Top 3 COVID-19 vaccine questions – Mental health support, anxiety with travel, and recharging after a huge year

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ruth Vine, answers the Top Three questions you've been asking on our social accounts around mental health.

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Hello, my name is Ruth Vine. I am the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health and today I am bringing you the top 3 for December 2021.

First, a shout out, my shout out is to all of those who are working and have worked in the mental health sector. Your professionalism and your compassion have helped countless people to endure the privations and challenges of the pandemic. On top of, of course, the usual trials of everyday life. To all the general practitioners, the specialists, nurses, mental health professionals, management, and staff, a really big thank you and I really hope you can get some rest and some rejuvenation during this holiday time. Please don't forget to take time to care for yourself.

The first question I have been given is, the holiday season can bring joy but is also a time of stress and anxiety for some. How can people best support and manage their mental health and well-being? This is a different kind of Christmas and holiday period. Because 2021 has come after two pretty difficult years because of the COVID pandemic. We have had lots of conversations that it's very normal to feel stressed and a bit anxious in the context of COVID-19. They have been unprecedented times. In some ways the pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Especially for those who have endured lockdowns, especially for those who have endured restrictions on getting in touch with family and friends. So, please know that it's okay to feel a bit strange in these abnormal times and okay to reach out for help. But there are some things you can do on top of the usual. That is, don't forget to continue to wear your mask at times, wash your hands, maintain social distancing, maintain your own boundaries. It's a great time to reunite with family and friends but sometimes there are complex family dynamics and I know particularly at this time there might be very complex dynamics around vaccinations, and who has been vaccinated, who hasn't, and all the things that go with that. Stay calm, stay kind, and keep doing the things that help you like exercising or maintaining a routine. Not indulging too much in the festivities that go with this. Do remember that if you are finding things extra challenging, even over this holiday time there are mental health services and online information and support available. A good place to start is to go to the Head to Health website to get information and a but of a heads up about the services available. If your need is more urgent than that, the relevant helplines are Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or Lifeline on 13 11 14 and you can talk things through. But just know that you can reach out, help is available. This should be a happy time. Sometimes when it is not quite as happy as you wanted it to be, it can be extra unhappy so look after yourselves.

My second question is, what can people do to reduce anxiety around travel and border closures during the holiday season? I would start by saying I am doing this today on 16 December, which is a pretty important day because I think it was yesterday, 15 December, where a number of states reduced restrictions or opened up borders, including Tasmania and NSW also changed their restrictions. So, there are still some border closures. We know Western Australia is not planning on fully reopening until early February. The first thing to say about reducing your anxiety is to be as knowledgeable as you can. Get on the relevant websites, look at the restrictions, look at whether you need to fill in a declaration form or an exemption form and do those things that you can to prepare yourself and others. I have to say, and I have experienced this personally during the last couple of years that planning is difficult at this time of year. You can make great plans and then all of a sudden, they can't be realised. So, the other thing I think to help you manage your anxiety around travel and border closures is to be a bit prepared. A bit prepared for things not to go quite according to plan, and maybe have a plan B up your sleeve. Of course, not only to know what is going on but to comply with what is going on. I have to say, please make sure you have had a vaccination, two vaccinations. For those that it is relevant for, please go and get your booster shot. We know that the Omicron variant is increasing in our community. We know the best evidence is if you get your booster, at the moment  the eligibility for that is within five months  that will add to your protection and by extension to the protection of those around you and in your community. Just a couple of other suggestions for managing additional stresses during holiday time around travel is to make sure you have checked your list, and you know whether you had to get a test,  or whether you have been to have a test, and make sure that is relevant for your family. Get the relevant COVID app on your phone, check in, and if you have got it there already you will be less anxious and have less hassle when it is all happening. For some, international travel is opening up again. It is the same thing, making sure you have the best knowledge, that you have navigated the requirements and that you have checked the relevant websites. Wherever you go, remember to do the usual, wash your hands, use soap and water, use a sanitiser, and maintain a physical distance. Where there are crowded events, just be extra aware and keep your mind on that there might be an extra risk and instead head for better ventilated areas or where there is more space. If you have any symptoms, get tested. I really want to reiterate the importance of vaccination and now getting a booster, thank you.

My third question, some people may be feeling fatigued and burnt out as they approach the end of the year. Particularly after extended lockdowns and long periods of working from home. How can we best utilise the holiday period to recharge? That's a really good question. For many people, particularly for families, younger people, those doing their final school exams, facing really important times in their lives in terms of progress, the last months have been really difficult. I am a Victorian, so I experienced those extended lockdowns and I certainly got pretty fed up with not being able to go and visit who I wanted to visit and travel where I wanted to travel. It's great that we can do more things, but you are right, many people will be feeling exhausted. Perhaps that is particularly health workers, and as I said, families and parents of young children. Learning how to switch off, learning how to give yourself a bit of space, learning how to do things that you find enjoyable, that you find rewarding for yourself, is really important. Just doing those in a way that enables enough sleep, enough structure in your day, but some new things, some different things. For me, I had a great time recently spending time in nature in a particularly beautiful part of NSW. But you can also catch up on reading, catch up on listening to good music, and just take time for you, time away. It's also really important that we acknowledge that not everyone can take time off during this time. Even those who are feeling pretty exhausted might need to keep being on the front line and keep being available, so again it would be very remiss of me not to mention health professionals and mental health professionals who will need to work over the holiday period, to keep supporting us. There are some special supports for those working, including Black Dog is the essential network which can be accessed through the web. So, everyone can benefit from doing things to refresh and recharge, please be optimistic. We have made great progress over the last couple of years and we have shown enormous resilience, notwithstanding the pressures, but it's also time for us all to recharge our batteries.

So, make time for you and thank you very much. My best wishes to you and your families over the holiday period.

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  1. How can people best support and manage their mental health and wellbeing during the holiday season?
  2. What can people do to reduce anxiety around travel and border closures during the holiday season?
  3. How can we best utilise the holiday period to re-charge after another huge year?
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