Date published: 
20 May 2020
Media event date: 
19 May 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:

Dr Ruth Vine is at the forefront for the Morrison Government's efforts to limit the psychological damage of this pandemic. She's just been named as Australia's first Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health. This is her first interview in that new role. Dr Ruth Vine, welcome to RN Breakfast and congratulations.

RUTH VINE: 

Thank you very much, Fran. I'm thrilled to be here.

FRAN KELLY:

There's been warnings, in fact, there's been modelling that this pandemic could claim more deaths from suicide than from the virus itself. Why is that- why- what does the high suicide risk here revolve around?

RUTH VINE:

Well a couple of things first, Fran, I think one- one, I think is that we don't really know how long the mental health impacts of this pandemic will go for but we can anticipate that they will go for longer than the actual viral health impacts. I think the other thing is the impact of a pandemic like this is very much a social impact and we've already seen a massive change in some of our social connectedness and how we relate - some really terrific changes as well.

I mean I think that the shift in health from face-to-face contact to much greater use of telehealth and much greater use of virtual platforms has been mind boggling in its speed of transition. But nonetheless, there are very real social impacts and I think even this morning, the ABS was commenting on the rise of loneliness. And I think that sort of- if you look at the psychological impact, some of the main ones are very much that social connectedness that, you know, getting the sort of structure that we expect in our lives the routine- the routine sort of interactions with other people.

And I think that's a really important part of our recovery, quite apart from at the other end of the spectrum, if you like, those who develop clinical mental illnesses and need clinical support and I would hope to be involved in that whole spectrum of consideration.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. And I want to talk about both ends of the spectrum but just on the loneliness, the isolation, the social connectedness, the lack of routine and structure. I mean how can a mental health pandemic- how can our mental health experts and agencies deal with that? How can you make people feel more social connected? What could be done?

RUTH VINE:

Fran, one of my past roles was after the bushfires in Victoria and what we learnt then I think was just how important practical local activities are. And as we gradually sort of emerge, if you like, from our isolation, getting back into that sort of family connectedness and building on our usual social channels and emerging back to schools and all the things that go to schools. So I think it shouldn't just be seen as a health issue; I think we need to be very clear that it's also a local community issue and I think supporting people and giving people information about that and communicating that is one aspect of what we do about that.

FRAN KELLY:

So do you see that as part of your role as the Deputy Chief Medical Officer of Mental Health to work with communities to make communities stronger and more bonded?

RUTH VINE:

Well I don't know if that's my immediate direct role but I'd certainly think it's part of the awareness across the spectrum. As you would be aware, I intend to work very closely with Christine Morgan who heads up National Mental Health Commission and Suicide Prevention and I mean I think she brings a very holistic oversight to this as well but- but I- I also of course come with a clinical hat on and I have been watching my colleagues making the transition from face-to-face to telehealth. And I think just being aware of a person's family and social context as well as the clinical is part of what I'd think of good mental health care.

FRAN KELLY:

Can I just talk about suicide for a moment. We have a shocking suicide rate in this country; it's around eight people a day. And as I mentioned, the modelling suggested that suicide rate caused by this pandemic could rise exponentially but so far, have we seen any increase? I don't- I don't think we've seen any increase yet have we? In suicide levels?

RUTH VINE:

Well Fran, this comes back to data and I know that the Government has invested in improving data collection and making sure that the reporting from coronial inquiry is done in a more timely way to give us more accurate data. But I think you have to say that- I think- what are we in? We're into month three or four at the most, if you go back to November, month six. So in terms of that sort of data modelling and data collection, I think it's probably too soon to say. So far as I am aware, there's not been an increase to date. But then as I say, I think we need to really, really make sure we've got the best data available and I think there is real effort into improving that sort of collection and the modelling. And I think the other thing that goes with that data collection is knowing who's seeking services and what the outcome of that service interaction is across the board, from helpline right through to clinical services. And [indistinct] a lot of that.

FRAN KELLY:

[Interrupts] And we do know something about a lot of this.

RUTH VINE:

Sorry?

FRAN KELLY:

But don't we know, I mean, we do know some of that to the extent that, for instance, after your appointment was announced, Pat McGorry, former Australian of the Year, said firsthand, quote, the parlous state of our mental health system in Australia. And we've talked to Pat McGorry and others quite a lot about this and talked often about the gap in mental health services. There's hospital services which are emergency, acute, get someone safe and send them off again. And the other end is the telehealth type services we've developed in a hurry here, and the psychologists, the counselling, that sort of thing. But there's a gap in the middle for sustained support, perhaps almost rehab centres. We lack that, that's the gap at the moment. Do you see that as part of your job, to try and work out how to address that gap and get the money, because that will be expensive?

RUTH VINE:

Look Fran, I'm a Victorian, so I've been involved with the Victorian Royal Commission into mental health. I'm acutely aware of some of the deficiencies that have been exposed in our mental health system. I think it's fair to say that there is the work of the Royal Commission in Victoria, the work of the Productivity Commission's also looking at some of this sort of structural stuff, and particularly, how the funding is organised and how the funding can best be used to defragment our mental health services. So, I do- I feel very strongly about getting a better integrated mental health system. I think there are lots and lots and lots of good things about the Victoria and Australia's mental health system. I think when better access came along, that was a really significant breakthrough and clearly masses have been invested in that.

But I think again and again and again, people talk about the mental health system being fragmented and people either slipping between various types of mental health service provision or finding there are barriers and hoops to get through to get them. And I think one of the key things in the fifth national mental health plan - there are a lot of plans around - but one of the key things in the fifth plan was about improving regional integration. And I do think that this time, there is a very strong goodwill and intent on the part of both states and territories and federal government, to think how can we better integrate, and how can we do that at a regional and local level that sits underneath the sort of national things like Lifeline, or Beyond Blue, or some of the other sort of national initiatives rather than local. So I certainly hope that I can be effective in contributing to this.

FRAN KELLY:

I hope so too. It's a huge job you've taken on and it's a job that has an acute sort of element to it as this pandemic- we all struggle through this pandemic. You've talked about the isolation, and I guess it's part of your job to try and help us work out how to stay more connected and be more positive. So Ruth Vine, good luck with that, and I look forward to talking to you again on Breakfast. Thank you.

RUTH VINE: I hope so. Thanks, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:

Dr Ruth Vine, Australia's new deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health. And, if this conversation has raised any issues for you, you can always call Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1 800 512 348, or Lifeline on 13-11-14.

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