On 3 December, researchers from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Cuba came together to pool their knowledge and resources and discuss how COVID-19 has affected the mental health of people in Latin America. It was the first forum of its kind in the region. The organisers, Lorena Canet-Juric, Vitor Crestani Calegaro, Antonia Errazuriz, and Miguel Cordero, met each other through the COVID-Minds Network. Below, Lorena, Vitor, and Miguel describe the event, what they’re learning from their research, and the work they plan to do next.
Caption: COVID-Minds members, Lorena Canet-Juric, Vitor Crestani Calegaro, Antonia Errazuriz, and Miguel Cordero.
1. How did you all meet each other?
Lorena: When I joined the COVID-Minds Network, I started looking for studies in Latin America. I then contacted Vitor and we decided to meet and talk about our projects.
Vitor: We realised our studies have many similarities.
Miguel: In Chile, we registered our study with COVID-Minds in early April because we appreciated the relevance of using preregistered studies and common metrics to compare populations. Later on, Dr Canet-Juric invited me to participate in the forum.
2. Why did you want to hold a forum in the region?
Lorena: Latin American economic and social issues differ greatly from European and Asian contexts. Cases began in our countries much later than Europe and our pre-pandemic health reality was very different. We wanted to know whether our studies were even comparable to those from other parts of the world.
We have to think about the mental health impact of the pandemic from a local perspective. In addition, most multicentre studies originate in Europe, and we knew of nothing similar in Latin America. We wanted to generate an exchange space where these issues could be formally discussed.
Miguel: Latin American countries have limited resources for research and for implementing good practices such as preregistering studies with a central network in the early stage. Analytical plans are also not often shared in advance. The forum was a way to rectify this.
Vitor: The forum was also an opportunity to establish a scientific position that can inform governments about our research, its consequences for mental health, and to guide public health interventions that can reduce the impact of the pandemic.
3. How many people attended the event?
Vitor: 750 researchers, students and health professionals attended. During the five-hour event, 18 studies from 13 universities and institutions in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and Cuba were represented.
4. What topics did you cover?
Lorena: We organised five spaces where specific topics were addressed: The discussions were centred on five research axes: “Psychological correlates of the pandemic in the general population,” “Studies on the psychological and biological effects of the pandemic in specific populations,” “Aspects of the pandemic on pregnant women and newborns,” “Childhood and pandemic adolescence,” and “Positive therapy and psychology during the pandemic.”
5. Did your research align with other countries? Were there any surprising findings or conflicts?
Lorena: Yes, there are similarities and differences. We found that women, pregnant women, young people between the ages of 18 and 25, health workers, and children were most affected in terms of mental health from the pandemic. Also, results have indicated linear increases in levels of anxiety and depression alongside typical social problems such as unemployment, the state of the health system, etc. So factors of vulnerability and protective factors are similar to those found elsewhere in the world.
However, some findings were unique to countries. In Cuba, for example, there is great fear of COVID-19 in homes, where several generations co-exist and form much larger nucleuses than in other countries. Also, a significant percentage of people not only fear contracting COVID-19, but also fear that their relatives, who have emigrated to the United States or to places in Europe such as Spain, will become ill.
Another interesting result comes from Argentina. The research argues that the greatest negative impact on mental health is among those who are afraid of becoming ill with COVID-19 and not among those who have had the disease or are currently ill with it.
Miguel: In Chile, we made sure to define our measures very early so they mirrored, or were comparable with, several well established large longitudinal studies, such as ALSPAC, as well as new cohorts studies that recruited participants during the pandemic, such as Co-Space which focuses on children and adolescents. Our approach was to optimise our measures to reach better comparability, replicate hypothesis testing, and make our data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Re-usable (FAIR).
6. What needs to happen next? What kind of research or policies are needed in Latin America to improve mental health during the pandemic?
Lorena: It is important to mention that there is a lack of a clear policy on mental health in the region. This exacerbates problems, especially among children. Our schools have been closed much longer than other parts of the world, adding an entire school year in many countries in the region. Studies on children have shown that they are struggling with changes to their routines. Many still lack daily regularity, are sleeping differently, and showing clinical mental health symptoms among other issues. This is not encouraging for the long-term picture. Before the pandemic, dropout rates were already high and results for international academic exams, such as PISA, were low in some countries.
7. Do you plan to collaborate with each other and forum attendees?
Lorena: We plan to develop a joint document listing both major research and mental health investigators in participating Latin American countries. After that, we will be able to create a work schedule that includes a joint research protocol between Latin American countries for future health emergencies. We hope such a protocol will stimulate dialogue and be used as a resource for methodology and future research.