Joining the Frontline of Mental Health during Covid 19

29th March by Jo Hastie

Published on


Lea Milligan is CEO of MQ Mental Health Research, the UK’s largest charity funding Mental Health Research. He is also Chair of the UK Mental Health Funders Forum and a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood

Lea joined MQ as CEO in June 2020. Here he reflects on the past 12 months.

Lea Milligan photo

“We live in unprecedented times”, “You need ‘product X now more than ever”, “You’re on mute!”

I wager these are the top three most used statements of the year when it comes to the world of work in the COVID-19 pandemic. At the very least they are in my life and I am firmly ready to resign all of them to the rubbish heap.

As lockdown 1.0 started in the UK, I was in the process of ending 4 years as CEO at Mercy Ships, an International NGO delivering surgery in West Africa, and preparing to start the next chapter of my professional life. I went through an interview and induction process with AAW, without meeting a single person face to face and joined MQ Mental Health Research at the end of June 2020 when we knew more about R-rates and novel coronaviruses than any of us ever expected to.

MQ Mental Health Research is the largest charity focused on funding mental health research in the UK. With offices in New York and London, we have invested over £21M in 8 years into ground-breaking research.

On the anniversary of the start of the first lockdown and 8 months into leading a team I’ve never met in person and reporting to a board I’ve never shaken hands with, I’m reflecting on what I might have learned from this, dare I say it…. new normal!

The biggest challenge in taking over as CEO in lockdown was noticeable at the end of the first team meeting - a time normally used to listen to the team and give a first pass at the state of the union speech. At the end of the meeting, the opportunity to chat with individuals over a coffee and hear their reflections on the future is a huge bridge builder. Instead, you leave the Zoom meeting and are left in silence at your own kitchen table, unsure if anything you said landed, or what anyone thinks.

The biggest learning for me personally has been the need to ensure very intentional time is set aside to call and chat with individuals and make sure they are heard on a regular basis; even more so than in physical settings. Listening and adjusting the work of the organisation to people’s shifting pressures has become a bigger priority than ever before.

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on mental health. Fundamentally, the pandemic has not significantly changed the nature of the landscape of mental illness, but it has substantially increased its size. Although we have all weathered the same storm, we have been in drastically different boats, while some groups have been particularly vulnerable to worsening mental health, others have emerged relatively unscathed, and some have even seen improvements.

COVID-19 has directly increased rates of mental illness for some people. For example, early findings indicate that the number of people with anxiety disorders doubled during the early stages of the pandemic. Young people, those with existing mental illness and those from minority ethnic backgrounds have all seen the worst mental health outcomes.  Many of the public health containment measures involved factors that themselves are risk factors for mental illness. For example, loneliness is a major risk factor for mental illness, and lockdown involved many people who live alone being unable to have social contact. In addition, COVID-19 has put a huge strain on economies, and times of economic downturn are associated with increasing rates of mental illness.

Funding of mental health services and research is woefully low. Only £9 per person with a mental health condition is spent on research in comparison to well over £300 per patient with cancer. More must be done to tackle this other pandemic and MQ is leading the field in bringing the public and scientists closer together to see research put to work for the public. We invested over £750k into research on mental health for children and young people in January, as well as partnering with a cross sector group to develop a new policy paper on mental health inequalities and roadmap for the future of mental health funding priorities, while continuing to manage over 20 live research projects covering PTSD, Depression and much more throughout the lockdowns.

The future of mental health in the workplace will continue to become a focus and as well as moving to highly agile working structure for our own team, we are hoping to launch a Workplace Challenge Fund this year bringing companies and data scientists together to better plan real support for the workforce as it adjusts to a new way of operating. Our focus is using research to work out how we thrive in a post-pandemic world.

My final reflection of the last 12 months is simply that we all must now recognise the fragility of our physical and mental health. Before COVID, depression was on track to be the biggest burden of ill health globally by 2030 – COVID hasn’t overtaken this! Mental illness is a pandemic we must tackle together, and research is the key to unlocking a brighter future for all of us!

Lea alongside other sector leaders globally took part in our 2020/21 study entitled AAW Insight 2021 - Spotlight on Leadership, Staff Wellbeing & Talent Management in the post COVID World.

If you’d like to receive a copy of our report, please email