Looking at diet and exercise to treat COVID-19 related depression

The powerful potential of food and physical activity to calm the mind and restore mental well-being will be tested in a new study looking for a sustainable treatment for depression among people feeling distressed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Geelong based trial, to be run in partnership between Deakin University and Barwon Health’s Mental Health, Drug and Alcohol Services (MHDAS), will deliver an eight-week, group-based, telehealth program, designed to reduce the mental health symptoms in adults with elevated psychological distress.

Research lead Associate Professor Adrienne O’Neil, Director of Deakin’s Heart and Mind Research and Deputy Director of the Food and Mood Centre, said the ‘CALM’ program was based on well-established evidence for the use of diet and exercise as a treatment for mental health conditions.

“Lifestyle targets are the cornerstone for prevention and management of diabetes and heart disease, but not currently for mental disorders,” Associate Professor O’Neil said.

“There is good evidence diet and exercise can complement standard care, but we don’t know if they are as good as standard psychological care.

“This is the first study to test this approach directly with psychotherapy in a real-world mental health setting. This evidence is critical if we are to see lifestyle-based care become an embedded part of mental health care in the future.

“We know the mental health of Australians has deteriorated since the COVID-19 outbreak, especially for young people and women who have been overly represented in job losses and overburdened with child care.

“Also, the recent Royal Commission in Victoria’s Mental Health System identified critical gaps in health care for people who experience moderate or enduring mental health issues – the so-called ‘missing middle’.

“We hope this will provide future treatment options for people with mental health concerns,” Associate Professor O’Neil said.

The trial has been funded through a Medical Research Future Fund COVID-19 Mental Health Research grant. It will directly evaluate the health impacts and the cost-effectiveness of the CALM program in comparison with established psychotherapy in 184 patients presenting to Barwon Health emergency or MHDAS.

Patients will be encouraged to continue taking any prescribed medication throughout the study.

“In Australia, we spend $9.9 billion on mental health services every year. In Geelong, we have seen mental health-related presentations spike over the past three years,” Associate Professor O’Neil said.

“CALM aims to provide a mental health program that is easy to access through existing mental health services and is cost-effective.”

In addition to Deakin University and Barwon Health, collaborative partners in the study include Monash University, the University of the Sunshine Coast and the University of New South Wales.