Mental health and COVID-19: are we really all in this together?

Mental health and COVID-19: are we really all in this together?

6 November 2020

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of Australians is not uniform and there are particular groups at risk of facing “a generation-defining disruption that will have a multi-faceted, long term impact on their lives”, Professor Patrick McGorry, the executive director of Orygen, has written in an editorial published online today by the Medical Journal of Australia.

Professor McGorry said there were particular groups of the population at major risk for a range of negative health and social outcomes including mental illness.

“These groups include marginalised and disadvantaged Australians; women and those living alone; the unemployed; and, in particular, young people,” Professor McGorry said. “Add to this the potency of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a recession, and the socio-economic inequality becomes blaring.

“We may all be in this together but some are further in than others.”

Professor McGorry said a survey during the first month of the pandemic confirmed that the initial mental health impact had been severe, and worse was coming. 

“More recent scientific models had predicted that Australians would face a second curve of mental ill-health and suicide. This has now clearly arrived,” he said.

“The thinking behind how to deal with the unique demands that COVID-19 has placed on our mental health response is outdated; a major effort to increase the capacity of our mental health system is required,” Professor McGorry said.

“The capacity of the mental health system, even before COVID-19, had been inadequate for responding to the demand, and the same system is now expected to respond to the surge in need for mental health care.”

So, what can be done?

“Policy makers must understand that this is not a routine disaster and that the COVID-19 pandemic calls for a very different approach. Economic measures to soften the impact of the recession, such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker have been welcomed,” Professor McGorry said.

“The global financial crisis showed how destructive austerity policies are, increasing inequality and social determinants of mental ill-health, as well as weakening the social fabric and democracy itself.”

Professor McGorry said the COVID-19 crisis had provided a unique opportunity to dramatically reform and strengthen the current system. This should include:

  • Shifting the centre of gravity of mental health care to local communities via integrated care hubs, an innovation that has been strongly supported by the Australian Government;
  • State governments releasing the governance of community mental health care from large hospital-centric health networks so that it is embraced and can be accessed by local communities; and
  • Federal commissioning of community mental health care being more coherent, guided by national evidence-based standards, with the goal of regional integration of services.

“We have been willing to turn our society upside down to flatten the COVID-19 curve, the same commitment is now required to flatten the mental health curve,” Professor McGorry said.

Hear more on the Medical Journal of Australia's podcast episode COVID-19 and Mental Health Care with Prof Patrick McGorry AO.