Mental Health The World Health Organisation identified depression as one of the world’s biggest health issues in 2020. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic unfolded. The lockdown forced many of us to deal with issues of loneliness and isolation that many people in our society experience on a day-to-day basis regardless of pandemics.

People suffering from mental health issues have always had to deal with the stigma attached and are often referred to as different or incompetent when in reality they are unwell. But this stigma leads to a range of issues with self-esteem, which only makes the problem worse. The coronavirus pandemic combined with a deadly bushfire season has bought this issue to the forefront in a number of ways.

A recent survey by YouGov found that over 70percent of respondents were stressed about not seeing family and friends, 60percent were concerned about not being able to meet financial commitments and nearly 50percent were concerned about losing their jobs and not being able to support their families and losing their homes because of Covid19. Combine this with the current view that the Australian economy is in recession and mortgage stress could lead to a massive increase in mortgage defaults. Given anxiety is seen as a main driver for many forms of mental ill-health it is clear why mental health service providers are concerned about the long term impacts.

Professor McGorry, director at Orygen1 and Professor of Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne believes that the issues of isolation, job losses and concerns about their future will lead to a rapid increase in mental health issues among the younger population and this could impact on their wellbeing for years to come – even in those who have never experienced any issues in the past. Feeling disconnected and lonely and in some cases giving up their independence by returning home to live with family, are the main drivers of the increased stress levels.

Loneliness and social isolation have been growing problems in Australia for many years. In 2016 around 10percent of the population reported feeling isolated and 25percent said they felt lonely. Much of this was due to family breakdowns, general health issues, financial insecurity and age.

Understanding the scale of the problem

The Australian Government defines mental illness as a general term that refers to a group of illnesses that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. A standardised approach is used to diagnose mental illness, which includes anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality and eating and substance use disorders. A mental health problem, on the other hand, may also affect how a person thinks, feels or behaves but to a lesser extent than a mental illness2.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare3, 4.3 million people received mental health-related prescriptions in 2018-19 and over $9.9billion was spent on mental health-related services. Almost 11percent of the Australian population received Medicare-subsidised mental health-specific services. This was an increase of around 5percent of the population receiving these services in 2008-09. These services are a combination of doctors’ visits, specialist disability support services, hospital admissions and residential care.

The mental health care sector employed around 3,500 psychiatrists, 22,000 mental health nurses and 26,000 psychologists in 2017. The not-for-profit sector also had dedicated services and health care workers who are not accounted for in these numbers. It is a large industry supporting a big part of the Australian population.

How has the pandemic changed our approach to mental illness?

How then has the recent pandemic started to change the way we as a society view and support mental illness? Have there been changes to make help more accessible? The Government has increased its financial support for the sector and talk has turned to a more coordinated approach to diagnosis and treatment. The increased provision of telehealth services is important, but what other initiatives are being seen on the ground that encourages greater connection and support?
In Canberra, for example, some of the new ideas include

  • Safe Haven Cafés will be established to support a safe alternative for people with mental health issues to connect with others in a bit to counter the loneliness and isolation.
  • Group counselling services have clearly been affected by the pandemic, but many community service groups are finding innovative ways to deal with this. Menslink, for example, are providing a one-on-one mentoring exercising initiative, which combines emotional support and connection with physical exercise.
  • Pharmacies across Canberra are providing home delivery or contactless pick up of medications
  • CarersACT along with a number of other organisations has been providing welfare checks on seniors, which include phone calls and the funding of food and grocery home deliveries.
  • Supermarkets introduced special shopping times for seniors and priority online orders and home delivery.
  • ArtSound radio is providing programs for people with restricted access to social services and entertainment. Most listeners are in aged care facilities or live alone and along with entertainment receive information about health and education information.
  • Kids Helpline has set up special counselling services for young people not ready to return to the ‘new normal’.
  • Woden Community Service has created a series of LETS PLAY! Workshops a series of free creative workshops delivered by local residents so that people can learn new skills while at home.
  • The Street Theatre along with other entertainment venues is live streaming theatre and music to be enjoyed at home. 
  • Work environments are encouraging people to transition back to the workplace slowly and are open to the possibility of people continuing to work from home at least part-time.

Many of these new approaches to providing mental health services may continue beyond the current period encouraging a greater number of people to engage with support. It may also serve to educate all of our community that mental health issues can affect any of us at any of time and we need to be more aware of those who have suffered well before we were all sent into lockdown. The new normal will hopefully encourage #CBRBusinessUnusual to become the usual.




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