Preparing for a pandemic starts with creating a mentally resilient society

Janssen UK & Ireland’s managing director Gaëtan Leblay discusses the importance of maintaining the spotlight on our mental health post-pandemic, and why we must hone our mental resilience for possible future health crises.

Our day-to-day life now looks significantly different compared to two years ago – without question, the pandemic has affected us all. One area in particular that has come to the forefront is the impact of COVID-19 on mental wellbeing at both an individual and societal level. Specifically, the need to look after our mental health just as much as our physical health.

We have been challenged to adopt new ways of living and working, in a speed and manner we could never have anticipated. It is therefore unsurprising that in mid-2020, more than two-thirds of adults in the UK reported feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect of COVID-19 on their life.

People with a pre-existing mental health diagnosis and ‘high-risk’ individuals have seen their mental conditions exacerbated, while healthy individuals have also faced adversity in their mental wellbeing. Healthcare professionals and key workers, who have been expected to support both the physical and mental health needs of others, have also come under extra pressure.

This impact on individuals has then extended to broader society with the wider economic costs of mental illness in England estimated at £105.2 billion each year.

While we hope to never see the emergence of another pandemic of this nature, the truth of the matter is that we are as vulnerable as ever to sudden attacks by unknown pathogens – also referred to as Disease X, a term coined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2018. So, the question remains – how can we equip ourselves as individuals and communities to be better mentally prepared for future pandemics?

A new chapter in mental health: shifting from sick-care to well-care

Currently, our healthcare models are focused on the treatment and management of ailments and diseases once we become aware of them. However, this approach is no longer suitable for modern times, and I firmly believe that healthcare shouldn’t just be about addressing issues when they arise, but rather preventing them to help people lead healthier, happier lives.

We need to develop a healthcare system fit for the 21st-century, where prevention and interception take precedent. We all know that prevention is better than cure – and a strong example is widespread COVID-19 vaccination, which is proving to be one of the most effective tools in helping us return to everyday life.

Such a ‘well-care’ approach has the potential to vastly reduce the burden on individuals, on health systems and on society as a whole. A pivot towards a new well-care health system will not happen overnight and certainly won’t be without its challenges. There are also some conditions that we cannot prevent just by living well, and some public health emergencies that will require us to think further outside of the box. That said, if we have the groundwork in place to better support people’s well-care, we could potentially reduce the instances of sick-care – enabling health systems to reallocate vital resources to where they will have the greatest impact.

This is where a focus on mental wellbeing stands out as a vital piece of the puzzle. I believe that by helping individuals to routinely protect and manage their mental health, we can strengthen our mental resilience in preparation for the times we will need it most.

Personally, the pandemic has made me re-evaluate my own mental wellbeing and has shown how important it is to prioritise this area. Practising mindfulness has been an invaluable tool, which has helped me to navigate the psychological impact of the pandemic – a method I had never considered before; however, I will continue to use it as we move to a post-COVID world.

While there are simple steps individuals can take, organisations, governments and healthcare bodies should also play an essential role. There is a need for the investment and implementation of systems that will go further to build and support the mental resilience of people and their communities – and the development and delivery of this lies in technology and data.

Technology and data in mental well-care

The exponentially increasing curve of technology and innovations has likely never been more appreciated than during the past two years. It has kept us connected, safe, informed and, most critically, ‘well’. By this, I mean the tools and support mechanisms that are at our fingertips and on-demand 24/7. There has been an accelerated switch towards digital mental health services, such as wellbeing apps, which provide necessary and vital support whilst taking pressure off healthcare providers such as the NHS.

As we consider a shift towards well-care, digital services will start to become an essential offering within the traditional pathways and wider support structures of care. However, if this is to be successful, data must be treated as the linchpin of the system.

For example, the use of data can help us move away from a ‘one size fits all’ care model. Research is already underway to understand how data can be used to assess the impact of COVID-19 control measures on people’s wellbeing.

We already know that there are health inequalities between different groups of people, and these inconsistencies have been further highlighted throughout the course of the pandemic. By analysing large data sets, there is the potential to understand whether certain sub-populations are disproportionally affected by certain pandemic policies, such as lockdowns.

If we can use this approach to identify areas where mental health support is needed most, these insights can help to inform the mental health response in future pandemics, and give us the opportunity to act, rather than react.

Can we be mentally resilient in the future?

The storm we have weathered since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in 2020 proves that we have the collective inner-strength to be a mentally resilient society. While the focus on mental health has been gathering pace for several years, the pandemic shone a brighter spotlight on the equivalence of physical and mental health.

Future health crises are inevitable – but I am convinced that this move towards improved holistic health and a well-care model, is essential for us as a society to tackle any impending healthcare challenges.

About the author

Gaëtan LeblayGaëtan Leblay began his career with Janssen in France 18 years ago; holding a range of positions across the organisation in both the US and Europe, before assuming the role of managing director for Janssen UK & Ireland in 2019. Prior to joining the UK organisation, Gaëtan lived in Hungary where he spent three years leading Janssen Central Europe. Gaëtan is the ABPI Board Sponsor for Data and New Medicines and holds a seat on the UK-US business council.