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Talking Point opinion piece published in the Mercury Newspaper 17 April 2020.

An increase in calls from distressed, anxious people demonstrates how tough it is right now, writes Andrew Wilkie.

Protecting our mental health must be a top priority for governments and individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. The calls coming to me and my staff demonstrate how tough it is in the community right now. Some people are frightened and in tears, others are angry and many are bewildered. None of us know what’s around the corner. You can hear the distress and strain in people’s voices.

We’re social animals but we’ve been abruptly thrust into isolation. We’re used to moving freely, but a mass of sometimes confusing rules has been imposed seemingly overnight. These are obviously stressful times that are taking a toll on many members of the community. Normal has been upturned and we find ourselves living in a dystopian novel.

Governments around the world have declared war on COVID-19, a killer that moves among us unseen. The fight is on to save lives and livelihoods. But, just as vital is our mental health. We should not only fight to preserve our physical health and the economy, we must also fortify our mental wellbeing against this sudden change in society.

My staff and I are lucky. We have jobs and can work from home. From our kitchen tables and makeshift offices, we are doing our best to help people in the most trying situations. Lots of people suddenly out of work. Small business owners having to shut up shop. Tasmanians stranded overseas in remote places. Parents separated by closed borders from their children. People fearing they will run out of food. The elderly, in particular, are rattled by media reports of people overseas being refused medical treatment if they end up sick. Add social isolation and the genuine threat of COVID-19 to the mix, and it’s a dangerous cocktail that has mental health experts worried.

More and more people are reaching out for help. Support services including BeyondBlue, Kids Helpline and Lifeline have experienced a surge in calls. Professor Patrick McGorry, one of the country’s leading mental health experts, expects to see a lot of new episodes of mental health issues and illness due to COVID-19 and its invasive assault on our society.

The former Australian of the Year is particularly concerned about people with severe and enduring mental health illness falling through the cracks, because already many have stopped turning up at emergency departments.

The Federal and Tasmanian governments have increased investment in mental health to deal with the extra demand generated by the lockdown. There’s millions of dollars to fund helplines, digital support for staff and targeted aid for vulnerable groups, such as laid-off workers, the elderly and migrants. This is welcome, but really it’s a drop in the ocean.

The mental health system has been chronically underfunded for years, and could not meet demand before the COVID-19 tsunami of new cases. How can we expect it to cope now?

A recent Productivity Commission draft report on mental health warned that the health system was too focused on physical health. Indeed, one in two Australians will be affected by mental ill-health in their lifetime, including anxiety and depression. This hits all of us. Even before this crisis, it was estimated up to a million people would not get the help they need.

People will be dealing with the psychological trauma of this pandemic for years. We cannot fail here. It’s time to stop patching up a broken system and acknowledge that the mental health sector needs massive investment and expansion.

This pandemic has changed the way society functions, and will likely change Australia in many ways forever. I say let’s make this change positive. Let’s become a society that puts our mental health, and that of our neighbours, among our top priorities.

To borrow the advice of Professor McGorry: be observant. Look around and, if you see someone struggling, listen and try to help them in a practical or emotional way. Connect them with services. Humans are a resilient species. Of course we will get through this. But let’s do it by being optimistic, sticking together and being kind.

If you need specific help or advice, please contact one of the services below.

Lifeline Australia 13 11 14
BeyondBlue 1300 224 636
Suicide Call Back 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
eHeadspace 1800 650 890
Carers Australia 1800 242 636