Dr Sarah Bauermeister: mental health and COVID-19

Dr Sarah Bauermeister sat in a garden

Mental health has rightly become an area of huge public interest in recent years, but it’s still often silent and invisible, and therefore neglected. The COVID-19 pandemic has really brought this home: as our work has moved online, not only do we miss those exciting face-to-face conversations about new research ideas, but those who are struggling can more easily slip under the radar.

As a manager grappling with this ‘new normal’, I’m trying to keep an eye out for those subtle signs in others – and not to fall into the trap of overworking myself.

What many people perhaps don’t know about poor mental health – for example, disorders such as anxiety or depression – is that it’s associated with a faster decline in our thinking skills as we get older. The same can be said for extreme adverse experiences in childhood: physical, sexual and emotional abuse, or deprivation.

Through my own research I hope to highlight the important long-term impact of mental ill health, and to destigmatise it as a very real and equivalent group of diseases to its physical counterparts.

I lead a project at Dementias Platform UK (DPUK) which is looking at the effects of poor mental health and early adversity on our cognitive abilities and risk of dementia later in life. We want to know more about these associations, why they exist, and how we can use that information to develop intervention and prevention strategies at a much earlier age. Does early adversity contribute to poorer mental health, which in turn increases our risk of cognitive decline?

Our research to date provides more evidence for the argument that we should be prioritising good mental health right across the lifespan – and trying to keep our brains healthy in the same way we look after the rest of our bodies. That’s a particularly relevant message this week, as we mark Brain Awareness Week around the world.

We are able to gather this evidence because at DPUK we bring together enormous amounts of health data from dozens of population cohorts – studies that follow groups of people over an extended period of time – so that it can be analysed in one place by researchers. This data is so valuable: we can see how people’s health and wellbeing changes over time, and how some people go on to develop conditions such as dementia. New clues, patterns and insights are emerging all the time.

Find out more: https://www.dementiasplatform.uk/our-impact/case-studies/childhood-adversity-dementia

We welcome suggestions for authors and topics for future blog articles. Contact internal.communications@admin.ox.ac.uk if you have a person or topic in mind. We aim to include perspectives from across the University; while we cannot guarantee blog articles and the schedule is subject to change, we will include as many requested articles as we can.