As One Pandemic Recedes, We’ve Learned How to Fight the Next

As restrictions begin to ease across Australia, it’s easy to think that the trail has finally led us out of the woods. In reality, it’s a sharp turn and the path ahead has every possibility of being as dangerous as the place from which we’ve come.

For two months, the social isolation necessary to address the spread of COVID-19 has prevented the social integration and acceptance that is programmed in our human nature. Closed schools, businesses and restaurants, remote working made the new norm, soaring unemployment levels and an increasingly negative news cycle – any one of these societal shifts we’ve experienced could be expected to cause an increase in mental health issues. Combined, they have created a perfect storm for a crisis. Many experts now fear that the rise of one pandemic has worsened another the West was already battling: loneliness. 

There is little precedent of a global event where every individual human being is influenced in some way. What we do know from the few we’ve endured is that we’re pretty good at sticking together and supporting each other in the pinnacle of crisis. Australia’s Chief Executive of the National Mental Health Commission Christine Morgan has even revealed statistics showing the overall use of mental health services has been declining in Australia during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The danger lies then, in the long-term. As the world begins to get back to normal, tens of thousands will still be grieving, for lost jobs, lost time and lost loved ones. Post-traumatic stress will affect many of us. If we don’t address the trauma of the event, we’re in danger of never finding our way out of the woods.

Doing nothing at this point will risk a rise in the use of alcohol, drugs and gambling and also in conditions such as anxiety and depression. Modelling from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre has forecast the financial and psychological toll could result in an extra 750 to 1,500 suicides a year in Australia. Up to 30% of these could be from young people aged 15-25 years. In fact, the preliminary modelling shows the suicide rate could surpass deaths from the pandemic by up to 10 times.

In the darkness though, there is still good news. We are not lost in these woods. Lessons we’ve learned from the Coronavirus response can act as our breadcrumbs, a compass for navigating the mental health epidemic Australia faces next.

#1 Flatten the curve

Beyond Blue Chief Executive, Georgie Harman, is preaching prevention as key and the Federal Minister for Health, the Honourable Greg Hunt, insists the focus must remain on being “ahead of the curve for mental health in the same way that we were ahead of the curve for physical health.” Like COVID-19, we must choose to be proactive instead of reactive in order to save lives successfully.

#2 Mental health services are the new ventilators

Australia’s two-pronged approach to prevent Coronavirus transmission and simultaneously ramp up the health-care system in preparation for the worst provides an excellent blueprint for managing the pandemic’s mental health impacts. Policymakers must be willing and prepared to expand mental health services to care for unprecedented numbers, else face continued economic impacts for years to come through recovery. The $48 million National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Plan is an excellent place to start, but I highly doubt it will be the end.

#3 “Testing” is key

It’s unimaginable that we would try to eliminate COVID-19 without knowing how many cases there were in Australia. Yet data on mental health metrics remains scarce or delayed by up to two years. “Moment-to-moment” monitoring of the populations’ mental health will be vital because there is a contagion factor with suicide the same as with infectious disease. There is a greater than ever need for a real-time national suicide register, linking data from ambulance crews, hospital emergency departments and police.

#4 The most vulnerable are still at risk

Just as the elderly or immunocompromised were identified as at-risk groups for COVID-19, experts now fear Indigenous and ethnic communities will be among those at greatest risk of suicide in the coming months. Those unable to access online digital mental health services will also be vulnerable.

But contrary to isolation, the best way for our community to support these groups is to avoid hiding. Opening up and encouraging conversations about our mental health and support resources will instead be the most powerful tool.

There’s still a way to go to get out of the woods, but the path is made easier to tread by following our own map of breadcrumbs, intercepting a mental health crisis in the same aggressive manner as the recent physical health crisis.