Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard has urged people to reach out to mental health support services amid a $74 million funding package as families struggle to come to terms with isolation in the coming months.
In an exclusive interview with Nine’s 60 Minutes program on Sunday night, Ms Gillard, now chair of the mental health awareness organisation Beyond Blue which has received a $10 million funding boost, says the organisation has been swamped with calls, with one in three related to COVID-19.
Speaking from her home in self-isolation after returning from an overseas trip a week ago, she said: “We’ve actually seen levels already that are greater than what we experienced during the bushfires. It’s just telling you a fair bit about how anxious people are.
“It is normal to feel anxious. People do have to think about how they’re going to meet that anxiety, and make sure that it doesn’t snowball,” she told 60 Minutes.
“It’s the suddenness… that is what, I think, is snowballing people’s sense of insecurity. When so much has changed so quickly, it’s understandable that people are anxious about what’s going to happen next?”
Over the past week, there has been a 30 per cent increase in calls and emails to Beyond Blue’s existing 24/7 Support Service.
“This pandemic is having profound impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of many Australians – we are seeing that with our current services,” Ms Gillard said.
“People are looking for support to cope with the effects of widespread anxiety and uncertainty, self-isolation and loneliness, family stress, and business collapse, job loss and financial hardship caused by COVID-19.
Ms Gillard said she knew millions were hurting, and her advice to small business owners and employers was not to blame themselves for having to close their businesses and stand down staff.
“Don’t blame yourself, would be a really principle message,” she said.
“People would feel that burden on their shoulders. But you know, at the end of the day, the individual business owner did not cause this pandemic.”
She told 60 Minutes: “We’ll get through it together. We’ll get through it by working together to save lives,” she said.
“This is temporary. There will be the other side. But right now, let’s just do what we’re being asked to do and keep people safe.”
La Trobe University psychology lecturer Matthew Ruby says past research has linked isolation to a higher risk of depression, loneliness and anxiety.
He says the risk of those outcomes are even higher for people with disability, the elderly, people experiencing domestic violence, and those who had recently lost their jobs.
“It’s important to be kind to yourself by lowering the bar,” Dr Ruby tells AAP.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, don’t expect that you’re going to maintain your normal level of productivity, stay quite as active as usual, or always make ideal food choices.”
The online forum Coping during the Coronavirus outbreak discussion thread is already up and running and is attracting an average of 2000 views a day.
Mental health professionals will continue to be available on the Beyond Blue Support Service via phone 24/7 on 1300 22 4636 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3PM – 12AM AEST or email responses within 24 hours).