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Mental health modelling recognised globally

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The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre (BMC) is warning that without concerted and effective action, the disruption caused by Covid-19 will cast a “long shadow” on mental health.

Unique modelling of linkages between social and economic changes and mental-health outcomes by the BMC soon after the pandemic’s outbreak led to several policy changes in 2020-21. Now that modelling is being recognised on a global scale and extended through work with the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Mental Health.

In September, the systems modelling and computer simulation was recognised in the Scientific American Top 10 Innovations in Mental Health and a comment piece was published in Nature, led by the BMC at the University of Sydney.

Lead authors of the Nature essay are Associate Professor Jo-An Occhipinti, the BMC’s head of Systems Modelling, Simulation and Data Science group and Dr Adam Skinner, senior systems modeller of the group, along with senior author Professor Ian Hickie, the BMC’s co-director (health and policy), on behalf of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Mental Health, of which they are recent members.

In the Nature essay, the authors warn the mental health crisis is growing because of Covid-19 but the pandemic also offers opportunities to learn from the integrated and systematic approach to infectious diseases modelling and prevention.

They point out that the most potent mental-health interventions can be social and economic, for example through improving employment and childcare.

Associate Professor Occhipinti, with the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health, said that just as systems science had been used to model and forecast the spread of Covid-19, and the impact of alternative strategies to mitigate that spread, so too could such simulations be used routinely to tackle mental health.

“A systems modelling approach can and must be taken to address the significant and persistent challenges of mental health and suicide,” Associate Professor Occhipinti said.

“History has shown us that spreading resources too thin across a range of programs or taking an ad hoc, reactive approach to decision making is inadequate to tackle today’s mental health crisis.”

Professor Ian Hickie, co-director of the BMC, said the traditional approach of using retrospective data to identify independent risk factors had only brought partial progress towards population-level impact, which dynamic modelling sought to rectify.

“During the first wave, we highlighted the need to be proactive about pandemic-induced mental ill-health, at a time when the focus was ‘flattening the curve’ of the physical health effects of Covid-19.

“Mental health is now considered as an integral part of the pandemic response but in a post-Covid world we need to be smart about where and how we focus our efforts.”

The co-authors of the Nature essay on behalf of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Mental Health conclude: “The scale of these challenges behoves us to take a more progressive research path … modelling and simulation can help us get a handle on such complexity.”


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