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Australia must ‘prepare for mental health impact of pandemic’

Spike in stress-related problems will require innovative healthcare response, says academic

An increase in mental health problems remains a “hidden threat” of the Covid-19 pandemic and will lead to long-term economic and social problems for Australia, a Sydney academic has warned.

Richard Bryant, director of the traumatic stress clinic at the University of New South Wales, said the country’s mental health system must be prepared to deal with “a spike” in stress-related problems.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is causing unprecedented pressures on people around the world. Apart from the anxieties of infection, people are experiencing considerable stress arising from changes to work structure, unemployment, financial pressures, schooling, concern for family and the elderly, and social isolation,” he told an online forum.

“Prior pandemics such as SARS have shown that mental health issues spike during the outbreak, and more worryingly can lead to longer-term problems well beyond the pandemic itself.”

Bryant was launching this year’s Australian Mental Health Prize, which was set up in 2016 by UNSW to recognise outstanding work in research, advocacy or health services. It is awarded annually and acknowledges contributions of national importance in areas such as suicide, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“We need to remember that the hidden threat from Covid-19 is the long-term mental health effects resulting from economic downturns, with many people losing jobs, reduced income, and suffering poor financial security,” he said.

“There are some groups who are especially vulnerable to mental health problems during and after a pandemic, including health workers, those in quarantine and those infected.”

However, Byrant cautioned that it was important for health services to recognise the difference between mental health problems and “understandable stress reactions” to isolation, travel restrictions and social distancing.

“It is important to note that many of the stress reactions many of us experience during the pandemic are not necessarily a mental disorder but rather reflect understandable stress reactions to a severe situation. In this sense, many of the strategies that can be used at this time are those used to help people cope with ongoing stressors rather than mental disorders.”

He said the Covid-19 response would also require innovative strategies to deal with the social impacts of anxiety and “hugely increased numbers of people” seeking treatment from health services.

“These services need to adopt innovative treatment formats to accommodate social distancing, potentially large numbers of people requiring help, and targeting people who traditionally do not seek mental health assistance.”