The Federal Government is also concerned the number of people accessing Medicare-funded mental health services such as psychologists and psychiatrists has declined.
Christine Morgan, National Mental Health Commission chief executive and national suicide prevention adviser to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, announced the impacts at a press conference in Canberra today, noting the vast majority of people have found themselves in a “pressure cooker” situation.
She pointed to graphs showing a rise in answered phone calls and online chat conversations to Beyond Blue throughout March when COVID-19 lockdown measures and significant job losses were announced.
Ms Morgan said it was a 40 per cent increase in contact made to the anxiety, depression and suicide prevention organisation compared to this time last year.
“What we are seeing with respect to those calls is an increase in the distress levels and an increase in the anxiety levels and in the complexity of what people are feeling,” she said.
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THE CHALLENGES OF CONFINED LIVING
Ms Morgan said it was also concerning that, anecdotally, people “aren’t feeling as safe as they once did”.
“In talking to my colleague Georgie Harman at Beyond Blue … they are hearing stories of people not feeling safe. And I think this is a reality that all Australians need to address,” she said.
“I have said before that it is incredibly difficult to go behind closed doors to see what is happening in confined spaces, but we can look at the increase in calls to 1800 RESPECT, we can look at the increased calls … which we have also recorded, to Men’s Help Line.
“We know that this is happening, we know that people may be more challenged than normal to reach out for help, so I call on all Australians, keep your eyes alert for what may be needed.”
Data provided to the Government shows an increase in contact to sexual assault, domestic and family violence hotline 1800 RESPECT of 19 per cent on this time last year, or 11 per cent if frequent callers were excluded.
There was a 26 per cent increase in calls to MensLine with 18 per cent “specific to concerns about COVID-19”.
Ms Morgan said people are “finding it challenging living in confined spaces” due to social distancing measures.
“The most confined would be quarantine or required isolation, but for those of us staying at home, and that is the majority, the vast, vast majority of Australians, it is a pressure cooker,” she said.
“We are living with our loved ones. That doesn’t mean it is easy.”
According to the federal government’s presentation on Wednesday, there has been an increase in “proactive attention” to known perpetrators and those with DV orders by police “reported anecdotally in the media”.
‘SENSE OF LONELINESS’
On the flip side of a sense of confinement, Ms Morgan said another mental health issue that had emerged during the crisis was a “sense of loneliness”.
“For those Australians who live on their own, who actually cannot have that tangible reality of a hug from a loved one, we cannot underestimate the mental health impact that is having on our Australians,” she said.
“And of course, there is the worry – that is being addressed – but it is a worry, about the job security, housing security, employment security. Those issues.”
Ms Morgan said they had hoped to see an increase in the use of mental health services however “the reality is that, overall, there has actually been a decrease”.
The government data revealed that despite more than 1 million Medicare-funded mental health services being accessed between mid-March and mid-April, including to psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs and other providers, there has been an overall decline.
“Why we think that is happening is that, for those who would normally be using mental health services to support their mental health and wellbeing, or their mental health challenges, they are not actually going out and doing those visits,” she said.
This was partially addressed with the “pivot to telehealth”, she said, with half of Medicare mental health services now being delivered over the phone.
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The number of psychologists using telehealth had grown to over 50 per cent by April 13.
“It is working,” Ms Morgan said.
“But … this as a call out to all Australians, we did come into this scenario, we did come into COVID-19, with mental health challenges, many of us. We did come in with mental illness.
“You do still need to contact your mental health services. You can do it now through telehealth, you can do it through the digital services, but part of getting through this whole crisis is that we actually address our mental health and our wellbeing, so ReachOut will continue to do that.”
ReachOut Australia, an internet service for younger people including school and university students, reported a spike of 160,000 calls in March, rising from a low of just over 40,000 at the end of 2019.
Contact with the Government’s Head to Health service also skyrocketed, from under 10,000 calls in January but peaked at just under 90,000 calls in March.