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Covid-19: Calls to mental health hotlines spiked during early lockdowns

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Though calls for mental health services spiked by 35 per cent early in the pandemic, the proportion of people seeking help for suicidal thoughts remained the same as before the covid-19 restrictions were put in place



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17 November 2021

People called mental health helplines at higher rates during the early pandemic

Aleksandr Proshkin/Alamy

Calls to mental health helplines in 19 countries rose by about a third, on average, shortly after the start of lockdowns brought in during the early months of the covid-19 pandemic, before subsiding to similar levels to before.

During the surge, there were small increases in the proportion of calls made by people feeling lonely and by people fearful of becoming infected with the coronavirus, but the nature of people’s concerns stayed broadly similar to calls made before the pandemic.

Several studies have suggested that more people have felt anxious or depressed since the pandemic began. These levels are usually assessed using mental health surveys and suicide statistics, but Marius Brülhart at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland wondered if there was another way to chart changes in people’s mental well-being. “We thought: ‘What can we do to get a measure of the mental health of the population?’,” says Brülhart.

Most phone helpline services for those who are in mental distress keep logs of their calls, including brief notes on the reasons people rang. Brülhart and his colleagues analysed anonymous data from 8 million calls to helplines in 19 countries, including the US, China, Israel and several European countries, but not the UK, looking at the period from early 2019 to early 2021.

They found that the number of calls peaked about six weeks after each country’s coronavirus restrictions began, spiking to 35 per cent higher than before the pandemic – although some helplines initially lacked enough capacity to answer all calls and so may have missed some of the earlier rise.

The number of people calling to talk about suicidal thoughts stayed at a similar proportion of the total volume of calls as it was during 2019 before the pandemic. Other research has found that, in most countries, suicide rates haven’t increased since the start of the pandemic.

“We have plenty of evidence that the early pandemic affected people’s mental health; we have to ask why this appears not to have translated into higher suicide rates,” says Louis Appleby at the University of Manchester, UK. “Social cohesion is one possibility family and neighbours offering support, a general sense of getting through a crisis together.”

The new study also found that calls to helplines rose more in countries where there was less financial support for people unable to work because of the pandemic, as well as in countries with stricter lockdowns or restrictions. The more intense the lockdown measures, the bigger the increase in suicidal calls, says Brülhart.

Need a listening ear? UK Samaritans: 116123; US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 8255; hotlines in other countries.

Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04099-6

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year

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In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart



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17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus

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Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer

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Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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