Mental health impacts of Covid-19 are not being ignored, says science minister Amanda Solloway
It has been incredibly moving to see people’s responses to the coronavirus outbreak, whether that is setting up support groups, checking in on their vulnerable loved ones, shopping for their neighbours or raising money for incredible causes.
So it seems appropriate that the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, which finishes on Sunday, is kindness.
Mental health is a subject very close to my heart. Sadly, I saw first-hand the toll it took on my mum, who attempted to take her own life at age 17. She suffered from poor mental health all her life, which impacted on all of us as a family.
I know just how stressful a time this is for people right across the UK and the huge strain that the Covid-19 outbreak has placed on the science and research community.
A study by the Student Mental Health Research Network and the careers organisation Vitae shows that two-thirds of early-career researchers are very worried about their future plans and 70 per cent are worried about their finances.
Having stability in our professional lives is a really important way to deal with our mental health and the government is doing all it can to provide that certainty—for PhD students, scientists and researchers.
That’s why we have brought forward £100 million of university research funding by a year to provide immediate help to our distinguished universities and so that their excellent research can continue.
This accelerated funding will help universities manage short-term financial challenges arising from the pandemic, whether that is providing support to researchers between grants, maintaining partnerships with businesses and charities, or backing specific activities directly related to combating Covid-19.
We have also taken steps to ensure that final-year PhD students will have the peace of mind they need by knowing that they will be able to complete their studies. Last month, the government announced that doctoral students whose studies had been disrupted due to the coronavirus outbreak and who received funding through UK Research and Innovation would receive a six-month extension to their research.
Leading the way
On 12 May, I co-chaired the first University Research Sustainability Taskforce meeting with universities minister Michelle Donelan, where we discussed how best to respond to the challenges universities face as a result of Covid-19. The taskforce will be meeting fortnightly and will work tirelessly to protect and sustain higher education research capability and capacity.
It is through these support schemes that science and research communities can continue pushing forward their brilliant work as we continue to tackle the coronavirus.
As well as looking to support our research community, I’m so proud of the work the research community itself is doing to ensure we fully understand and can respond to the mental health impacts of the lockdown measures we have had to take to try to protect people from the coronavirus.
UK researchers already have a long track record of leading the way when it comes to addressing mental health and we are continuing to see some of this brilliant work right across the UK.
In particular, I want to shine a light on the March network, one of eight mental health networks backed by £8 million of government funding that are examining ways to help people’s mental health now and preparing for when we come through this period of social isolation. I am immensely proud that the network is helping to address a range of issues related to mental health, including loneliness and student stress, as well as tackling violence and abuse.
It is also great to see that the government has commissioned Isabel Oliver of Public Heath England to assess the effectiveness and impacts of the 14-day self-isolation advice on mental health and wellbeing. I look forward to seeing her findings over the coming months.
Innovation and dedication
From finding a vaccine and new treatments to furthering understanding of this terrible disease, the innovation and dedication demonstrated by our world-renowned scientists and researchers over recent weeks has been critical in our response to this pandemic. But alongside efforts to find medical solutions, we must not lose sight of the impact on the mental health of our dedicated scientific community, and communities across the country.
I want to thank those in our science and research communities for everything they are doing, and to make clear that we stand 100 per cent behind them, both in terms of the vital research they are conducting and in supporting their careers and their wellbeing now and into the future.
And whether that’s through studies or through acts of kindness, however small, that Mental Health Awareness Week has shone a light on, these efforts can and will make a huge difference to people’s lives during what is such a stressful and uncertain time, and as we look to prepare for a new normal.
Amanda Solloway is minister for science, research and innovation, and MP for Derby North.