic, socioeconomic or cultural) are likely to experience a greater share of adverse mental health effects. People with neurodevelopmental disorders and learning disabilities are at high risk. Additionally, an increasing number of people are suffering from long-lasting Covid, which has both physical and psychological ramifications.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, governments in some countries are reducing or even removing pandemic-related restrictions and declaring the pandemic endemic. However, the psychiatric sequelae persist. Additionally, the pandemic situation remains unstable, with new variants of varying infectivity and lethality continuing to emerge and continued uncertainty about access to vaccines, booster vaccines and other candidate compounds for antivirals. These factors all influence global mental health. How countries and populations adapt to challenges such as recessions, social unrest and damaged health systems, even when the pandemic is over, will also have differential impacts on mental health. As such, the topic of the global impact of COVID-19 on mental health is likely to have long-term relevance.

Others have already argued for viewing the pandemic as an opportunity to reinvent global mental health and “build back better.” In this special issue looking to the future, OLP Medicine and our guest editors wish to invite work that has the potential to mitigate the mental health consequences of the current pandemic and strengthen the global response to future pandemics. Of great interest is work that examines contextual differences in the impacts of the pandemic on mental health and strives to elucidate the underlying mechanisms. For the purposes of the special issue, the term mental health is used in a multidisciplinary sense. Studies from all disciplines, including psychiatry and psychology, neuroscience, behavioural, developmental and social sciences, will all be considered, as will others where we feel they show clinically significant advancement. . Areas of particular interest include:

  • Vulnerable populations and the impact of the pandemic on existing mental health inequalities around the worldincluding studies that provide new insight into the extent of the mental health crisis (in terms of, for example, severity and duration).
  • Health system responses to increased demand for mental health care servicesincluding work on efforts to preserve continuity of care.
  • Evaluations of policy interventions which may have had positive mental health effects (e.g. the influence of cash transfers in alleviating poor mental health related to economic hardship) or adverse mental health effects (e.g. school closures schools and confinements).
  • Consequences of the pandemic on mental health from a life course perspectivesuch as ecological data regarding the impact of school closures on the mental health of children and adolescents, to the impact of social isolation on older or mobility-impaired adults.
  • Public mental healththat goes beyond disease-specific domains, to address the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic at the population level and in public arenas (e.g., mental health in the workplace, mental health programs in schools, a program on social inclusion and social belonging for older populations and building the resilience of young people).

Research designs that will be considered include, but are not limited to, randomized controlled trials, natural experiments, and quasi-experimental studies. We also welcome observational research, including studies that leverage large longitudinal cohort data and electronic medical record datasets. Survey-based and cost-effectiveness analyzes are also welcome. Mixed methods studies will also be considered, as well as systematic reviews and meta-analyses.

Please submit your manuscript to: http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/s/submit-now. The deadline is July 15, 2022.

Pre-submission inquiries are not required, but please indicate your interest in the special issue in your cover letter. Questions about the special issue can be directed to [email protected]

Image credit: Ümit Bulut/Unsplash.