Government services need to be more ‘human’, say agencies

Opposing politicians and a trauma expert say Australia needs to put humanity back into its government services.

“We’re living in a traumatised society in traumatised times,” says Dr Cathy Kezelman, president of the National Centre of Excellence for Complex Trauma, known as the Blue Knot Foundation. “We were all hoping that 2021 would be different, but it feels like we’re rolling into yet another long period of uncertainty and it’s unlikely to change for a while yet.”

The Blue Knot Foundation advises government agencies on becoming trauma-informed. But Dr Kezelman says an awareness of trauma “needs to infuse the whole system” of such agencies as Services Australia and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

“Certainly, the terminology is being used, but the risk is it’s used without meaning or without proper engagement or implementation,” she said.

“Instead of being reactive or punitive, how can you work with someone and walk alongside them?”

Liberal MP Bridget Archer and Labor’s Luke Gosling are also seeking a “uniform trauma-informed approach” for people dealing with government agencies including Centrelink, Services Australia and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Nine reports.

Ms Archer says a consistent approach across government agencies was “the best way to genuinely change outcomes for people”.

“It would be good if there was that consistent framework across agencies, whether it’s Services Australia or Veterans’ Affairs, or whatever.

“Their interactions with all those agencies are not always consistent and I think that can be difficult for people sometimes and it can also affect the way that they behave or the outcomes,” she said. “We put systems in place that don’t account or allow for trauma and then we wonder why they don’t work, because in a way you’re trying to swim against the tide.”

Mr Gosling, the member for Darwin and an army veteran, is concerned about the move towards greater automation and reliance on people accessing services online.

“We lose a lot when we take the human part out of it and the ability for someone just to be driving and go, ‘Yep, I need some support, I’m going to drive there now and see someone’, talk to someone face-to-face rather than by phone or email,” he said.

The Scottish government is investing $2.6 million for a national trauma training program seeking “trauma-informed workforce and services”.

The initial focus is within the justice system.

“Each and every member of the workforce has an important role in making sure that victims and witnesses experience a justice system that recognises the impact of trauma on witnesses and their evidence, and that prevents further harm through avoiding re-traumatisation,” said taskforce leader Dr Caroline Bruce.

Recent studies conducted in Canada indicated that more than 50 per cent of the population reported “considerably elevated levels of distress specific to the pandemic”.

Researchers have dubbed the widespread trauma ‘COVID stress syndrome’.

“In addition to its staggering impact on physical wellbeing and mortality, COVID-19 is also taking an unprecedented toll on our mental health,” wrote Gordon J. G. Asmundson, professor of psychology at the University of Regina, for The Conversation.

“Numerous recent studies have shown global increases in the prevalence and severity of depression and anxiety as well as increases in post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. These increases likely stem from the changes to daily life we have all been asked to make in attempts to mitigate viral spread.”

Prof. Asmundson says COVID stress syndrome has five core features: fear of danger and contamination, fear of adverse socio-economic consequences, checking and reassurance seeking, xenophobia (discrimination against foreigners) and traumatic stress symptoms (for example, pandemic-related nightmares).

“We anticipate that as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, so too will the mental health challenges and needs of the public. Further research is needed to understand the full effects of COVID-related stress and whether these change as the pandemic progresses.”

A global survey of mental health during the pandemic conducted by researchers from the University of Basel found one in 10 respondents reported low levels of mental health – including “negative affect, stress, depressive behaviours and a pessimistic view of society”.

“Another 50 per cent had only moderate mental health, which has previously been found to be a risk factor for further complications.”

“Public health initiatives should target people without social support and those whose finances worsen as a result of the lockdown,” said co-lead author Professor Andrew Gloster.

“Based on these results, interventions that promote psychological flexibility like acceptance and commitment therapy hold promise when it comes to mitigating the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns.”

Has your mental health been affected by the pandemic? Do you believe government agencies are coping with the challenges of a traumatised population?

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Written by Will Brodie

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