The COVID pandemic will spark a new way of thinking and talking about mental health, Liberal MP Julian Leeser hopes, as suicide prevention experts warn the psychological damage of coronavirus will last for years.
Today marks R U OK? Day and World Suicide Prevention Day.
The campaigns take on extra significance in 2020 as attention turns to not only the physical effects of the pandemic but the hidden mental toll.
Patrick McGorry, of youth mental health organisation Orygen, said he feared lives lost to suicide could outstrip those lost to COVID.
Mr Leeser and Labor MP Andrew Leigh, co-chairs of a federal parliamentary ‘friendship group’ on suicide prevention, spoke to The New Daily about how coronavirus has shifted understandings of mental health, and how government can better support Australians.
‘An unstoppable trend’
Mr Leeser, Member for Berowra, used his 2016 maiden speech to Parliament to speak about his father’s suicide, calling mental health “a fight we are losing”.
He backed the government’s psychological support during the pandemic, including increasing Medicare-subsidised sessions, expanding telehealth and allocating funding into phone crisis services.
“Mental health was practically the first response in this pandemic,” Mr Leeser said.
“There was recognition the mental health effect of COVID is quite serious; whether uncertainties created by job losses, being under lockdown, not being able to see loved ones, or losing physical contact with people.”
From early in the pandemic, politicians and health experts held grave fears of spikes in suicide and self-harm.
Suicide statistics don’t appear radically different from previous years, but in Victoria at least, there is concern about the effects of prolonged lockdowns.
Victorian hospitals experienced a 10 per cent jump in self-harm presentations in July, that figure spiking to 33 per cent for under 18s.
Overall, Victorian health care had a 23 per cent increase in people presenting with mental health issues.
“The most important thing we can do for mental health is giving people some restoration of normal life,” Mr Leeser said.
The Liberal MP said R U OK? Day, coinciding with renewed fears about mental distress from the lockdown extension in Victoria, came at an important time – and urged people to talk about the problems they faced.
“I hope we’re on a trajectory of an unstoppable trend of people being more open about mental health issues,” he said.
Labor MP wants mental health out of the ‘silo’
Mr Leigh, the Member for Fenner, said the government had largely well-handled the physical health effects of the coronavirus but said more could be done on mental health.
“People are lonely, distressed, feel out of control. That’s a natural response, but it’s also about the uncertainty in the labour market, with people hanging onto jobs by the skin of their teeth,” he told The New Daily.
The MP was first touched by suicide in his 20s after a friend took his own life. Mr Leigh gave a eulogy at the funeral.
He called for “creative ideas” from governments to deal with COVID’s mental health toll, including better integrating psychological considerations into virus lockdowns and restarts.
“We need to think about the impact of mental health on unemployment, on the aged care response for people in those facilities, of kids who have been out of school. For too long, mental health has been in this silo,” he said.
“We need to apply a mental health lens to whatever the government does. When we look at JobSeeker and JobKeeper, we should think not only about what it will do to the economy but also mental health.”
Experts want ‘long-term help, not quick fixes’
Mental health experts have shared mixed reactions to the government’s support package so far – some describing it as “woefully inadequate”.
Marc Bryant, suicide prevention lead at LivingWorks Australia, feared the mental impacts of the pandemic may linger for years, saying the damage would not end when the immediate virus danger eased.
“People have been living through a collective trauma. People rally together while they’re feeling the trauma, and we don’t often see suicide rates going up at the time,” he told The New Daily.
“It’s not until after that people experience post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance, with suicide rates higher.
“It might be 18 months or two years before we see more signs of people not coping.”
Associate Professor Jo Robinson, head of suicide prevention research at youth mental health organisation Orygen, also raised fears of increasing self-harm down the track – pointing to the looming withdrawal of increased JobKeeper and JobSeeker benefits as a trigger for distress.
Professor Robinson called for the increased mental health funding to be locked in long term and expanded – not just kept for the pandemic.
“The pandemic hits hardest the people who were already the worst off. Both state and federal governments have done a good job, but there’s always need for more services, delivered faster,” she said.
“We need to be investing in our workforce to meet demand. The impacts will be long lasting. We need long-lasting help, not quick fixes. We don’t want money in a scattergun or piecemeal program. We need proper reform.
“We will need to rebuild the mental health and wealth of the country.”
Anyone experiencing distress can seek immediate advice and support through Beyond Blue (1300 224 636), Lifeline (13 11 14) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800).