How are you? For many, during times of COVID-19, such a simple question may generate a level of anguish not normally experienced. Long periods of confinement, loss of employment and loneliness are all circumstances being exacerbated by the extended lockdowns.While the growing number of deaths has become a daily tragic consequence of the surge in infections, the impact on people's mental health is also taking its toll.
Soon after the second lockdown began, Lifeline was reporting a 22 per cent surge in calls in Victoria, while Beyond Blue had seen a doubling of demand for support services. Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said that early in the pandemic people were reporting feeling worried, uncertain or overwhelmed, while in more recent times they had seen more signs of exhaustion and fatigue.
Lifeline has seen a dramatic increase in people needing support. Credit:Robert Peet
Victoria is hardly alone. The largest survey of nationwide mental health during the height of the restrictions found mental health problems had doubled. And internationally, the first major survey of Britain’s strict coronavirus lockdown found the mental health of women, the young and people living with children were most affected by the upheaval.
But knowing the problem exists, and having the resources to support those in need, are two very different things. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is not shy in pointing out that the state's mental health system is broken, a view supported by the state's royal commission which bluntly stated in its interim report that the system had "catastrophically failed to live up to expectations".
Mr Andrews has tried to apply some short term fixes during the pandemic. His $59.4 million package delivered in the early days of the pandemic included funding to start the first phase of the rollout of 170 acute mental health beds, a key recommendation of the royal commission, as well as money for service providers with the capability to offer mental health help via telephone and video.
But as the pandemic enters an increasingly virulent phase in Victoria, and the chances of metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire coming out of lockdown any time soon rapidly diminishing, more needs to be done.
The Australian Psychological Society has called for an extension of telehealth for mental health services beyond the present September cut-off date. It also wants the number of subsidised counselling sessions increased from 10 to at least 20, and double that for those with acute mental health issues. It is concerned that many people's plans run out just when they need support the most.
The Age supports such calls, and would go even further. While lockdowns will eventually be lifted, and hopefully a vaccine produced that will rid us of the virus, the fallout from this pandemic will be with us for a long time to come.
For some people, employment will not return for many months, or even years, career and study plans will be thwarted, relationships damaged, social connections irrevocably disrupted. These all have consequences, and not just financial ones. Australian society will not return to normal just because the GDP figures head back into more positive territory.
It's a scenario Australia should know well. The lasting impact of bushfires on people's mental health often lingers long after homes are rebuilt and the bush turns green again. The aftermath of this pandemic will be with us long past the point that leaving the house without a face mask is possible. Government policy needs to reflect that reality.
If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.
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