UCL Global


Understanding the mental health effects of Covid-19 around the world

Dr Keri Wong (IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society), used the Global Engagement Funds to run a webinar series to share and discuss global lessons on mental health in relation to the pandemic.

Graphic image of a woman transporting PPE, a video call on a phone and a healthcare worker washing his hands

3 May 2022

Covid-19 has had far-reaching effects on people, some of which we are only just beginning to understand and piece together. We know that mental health and social relationships have been profoundly affected, but information about this early on in the pandemic was largely localised and anecdotal.

To look into this more closely, UCL collaborated with the University of Pennsylvania to launch a 12-month longitudinal study – the UCL-Penn Global COVID Study – in April 2020. The study looked at the impact of Covid-19 on social trust, mental health and physical health across the world, working with institutions in Italy, Singapore and China, as well as the USA.

To gain greater insights and collaborations in an already-disconnected world, Dr Keri Wong ran a webinar series to discuss the lessons learned from the study. Furthermore, the webinar series was able to look in more depth at the policy relevance and other implications of the findings, by inviting key industry experts from organisations such as the World Bank and the British Psychological Society.

Making a difference

“I grew up in Hong Kong and clearly remember the experience of SARS in 2003, when I was just a teenager,” said Keri. “When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, I had a rush of memories and feelings. During SARS there was nothing I could do, but now that I’m a researcher in psychology, I wanted to do something. That was the motivation of starting the study.”

Up until April 2020, most studies into the mental health effects of Covid-19 were based within specific countries. This project, however, was designed to look at what was going on internationally. The study resulted in a special issue output which included five papers, each looking at a different aspects of the broader project topic. These included looking in more depth at loneliness – both self-perceived, and the impact it had on schizotypal traits, paranoia and mental health. The papers also explored how children’s externalising and internalising behaviours relate to parental conflict, the stress doctoral students experienced, and the impact of Covid-19 on the general population’s mental health and relationships.

Alongside the academic papers, which rigorously address a key issue and are being peer reviewed, the project also includes discussant papers for the lay audience, talking about the applications of the research and possible next steps. The webinar series was key to reaching a larger audience, as well as involving the public in the discussions. The series helped to promote the study, and gave the team the means to invite international scholars, individuals working in industry, policymakers and others to get involved. More than 300 people from over 40 countries participated in the webinars.

A key step for future research and conversations

There have been a range of benefits of the study and the webinar series. Links with individuals and organisations with their own relevant insights is one area that has been enlightening.

“Loneliness is a key set of symptoms people have experienced during the pandemic,” said Keri. “That’s not usually my area of research, but it came through strongly from our study data. It opened up connections and conversations with organisations I wouldn’t normally have contact with, such as Social Health Labs in San Francisco. I previously had no idea about grassroots organisations around the world trying to combat loneliness.”

Keri also gained insights into how architects are working on greening spaces and public buildings to improve mental health, discovering that there is currently little work on measuring how this work impacts mental health. She has gone on to gain further funding from the Natural Environmental Research Council to set up a new network to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations on this area.

The UCL-Penn Global COVID Study and the subsequent webinars helped to start the conversation and thinking on many relevant areas. The work resulted in 15 blogs, five podcast interviews, a UK select committee submission, six peer-reviewed publications (with more forthcoming), eight conference presentations, the delivery of five keynotes, and being invited to deliver additional talks for industry partners, including ByteDance, the Wharton Club and Artificial Intelligence Enhanced Computing (Arm). 

“The UCL Global Engagement Funds can make a big difference to early career academics like myself,” Keri said. “This support was really helpful to get me started. I’ve since been successful in gaining a further five small grants to continue exploring some of the key themes emerging from this study, plus additional Global Engagement Funds for a collaboration with Osaka University about Covid-19 vaccine acceptance for parents and children.”

Nurturing learning

An unexpected benefit of the study and webinar series was that Keri was also able to provide learning opportunities for her students and research assistants. Part of the Global Engagement Funds were used towards paying research assistants, who did tasks such as creating infographics to make information more accessible to the public. The study also found that young people aged 18 to 24 were reporting significantly higher levels of mental health issues, and the research assistants – who were in the same age bracket – were able to write blogs on issues that young people care about.

“As psychology students, they saw how their knowledge from the classroom could be applied to the real world,” said Keri. “They also learned that they can use their voice to bring academic knowledge alive. It’s a side of research they hadn’t seen before.” She went on to say: “This experience has developed me as an educator as well, and I’ve since created a new module on building mental health resilience in education, which includes students creating podcasts and reflective blog posts to summarise their scientific findings.”


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