Tackling COVID-19: Dr Rebecca Pearson

Dr Rebecca Pearson

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Dr Rebecca Pearson, Senior Lecturer in Psychiatric Epidemiology at Bristol Medical School has been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health. 




Your research has focussed on Covid-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more?

Pre-pandemic my research focused on tracking population level depression and anxiety at different ages and understanding how that relates across generations. When the pandemic hit, I began to think about the mental health consequences of the ‘lockdown’ on young children and young people and how I could use my expertise to help us gain an insight into this.

At Bristol, we were in a unique position to be able to track before and after changes thanks to the work of the Children of the 90s (CO90s) study. I was part of a group that acted very quickly to investigate mental health in multiple generations of this study, in particular designing a survey for the cohort’s youngest generation. Shortly after the first lockdown was announced we sent a survey to around 12,000 participants and 800 parents of children in the youngest generation to help us gauge increases in emotional behavioural problems ranging from babies to young children (up to aged eight).

Being able to chart these changes in real-time has been incredibly impactful as we have been able to highlight who might be at risk of mental health problems over the course of the pandemic. While we found that the youngest children (aged zero to three years) were not adversely affected, we found that older children (aged five to eight) had higher levels of emotional problems. Through the course of the study we were also able to show very early on that young adults especially those in their 20s were having a spike in anxiety, and this was much higher than we expected. As a result, our findings very early on were widely cited and fed into the Government’s SAGE committee and UK HDI — an index that measures key dimensions of human development. Our work also highlighted specific risk groups, such as those living alone, and such work contributed to supporting the Government’s changes in policies around support bubbles for people living alone.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?

As a working single parent with two teenage daughters (Adele, 16, and Amelie, 12) it has been a journey for us all. Being cut off from normal family structures, routine and friends while dealing with home schooling, the added demands of work such as having to move things online, zoom meetings at the same time as live lessons combined with the pressures of us all trying to work remotely and share Wi-Fi has been a challenge. As a parent you worry about being neglectful of meeting your family’s needs and the effects of the lockdown on your children as well as feeling overwhelmed and uncertain. But in other ways it has been really nice to spend so much time as the three of us and adapt together!

But there have been triumphs, myself and many of my colleagues have come together to use their expertise to help fight the pandemic. For me, having our research widely cited and fed into SAGE which then supported policy changes has been a huge triumph. There have been other positives too, moving our team meetings online has led to them having much more international reach as we’ve been able to include people from South Africa, Brazil, Chile as well as wider groups closer to home but outside of the usual research group such as clinicians. It has really helped to bring people together in many ways and hear other voices.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

I started my PhD when my eldest daughter was two so while I am used to working in academia and juggling parenting it is still the biggest challenge that faces many women, and men too. There is always some degree of inequality as you always have other things to commit to. Academia is hard to contain within structured hours and so that means it is hard to switch off at times at home, but also academic activity doesn’t stop just for you so you can feel you miss that breakthrough discussion or have to cut a conversation short when you are committed to and wanting to getting back to your children and things do move on without you or your input. There is always an implicit element of inequality and that feeling of always trying to be in two places.

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

My daughters Adele and Amelie have always inspired my career journey. Motherhood had such a profound effect on me, my eldest (Adele) was the inspiration for my PhD which is about motherhood! They both have strong characters and their own ideas but they, especially in the last year, have shown they are resilient, positive, and even in the hard times show real spirit, and they are always proud of me and get involved in my work. Coincidentally, my youngest’s (Amelie) birthday is on International Women’s Day (8 March).

I’m also so inspired by my amazing students, in particular the way they challenge your ideas and turn it into something better. One of my PhD students — Ilaria Costantini, has been extremely inspirational. Ilaria came to Bristol on an Erasmus scheme as an intern and was so good she ended up staying to study a PhD! She has slotted in where I have had to dip in and out of things over the last year and has been a true inspiration.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

I have a lot of advice for my 13-year-old self who was shy and unconfident and never imagined would go on to actually put my ideas into action for a living, let alone that anyone would want to hear what I had to say about anything (whether that is in a lecture theatre around the world, a published paper, or an article like this!)….so here are some thoughts.

There is often no correct answer or correct path to take, but there is opportunity and positivity in whatever you do and whatever challenges you come across, so live the path you are on and own it. You cannot control the cards you are dealt, only how you play them. There will always be those who disagree with you or criticise your ideas, you can never please everyone, so do what you believe in. Learn from others, but be yourself, you are unique and your time is unique, what worked for those you look up to may not work for you.  Nurture and invest in those around you, especially in diversity. Be kind, trusting and generous, it may not always feel like it but kindness is your greatest strength.

The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know! Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer (or when you got it wrong), you may well find no one else did either. In my experience you learn more from the rejections and mistakes than from the successes. Dare to be wrong and dare to fail!

What are you most proud of? 

In these challenging times you realise that if you build a nurtured team around you, it helps you see things through, so I am extremely proud of my daughters and my students and post docs in team MHINT! Working at the University has allowed me to meet so many interesting different types of people and allowed me to be creative, and I feel extremely proud when I see my ideas come to life or make even a tiny difference to the world!

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