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Australia recorded its first case of COVID-19 on 25th January, 2020, in Victoria. Later that day, three cases were confirmed in New South Wales. Very quickly, Australia became part of the pandemic that has changed the lives of people across the world.
At 9pm on Friday 20 March 2020, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents – the Prime Minister said it was to ‘slow the spread of coronavirus to save lives.’
One year on, and after a year that has seen states and territories grappling with the complexities and unpredictability of COVID-19, lockdowns, JobKeeper and JobSeeker, home schooling, job losses, and the rollout of a vaccination program, where do things stand?
The worst of the pandemic’s effects in Australia may be over, but secondary effects and mental health issues are likely to emerge throughout 2021 and the first anniversary of the national border closure may lead to heightened distress for some people.
Professor David Forbes, Director of Phoenix Australia, and Alex Howard, Phoenix Australia’s Director of Disaster and Public Health Emergencies, pinpoint relationship strain, financial pressures, and emerging or worsening anxiety, depression and substance use as issues that are likely to become more prevalent. Long-term separation from families overseas and interstate will also take a toll on mental health.
“We have already seen an increased use of psychological services and helplines since the pandemic began, and while the issues people are presenting with may change over time, we expect the need for psychosocial support to continue well beyond 2020,”, says Alex, adding that it can be some time before people seek support.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s report, COVID-19: looking back on health in 2020, shows increased use of mental health-related services since 20 March 2020 when Australia closed its national borders. Between March and September 2020, 7.2 million Medicare-subsidised mental health-related services were delivered nationally. In September 2020, the number of services delivered was almost 15 per cent higher compared to September 2019.
Phone and online support services also saw significant increases in demand. In September 2020, Lifeline managed 15 per cent more calls than for the same period in 2019. Kids Helpline saw a 14 per cent rise in calls, and Beyond Blue received 21 per cent more calls.
Compared to some parts of the world, Australia has been relatively ‘lucky’ in the face of the pandemic, and the vaccine rollout is cause for optimism. But the snap ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdowns this year in Victoria, Perth and Greater Brisbane underscore the lingering uncertainties that surround COVID and what getting back to ‘normal’ might look like.
The peeling back of financial assistance provided during COVID could also exacerbate or initiate mental health issues when combined with the stresses of job loss, the loss of a business, and looking for new employment opportunities.
“Many individuals and small business owners have been hit hard financially and the gradual loss of assistance is likely to lead to increases in unemployment and financial issues,” says Alex.
We imagine this financial strain will lead to increased levels of stress and distress for many individuals and their families, and may exacerbate any existing psychological issues. It will be important to monitor these impacts closely – at an individual and community level.”
Practitioners can help clients by identifying and managing issues and encouraging strong social connections. Phoenix Australia has developed a Staying Connected Toolkit that highlights the importance of connecting with others. It includes developing a Social Connections Map where a client writes their name in a circle and adds the names of people, professionals or organisations that are part of their social network.
“We know that social support and connections are important to wellbeing and this is likely to be especially important after the period of physical distancing we have experienced. Working from home is likely to remain more commonplace, and relationships and connections may have weakened or become strained during the pandemic. Now is a good time to help people proactively look at social connections and to gradually reconnect,” explains Alex.
“As always, look broadly at a client’s family, financial, employment and general health issues. You’ll also find that, as well as treating them for a mental health disorder, you are likely to have a particularly key role in connecting them with relevant services, or helping them use problem-solving strategies to address their various issues that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.”
Helping clients to feel empowered to cope with change and uncertainty will be an important survival skill in 2021, as will practitioners taking good care of themselves.
“I think it will be critical to ensure people have skills to manage uncertainty and know their early warning signs, so they know when to focus more on their self-care and to seek support,” says Alex.
“It is also important for practitioners to take extra care of themselves. We are in for the long-haul so having a self-care plan, seeking relevant supervision, and looking out for early warning signs of burnout is especially important now.”