The mental health impact of COVID-19

An opinion piece by the Australian Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health, Dr Ruth Vine.

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As we continue to work our way through the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been considerable discussion in the media about the impact the virus is having on our mental health – and may have on our suicide rates.

For some Australians, the restrictions governments have rightly put in place to combat COVID-19 have been a catalyst for relationships to be strengthened and reaffirmed, including developing new ways to work together. We have seen the renewal and importance of reaching out and being socially connected even while physically separated.

However, for many of us, while physical distancing is helping to prevent people from contracting the coronavirus, it has also created other problems, including isolation, loneliness and anxiety.

For those who have lost a job or are worried their business may go under because of the economic downturn, the impact on family and career is significant, and the uncertainty hard to deal with.

But it is important to recognise the measures put in place to try to reduce the negative effects. These have included significant initiatives to support employment and maintain financial security.

However, although addressing economic and financial stressors is imperative, there is also a significant role for the health system in providing care and support to assist recovery.

The Australian Government has made significant investments in mental health and suicide prevention prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has continued to do so as part of Australia’s evolving response, with an estimated additional $500 million having been channelled into mental health services so far this year.

As the responsibility for the mental health system is shared across all Australian governments, the states and territories have likewise made significant contributions.

This has led to several positive developments for those needing support, most notably, that clinical services have developed greater capacity to use telehealth and to reach out to those difficult to engage, and that assertive aftercare has been bolstered.

The actions of the Commonwealth, states and territories are being coordinated and consolidated by a National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan that was adopted by the National Cabinet earlier this month.

This plan recognises the central importance of improving the way we monitor the mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is being achieved largely by building on the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s National Self-Harm and Suicide Monitoring System – ensuring that, through the collective cooperation of states and territories, we have unprecedented access to information in real time to guide the scale, timeliness and geographical distribution of our responses.

In my role as the Australian Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer (Mental Health), I will be working closely with the National Suicide Prevention Adviser to the Prime Minister, Ms Christine Morgan, and her colleagues at the National Mental Health Commission to support implementation of the pandemic mental health plan. In particular, I want to focus on improving how services are connected and on making the mental health system easier to navigate.

If we can do this, we will ensure that every Australian can reach the care best suited to their needs, and that their journey to health is seamless and straightforward. This will protect lives, now and in the future.

Anyone experiencing distress can seek immediate advice and support through Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636), Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), or the Government’s digital mental health gateway, Head to Health.



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