Launched as part of a series exploring research from across the 15 NIHR Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs), this first webinar tackled mental health and world crises, examining the impacts of pollution, climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health.

The webinar was chaired by NIHR ARC South London’s Professor Colin Drummond, who leads the cross-ARC Mental Health Implementation Network (MHIN), and is a professor of addictions psychiatry at King’s College London and a consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. There were then three talks, each followed by Q&A.

In the first talk, NIHR ARC South London's Dr Ioannis Bakolis, reader in biostatistics and epidemiology at King’s College London, discussed the latest research on how exposure to air pollution affects mental and physical health, and how this affects communities unequally.

Dr Bakolis explained how research found that people exposed to higher levels of air pollution use mental health services more frequently in the years following their initial presentation to services compared to those exposed to lower levels. This was the case for mood disorders, psychosis and dementia. He also highlighted how people living in polluted urban areas were more likely to have common mental disorders and more than one long-term illness.

Air pollution is not a problem that can be resolved primarily by scientists and clinicians, but is an issue that is deeply embedded in our individual and society decisions and the power relations of our political system

Ioannis Bakolis

Dr Ioannis Bakolis, King’s College London and ARC South London

The second talk was from NIHR ARC Northwest London's Professor Mala Rao, director of the Ethnicity and Health Unit, Imperial College London, on the impact of the climate crisis on mental health and the intersection between climate, race and health.

Professor Rao highlighted how the unequal burdens of the climate crisis reflect race inequalities on a global scale, with ethnic minority communities facing disproportionately greater risk. She also outlined how eco-anxiety, the chronic fear of environmental doom, is growing, and disproportionately affects children, young people, and the most vulnerable people in society.

Professor Rao called for new research to understand the prevalence of eco-anxiety, its likely social, health and economic impacts, and the actions we can take to address it.

We have the collective potential to transform societal engagement into climate action, change despair into hope, and achieve health equity

Professor Mala Rao, Imperial College London and ARC Northwest London

The final presentation was from NIHR ARC Oxford and Thames Valley's Professor Jennifer Wild, visiting professor at the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology, on work supporting hospital and paramedic employees during and after Covid-19 and implementing effective treatment for NHS staff.

Professor Wild explained how evidence-based tools developed for paramedics to prevent PTSD and depression, including telephone support from wellbeing coaches, were modified to support hospital and paramedic employees during and after Covid-19.

We found that although there were high rates of PTSD associated with Covid-19 trauma, it was not the only trauma. We had more healthcare workers diagnosed with PTSD who had experienced trauma prior to the pandemic but were struggling to deal with that, showing the likelihood of this workforce to face significant stressors at and outside of work

Professor Jennifer Wild, University of Oxford and ARC Oxford and Thames Valley

NHS England and NHS Improvement facilitated the roll out of the intervention, called SHAPE, across south-east England. During the pandemic, it achieved reliable recovery rates of 91.5% for PTSD and 71.6% for depression in only 6 weeks. The team are now running a randomised controlled trial of SHAPE, with a view to scaling up and implementing it across the UK.

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