Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health, Dr Ruth Vine's opinion piece on mental health impacts of COVID-19

An opinion piece from Dr Ruth Vine, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health, on the mental health impacts of COVID-19, and the response from the Government.

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General public

With most of the residents in Australia’s eastern seaboard back in lockdown – and in Victoria’s case, for a sixth time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – it’s not a stretch to say Australia is facing one of the most significant mental health challenges in our history.

We all hope the lockdowns in NSW can be eased as soon as possible – and so it is vital for everyone to follow the NSW Government’s public health orders and work together to supress the current outbreak.

Melbourne is hopefully in a short lockdown, Cairns in Far North Queensland is due to come of out of a three-day lockdown on 11 August, and Adelaide and Brisbane have just come out from short circuit-breakers.

The disruptive impact on people’s lives of these lockdowns has been extraordinary. Many have experienced the loss of jobs and livelihoods, home schooling and missing out on important rites of passage – not attending funerals or getting married or graduating. The list goes on.

It’s also the uncertainty and anxiety caused by successive lockdowns.  Why make plans when there’s every chance we’ll be back in lockdown?  So we miss out on family gatherings, holidays and changes of scene so important for our wellbeing.

We knew the mental health impact of this pandemic would be profound – on individuals, families and communities.

We have seen a marked increase in people accessing mental health support through helplines, as well as presentations to hospital emergency departments and health services. including general practices, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

Sadly, there has also been a particular increase in younger people presenting in distress, something which has been compounded by feelings of helplessness and isolation.

In recognition of the mental health impacts of the lockdowns in NSW and Victoria, the Australian Government will quickly establish 10 Head to Health pop-up mental health support sites for areas facing extended COVID-19 restrictions in and around Greater Sydney, and extend the operation of at least 12 clinics in Victoria until 30 June 2022.

More broadly in response to the pandemic, the Australian Government has made available more than $500 million in direct funding supports since March 2020 to address the mental health impacts.

This has bolstered the capability of organisations such as Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Kids Helpline and the Butterfly Foundation, as well as mental health services for vulnerable groups such as older Australians and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The number of Medicare-subsidised psychological therapy sessions people with a mental health care plan can access under the Better Access initiative has also been doubled. Telehealth has made these services more accessible – and demand for them remains high.

Seeking professional support is important. But it is often the little everyday things that can help us stay buoyant and manage our lives. This might include sticking to a routine, setting achievable goals, staying in touch with friends and family, exercising and doing things we enjoy like cooking or gardening.

This past year has been especially difficult for some – for instance older people living alone, families with young children, people distant from family and unable to return home, those with pre-existing illness or disability. So don’t forget to check in with others who may be in need.

In order to minimise restrictions – including lockdowns – going forward, it is vital as many of us as possible get vaccinated.

We have a fine history of using vaccinations for individual and public good. Some of us will remember the pain and heartache associated with illnesses like rubella or whooping cough, and those a bit older than me will remember the ravages of polio.

Fortunately, younger Australians haven’t had to live through the awful disruption and misery these infectious diseases caused. Why? Because effective vaccination programs meant we could virtually eradicate them. Australia has been free of polio since the year 2000.

I encourage everyone who is eligible, but not yet vaccinated, to make an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine. It could be the most important thing you do for your longer-term mental health.


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