Mental health and wellbeing

Post-event summary of the 'Mental Health and Wellbeing' webinar, part of the Institute for Global Innovation webinar series on 'Living with the Pandemic'.


Background to the series

The spread of COVID-19 is one the biggest challenges the global community has faced, and our research teams have a key role to play in the fight against it, to reflect on its impact on all aspects of our lives, and to learn lessons from it.

The Institute for Global Innovation at the University of Birmingham has therefore organised a series of webinars, where experts consider the different issues surrounding the pandemic.

The session was first broadcast on 23 September 2020. You can watch the event in full by clicking here.

COVID-19: Social Media and Wellbeing

Dr Vicky Goodyear, Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy in Sport, Physical Activity and Health

The relationship between technology and wellbeing has been a hot topic during the pandemic.

A lot of focus has been on the risks of increased use, and they may have been over-sensationalised. Without neglecting the risks, it is also true to say that the dynamic environment of social media has the potential to positively impact wellbeing by being a powerful educative and communicative resource.

COVID-19 inevitably changed behaviours. People had new restrictions on movement, their access to certain types of food, and exercise and sports facilities were closed. Schools also closed, there were several deleterious economic impacts, and this led to real concerns about our quality of life.

On the wellbeing front, evidence suggests a decline in physical activity, diet quality and quality of life when compared to pre-lockdown levels. We also see evidence of higher levels of stress, loneliness, and depression.

However, we also saw increases in leisure-time physical activity, family time, and emotional support. Social media had a role to play in providing the content and resources behind this.

During lockdown, most people reported an increased amount of time spent on social media, using it for information, connection and entertainment.

Many said that it helped them to live healthy lifestyles due to the sharing of highly relevant content.

An ESRC-funded study at the University of Birmingham looked to understand how we might be able to optimise social media for positive impacts on nutrition during COVID-19.

Through stakeholder conversations, an online survey and focus group interviews, this study reported that many people found social media to be a good source of ideas for recipes and home baking (with Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube seen as the most popular). Nearly all those surveyed said that they saw health-related content on social media, and 50% acted on it.

Joe Wicks’ home PE lessons were cited the most. It was seen to hit the things that mattered most;

  • Being free, and easy to participate in
  • Fitting in to the work-life-home balance
  • Being shareable in ‘e-local’ communities, and
  • Being quality, authentic content – with a sense ofthere being a real connection.

In light of what we have seen to be successful, perhaps we should reconsider social media as a wellbeing resource and focus on the skills required to realise the positive impacts of social media while simultaneously mitigating the risks.

Further reading: Social Media and Physical Activity Education for Young People during the Covid-19 Pandemic – Birmingham Perspective, June 2020

Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children during the pandemic

Dr Polly Waite, Senior Clinical Research Psychologist, University of Oxford

The Co-SPACE study was designed to track young people and children’s mental health during the pandemic.

It consists of monthly surveys that are completed by parents of children aged 4-16, and 11-16 year olds themselves. It runs alongside Co-SPYCE, which looks more closely at parents of younger children (2-4 years old).

The first survey began on 30 March, a week after lockdown was introduced in the UK, and the study will continue until all schools are fully reopened.

So far, more than 12,000 parents and carers have taken part, and 1300 teenagers have completed the survey.

A number of reports have already been shared.

In April, parents were polled on their top ‘stressors’, citing work, their children’s wellbeing, and their friends and family as the top three.

Next, parents were asked what they thought their children’s main concerns were about COVID-19. The majority of children were said to be concerned about the serious nature of the pandemic, although more were concerned about family and friends catching it than they were themselves.

The most recent report looks at changes to mental health over the duration of the lockdown. This outlines that:

  • In primary school aged children, there were mean increases in emotional, behavioural and restlessness/inattention difficulties. The proportion of children likely to have significant difficulties (i.e. meet diagnostic criteria for a clinical diagnosis) in these three areas also increased, by up to 35%.
  • In young people of secondary school age, there was a reduction in emotional difficulties, no change in behavioural difficulties and a slight increase in restlessness/inattention. The proportion of young people within this age range likely to have significant emotional difficulties did not change but did increase for difficulties with behaviour and restlessness/inattention.
  • For children and young people from low income households, emotional and attention difficulties (and behaviour difficulties for primary school aged children) were consistently elevated compared to those from higher income households, with around two and a half times as many children experiencing significant problems in low income households.

The study continues to release regular reports to inform policy decisions on mental health and wellbeing for young people during COVID-19.

Further reading: ‘Changes in mental health symptoms’ – Co-SPACE report, September 2020

Building Better Mental Health

Dr Karen Newbigging, Reader in Healthcare Policy and Management

While COVID-19 has had a clear impact on mental health, it has also exposed broader issues that exist in our approach to mental health.

Paradoxically, the pandemic therefore presents the opportunity for a seismic shift towards a focus on prevention and early intervention, and to policies that address well-rehearsed inequities.

Not only are the benefits to the individual and the health system significant, investing in building good mental health now will provide the population with the psychosocial resources for coping with future crises, such as future disease epidemics and the consequences of climate change.

COVID-19 has taught us much about the problems with our current approach to Mental Health:

  • It has brought existing inequalities in our society into sharp focus, particularly for minority groups. Such groups are more likely to face detention under the Mental Health Act, less likely to have adequate access to support, and face worse outcomes on the whole. Sustained action onaddressing these inequalities has been tardy for too long already.
  • It has highlighted the links between mental health and social and economic circumstances. People experiencing economic hardship have been particularly high-risk during the pandemic, with US researchers referring to the increase incidence of suicide as a result of unemployment as ‘deaths of despair.’
  • It has raised fundamental questions about human rights and mental health. Elderly people, people detained under the Mental Health Act, and asylum seekers are all experiencing worse outcomes. This should force us to investigate and address the standard of care in prisons, care settings and detention centres.
  • It has further exposed existing inadequacies in mental health support, particularly for young people and for those who find it hard to access digital support.

There are, however, some good signs. We have also seen rapid adjustments in key areas – not least in the new ‘normal’ for flexible working patterns – something that several people have been calling for.

It has also reminded us of the importance of prevention and early intervention, to reduce the demand on our health service.

As such, there are a number of recommendations that could help:

  • There must be a renewed policy focus on mental health and a commitment to sustainable mental health prevention, which has often been an afterthought.
  • We need to listen to the experiences of mental heath service users and co-design respons-es to COVID-19 accordingly.
  • The use of the Mental Health Act should be reviewed.
  • We should upscale community provision to mitigate inequalities in mental health that have occurred as a result of COVID-19, with appropriate support for BAME communities and those with severe mental health challenges central to this.
  • We need to ensure that young people can readily access mental health support through education, primary care and youth organisations.

The Government have tried to introduce measures to help some vulnerable groups – those made unemployed during the pandemic, and at-risk women – and this needs to continue well beyond the end of COVID-19.

The opportunity is there to refresh mental health policy now, having learned plenty from our experiences during the pandemic.

Further reading: Building better mental health after COVID-19 – Policy Briefing, June 2020

Future events

The next webinar on COVID-19 will be on the COVID-19 and Gender Based Violence. The webinar will run on Wednesday 7 October at 12pm, via Zoom (places limited) and Facebook livestream.

You can follow the Institute of Global Innovation on Twitter @bIGIdeas_UoB.