How the Pandemic affected us:
COVID-19 had a huge impact on our team and our normal way of working. Like most people, we had to quickly learn about remote working, commonly labelled “Work from Home (WFH)”. King’s College London (KCL) was very efficient in setting us up on Microsoft Teams and providing training. The WFH pattern did require more meetings than normal.
Some of these were related to work whilst “coffee morning” meetings were also held so people would not feel lonely. Sometimes, special meetings had to be set up when staff members had difficulties with work tasks or needed emotional support.
Our research focus is mental health and we therefore expected the pandemic, with its lockdowns, to impact this area. We set up a research project, the COVID-19 Psychiatry and Neurological Genetics (COPING) study, to find out how mental health changed over the months of the pandemic and multiple lockdowns. The online questionnaires have been sent to participants in the NIHR BioResource, the Genetics Links to Anxiety and Depression (GLAD) Study and the Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative (EDGI-UK).
Over 30,000 participants have completed the COPING study questionnaire and 17,000 participants have continued to provide data since May 2020. The data shows changes in depression, anxiety, substance use, medication, family situations, etc. Early analysis of the data shows that the pandemic had a large effect on mental health, especially on anxiety and depression.
Towards the end of 2020, we received funding to investigate a vital aspect of COVID-19, namely its effect on the brain. Professor Gerome Breen, the head of NIHR BioResource Centre Maudsley at KCL, and Dr Benedict Michael of University of Liverpool, were awarded £2.2million by the UK Research Innovation (UKRI) to set up the COVID-19 Clinical Neuroscience Study (COVID-CNS). This very important study investigates how COVID-19 might lead to brain damage, strokes and other forms of neurological (brain) damage. It is recruiting patients who are in hospital with COVID-19 and will compare them to people who are also in hospital but not with the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Setting up the COVID CNS Study was hard work but worthwhile as the results will give us a lot of new knowledge.
Our online studies, GLAD Study and EDGI UK, have continued to recruit participants throughout the lockdown, but we could not send saliva kits to them for about six months (we need saliva kits to test people’s genes!). As soon as we could go to the office, we have been able to post saliva kits and so that genetic research can be carried out to get further insights in anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
Looking to the future:
For the past few years, we have been developing online projects on mental health and the pandemic showed that this is mostly a good way to do this. . Engaging with diverse populations is really important as almost 95% of the participants in GLAD and EDGI-UK studies are White. Data on Non-White communities is needed as improved treatments are required for ALL people who are living with these conditions and we hope to encourage more people from these communities to join us. But there was some work that we could not do, such as face-to-face community work in diverse communities. Although we have engaged with groups through virtual meetings, these are less effective and we are working to find better ways to do this.