Mental health effects of COVID-19

10 June 2020

The Black Dog Institute's report Mental health ramifications of COVID-19 highlighted four groups that have increased risk during a disease outbreak: people with pre-existing anxiety disorders and mental health problems, healthcare workers, people being placed in quarantine, and people who were unemployed, underemployed or in casual work.

As the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australian shores, we saw an immediate spike in demand for mental health support.

In March Lifeline answered almost 90,000 calls for help, an increase of 25 per cent compared with the same period last year, or one call every 30 seconds. It was the highest call frequency in Lifeline's 57-year history.

Beyond Blue saw a 30 per cent spike in contacts to their support services in the last two weeks of March. On some days a third of contacts were COVID-19 related.

A survey from Black Dog, released in May, found 78 per cent of respondents reported their mental health had been worse since COVID-19 and over 50 per cent of respondents were moderately to extremely worried about their financial situation.

Suicide Prevention Australia's report Turning the tide, released in March, showed, sadly, the well-established link between unemployment, financial distress and mental health crisis, which means people who are unemployed are nine times as likely to take their own life as are working people. Many people have found themselves out of worksome for the first timeas retail, hospitality, tourism and the service sectors collapsed when restrictions were introduced.

This impact was felt harder in regional and remote communities built on these economies, like my electorate of Dobell. As hundreds of thousands of Australians lost their jobs and businesses folded, lives were broken.

In my former role as chief pharmacist and mental health pharmacist at Wyong Hospital, I saw what happens to at-risk people in crisis, brought in by ambulance or police and all too often after an overdose. I saw otherwise healthy individuals deteriorate rapidly as a direct result of unemployment, housing stress and debt.

I felt firsthand the sense of impending failure that happens when you discharge a patient who is finally well back into the very same set of circumstances that made them sick, because experience tells you the health effects of unemployment are linked to the psychological consequences and the financial problems it brings, particularly debt, which means it won't be long before you see that person back in hospital again fighting for their life.

The people of my community have deeply felt the mental health impact of COVID-19. Kath and her husband Ken were on holiday in Europe when Australia closed its borders. Ken was diagnosed with COVID-19 and was for two months quarantined, receiving treatment and then rehabilitation in Perth, on the other side of the country, far from home. Their son, Trevor, drove for five days across two state borders to see his dad and comfort his mum. Kath and Ken are now safely home in Toukley but for months felt the strain of quarantine, isolation and a longing to be back home on the coast.

I have spoken previously of Emma Moulder and her struggles to visit her father, Graeme, in aged care through COVID-19. Emma has since been able to see her dad again but is now facing an uphill battle with the NDIS to get the support he desperately needs as he faces his terminal brain tumour. This is difficult in normal circumstances but during COVID-19 has at times felt impossible, especially as Graeme cannot understand why his family are not visiting. He only knows they are not around, and Emma's mum is working just to get by.

The Productivity Commission report into mental health is due to be released to the government later this month. The interim report noted that mental ill health costs the Australian economy between $43 billion and $51 billion each year, and that was before the outbreak of COVID-19. COVID-19 will increase the burden on individuals and the cost to the economy without further government action.

Targeted prevention and treatment programs, especially for at-risk groups, particularly people looking for work and those whose businesses have folded, will help reduce the mental health and subsequent economic burden Australia faces.

In the government's response to date we've seen some expansion of existing mental health services in response to the pandemic and a mental health plan along the way. We need to do more and we need to act now.

I would like to finish by recognising and thanking mental health workers across Australia for their efforts during this health emergency. To the social workers, counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, OTs, nurses, pharmacists, police, paramedics and cleaners: I understand this has been an extremely difficult time.

Your work is helping Australians through this time and will be even more critical in the weeks and months ahead. A special shout-out to all the workers at Wyong Hospital, my former colleagues and friends: you are doing an amazing job.