Online events: how to strengthen volunteering, scale up mental health provision and counter misinformation

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most disruptive and damaging events in decades. But since December 2020, The Conversation has been playing a key role in a project that seeks to mitigate some of its harms: the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO).

A £2 million, ESRC-funded partnership between The Conversation, UCL, Queens University Belfast, the universities of Oxford, Cardiff and Auckland and the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA), IPPO identifies and reviews evidence from around the world to better inform UK policymakers on the social consequences of COVID-19.

Over the coming weeks, IPPO will publish a series of evidence reviews that were commissioned to get to the heart of the major social questions facing policymakers in the wake of the pandemic.

The IPPO team has explored three key challenges: how society can most effectively mobilise volunteers in times of crisis; how we can roll out mental health interventions at scale, and what strategies can be deployed to tackle the negative effects of public health misinformation?

And between October and December 2022, IPPO will be staging a series of public events to discuss our findings.

How to strengthen the UK’s volunteering culture

The community response to the pandemic put volunteering in the spotlight. And it has led policymakers and practitioners to ask how we can build on this outpouring of goodwill and better prepare the country for future crises.

Volunteering and participation – or social action – are integral to welfare provision in the UK. Often under the radar, volunteering plays a substantial role alongside the state. Some now argue that getting more people involved in their communities, more often and in more places, can help solve problems from inequality and loneliness to low levels of public trust.

After completing its review, IPPO will look at the lessons that can be learnt from the pandemic experience of mobilising volunteers – lessons that could help us prepare for the health and national emergencies that may lie ahead.

An online event exploring these issues will be held on October 31, 2022, at 10am. Please sign up here.

How to boost mental health interventions

IPPO began this review by asking how a society can improve its collective mental health – and exploring the options available to governments, communities, foundations, employers and charities that are facing the many related challenges.

The issue reached unprecedented prominence during the pandemic, when mental health problems became significantly more prevalent.

Governments have many different options for action, most recently including the mobilisation of employment advisors to support individuals back into work.

But IPPO sought to explore the evidence in detail and assess the many ways to improve mental health, not just among the 1-2% of the population requiring the most acute help, but also among the much larger proportion of the population that benefit from other forms of support. We were also interested in the issue of the scalability of mental health intervention, something that has also received increased global attention.

Join us for a discussion of our findings on November 17, 2022, at 11am. The event will be chaired by Siobhan O’Neill, Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland, Professor Siobhan O’Neill, and you can sign up here.

How to counter vaccine-related misinformation

Public health communicators faced a common and pressing challenge during the pandemic. They had to ensure that the spread of vaccine-related misinformation didn’t impede the vaccine roll-out and risk lives.

They largely relied on messages that aimed to foreground accurate information about vaccines in the minds of the public. Trusted “messengers” were often called upon to deliver these messages, which were also carefully tailored to address the specific needs and concerns of communities that were hesitant about vaccination.

Messages aimed at debunking, or myth-busting, misinformation about vaccines, however, were rarely used. This strategy was in line with government guidelines. Indeed, public health communicators often decided against this kind of debunking strategy due to uncertainty over whether it might do more harm than good.

Since July 2022, IPPO has been developing a rapid evidence review into the best way forward, assessing when debunking misinformation about vaccines is likely to be a better option for addressing misinformation beliefs and encouraging vaccine uptake. And the results could have profound implications for messaging during future crises.