An abandoned Australian hospital has become the subject of a bidding war, with one applicant making a play to open a post-coronavirus mental health facility.
The proposed hospital and trauma centre at the former Warburton Hospital in Victoria aims to help healthcare workers, family violence victims and young people recover from COVID-19-related stressors.
It comes as a study released on Wednesday revealed doctors and nurses treating coronavirus patients in China suffer higher rates of anxiety and other mental health symptoms than the general population.
But it’s not only the wellbeing of healthcare workers at risk.
The Australian government is already bracing for a rise in deaths by suicide.
It is also preparing for a spike in mental health cases.
Last week, Victoria’s former chief psychiatrist Ruth Vine was appointed to the newly created role of deputy chief medical officer for mental health.
Her job will be to help lead Australia out of a looming mental health crisis sparked by rising unemployment, social isolation and coronavirus-related trauma.
Re-activating Warburton Hospital
Part of Australia’s recovery will require investment in mental health centres, said Moniquea Spiteri, founder and president of holistic health promotion charity Enveco Health.
The experienced trauma specialist is one of the bidders vying to transform the old private Warburton Hospital into a part-hospital, part-mental health and wellbeing centre.
Residents and local councillors in the Victorian town of Warburton have long been pushing for the state government to reopen the hospital.
Among the facilities at the decommissioned hospital, which opened in 1910 and has been closed since 2006, are 50 hospital beds, a high dependency unit and a 24-hour emergency department.
Sandro Peluso, healthcare and social infrastructure director at CBRE commercial real estate service, said “multiple offers” had been received by groups eager to refurbish or upgrade the existing hospital “for healthcare and social infrastructure use”.
“The buildings are so substantial and valuable that no one is going to bulldoze them,” Mr Peluso told The New Daily.
Under Enveco Health’s plans, the site would serve two functions: As a hospital with a small emergency department, and as a mental health and wellbeing centre where residents could live for up to 12 months.
Ms Spiteri said an increasing number of Australians were going to struggle with their mental health in the next 12 months due to the flow-on effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’re going to see young people and casual workers suffer mental health symptoms related to financial insecurity, and an increase in domestic violence and trauma-related symptoms of being in isolation,” Ms Spiteri told The New Daily.
“There is also an increasing level of social anxiety about coming back out into the community when it’s over.”
Determined to help Victorians cope with the fallout from the coronavirus crisis, Ms Spiteri said the old Warburton Hospital was the “perfect place” to establish a trauma and wellbeing centre.
“Everything is there that we need,” Ms Spiteri said.
“There is nothing else we’ve found in Victoria that is purpose-built to this standard.”
Mental health crisis
Already, the coronavirus pandemic has left tens of thousands of people traumatised around the world.
In China, where more than 30,000 medical personnel rushed to Hubei province to treat COVID-19 patients during the peak of the outbreak, many were confronted by scenes of dead bodies, devastated families and patients in severe pain.
In the study, 560 healthcare workers from 12 hospitals in eight provinces and cities across China completed an online mental health survey during the challenging months of January and February.
The researchers found that compared to the national average, doctors and nurses – especially those in Hubei province – scored higher on scales of obsessive-compulsive symptoms, anxiety, phobic anxiety, psychoticism and the physical manifestation of psychiatric conditions like headaches or back pain.
The researchers identified several factors that predicted mental health status, including whether a healthcare worker had worked in Hubei province, their level of fear that they had been infected, and their age.
Though Australia has suffered only a fraction of China’s coronavirus deaths and confirmed cases, nearly one million Australians have lost their jobs and many others have suffered abuse from violent partners in lockdown.
Earlier this month, Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles said he was “disturbed” by a rise in the number of family violence victims presenting to hospital with traumatic injuries.
Last week, the federal government announced $48.1 million of funding for mental health services amid fears the pandemic will take a wider toll on Australians.