COVID-19 and Mental Health
(Private Member's Statement, 17 September 2020, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the need for mental health support and it is vital that we work to create a supportive mental healthcare system and society that helps prevent illness and supports both physical and mental wellbeing.
The coronavirus’s potential to spread and infect, harm and kill is a trigger for anxiety. Many people are worried and the ever-changing situation with continually updated advice can overwhelm. While keeping informed is important, bad news, misinformation and alarmist speculations around each new discovery on the virus can contribute further to stress and fear.
Physical distancing helps prevent the spread of the virus, but it is resulting in mass social isolation. We no longer see family, friends or workmates on regularly and social activities are limited; we no longer hug or touch others. Much volunteer activity has stopped and public places where people spend time like libraries and theatres are closed. Even as places reopen, some people are too scared to attend, especially those who are vulnerable.
Elderly people are especially impacted because some don’t have the technical skills or experience to connect online without support and equipment. They also don’t have regular contact with people through jobs, and close contacts who want to protect them don’t visit. Support for getting online can help mental health.
Increasing rates of unemployment and underemployment are causing significant distress, with the poor economic outlook adding to the toll. Lack of access to financial support for overseas students and visa holders is having health and welfare impacts. Many people are separated from family and supports.
Humans are social beings and loneliness is detrimental to our wellbeing.
The situation follows devastating bushfires that saw loss of life, homes and communities, and months of choking smoke, followed by floods. Increasing disruption due to climate change adds to concerns about our future.
The uncertainty of when life will settle down is a significant strain. Many people are mourning their old life and wondering when social activities and job security will resume and the fear will end.
We need to ensure that the mental health system is accessible to all who need help. New ways to provide treatment including online and telehealth is important, especially for those who need to self-isolate or quarantine.
The small rebates for people on a mental health care plan for up to 10 psychologist sessions is welcome but should be expanded and there is a case for full Medicare coverage of mental health support that prevents crisis and breakdown. It is important to get the message out that anyone who is having trouble coping or feeling fragile can seek help through the New South Wales Mental Health Line, Lifeline, their general practitioner, or a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor. These services must be supported and expanded to meet increasing demand.
For most people, when the pandemic ends, their emotional wellbeing will recover, but the prolonged heightened state of worry will have lifelong mental health impacts for some.
The most vulnerable are people who already experience illness like depression or anxiety. There are growing reports that their mental health is eroding, with health services already seeing elevated levels of distress. People with pre-existing conditions must be a focus of any mental health response to the pandemic. They will need additional treatment and intervention; we also need to establish a long term plan to prepare the mental health system for new trends.
My electorate office has seen increased stress and anxiety in vulnerable social housing tenants and older people living alone without support. It will be important to give them support and respond to their concerns quickly to avoid distress and deterioration in health.
We must remind people to reach out to others who may be lonely or needing help with day-to-day things. Support from Facebook groups in my electorate is inspiring. I have seen strangers reach out to vulnerable people in their neighbourhood to do shopping, provide food and household goods, or run COVID-safe get-togethers. Councils, institutions and organisations across the state are providing COVID-safe activities for residents such as free online courses and discussions to help them keep active.
Strategies to help people cope include establishing a routine, connecting with family and friends, staying physically active and eating well.
The state government and federal governments have increased mental health and suicide prevention funding, and this will strengthen available support. I hope that this indicates greater emphasis on preventing illness and getting early help, and strongly support the calls for mental health to be included in the National Preventive Health Strategy that is now being developed.
I know all members of the house are closely monitoring our communities and will listen to mental health providers, consumers and advocates so that we can make sure the mental health system addresses the pandemic and the significant changes we face in our society and economy.