Updated: Extend telehealth, increase subsidised sessions, say psychologists.
The coronavirus pandemic is profoundly affecting the mental health of Australians, according to psychologists.
Australian Psychological Society (APS) president Ros Knight told Nine that demand for psychological support is extraordinary and “as the year goes on everybody's running out (of resilience). We're more anxious, stressed and irritable, particularly in Victoria.”
Calls to mental health agency Beyond Blue increased 66 per cent in April and 60 per cent in May compared with the same period in 2019. In June, calls were up 47 per cent on June 2019.
A survey of Australia’s 24,000 psychologists found more than 90 per cent would like access to telehealth via Medicare to be extended. It is currently due to end in September. There are fears patients are spreading out their 10 Medicare subsidised mental health sessions – extended to 20 for residents in lockdown areas – despite some needing urgent care.
Ms Knight says the increase in cases of depression and anxiety is “just starting to explode”, adding, “we expect it to get worse across the year”.
Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said the pandemic was “profoundly affecting people who lived with mental health conditions and people who had never struggled before”.
Ms Harman said the reintroduction of lockdown measures in Victoria were a “kick in the guts” for many people. “Most people had done the hard yards and were following the public health advice and, obviously, there’s a really worrying rate of community transmission … but that’s just really frustrating and a bit overwhelming.”
The APS has already called on the federal government to extend telehealth and boost the number of sessions available for a Medicare subsidy to 20, or more for people suffering from severe mental health conditions.
In July, Professor Jane Fisher from Monash University told the ABC it was not just people with acute mental illness being affected by the pandemic. Many ‘stoic’ people who say they are fine can be suffering what she labelled ‘disenfranchised grief’.
“Disenfranchised grief refers to experiences of loss which might not be recognised, either by the person or by others.
“As with recognised grief when somebody dies, disenfranchised grief is accompanied by disbelief and shock, yearning for reality to be different or as it was before the loss, and then uncertainty and sadness as reality grows.”
She says some of the losses are underestimated because people might feel they are “trivial and pale in comparison to other people's problems”.
Such losses often go unrecognised and fail to attract support. Ms Fisher says we must remain alert for the signs of anxiety and depression and identify what we have lost so we can discuss it.
As early as April, experts predicted the mental toll of the pandemic would be extreme.
“As the virus subsides, we will see a big surge in the need for mental health care,” said Patrick McGorry, executive director of youth mental health organisation Orygen, and founding director of headspace.
“It's not just the immediate effects of the pandemic and the virus — it's the massive social and economic effects that we're expecting over the next year or two that are going to really drive down the mental health of the population.”
“About a third of the Australian population are vulnerable or already have mental health problems, and in this sort of situation, are at great risk of being tipped over into a new episode,” he said.
“We know from previous disasters that at least 20 per cent of the population will be at risk of that.”
Professor McGorry called for “a pop-up version of the adult mental health hub” where people can get some expert mental health in a walk-in, timely way. He says increased funding for agencies such as Beyond Blue was welcome, but the sector was overwhelmed before the pandemic.
Rebecca Burdick Davies from Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) said research following the SARS epidemic showed that suicide increased after the pandemic ended.
“People pull together when the disaster is underway — there's actually a coming together in the community,” Ms Burdick Davies said.
“But in the months and years after the disaster is over, when the community is recovering … that's when you sometimes see the greatest impact from a mental health perspective.”
Beyond Blue offers the following on how to look after your mental health during the pandemic:
Try to maintain perspective
While it is reasonable for people to be concerned about the outbreak of coronavirus, try to remember that medical, scientific and public health experts around the world are working hard to contain the virus, treat those affected and develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.
Find a healthy balance in relation to media coverage
Being exposed to large volumes of negative information can heighten feelings of anxiety. While it's important to stay informed, you may find it useful to limit your media intake if it is upsetting you or your family.
Try to maintain a practical and calm approach
Widespread panic can complicate efforts to manage the outbreak effectively. Do your best to stay calm and follow official advice, particularly around observing good hygiene habits. The Australian Psychological Society has advice about maintaining positive mental health during the outbreak.
Try not to make assumptions
To contribute to a sense of community wellbeing, try to remember that the coronavirus can affect anyone regardless of their nationality or ethnicity and remember that those with the disease have not done anything wrong.
It’s normal to feel overwhelmed or stressed by news of the outbreak. We encourage people who have experienced mental health issues in the past to activate your support network; acknowledge feelings of distress; and seek professional support early if you’re having difficulties.
If you or anyone you know needs help, contact:
Is there sufficient support for people struggling during these trying times?
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