Pandemic's mental health effect

In search of the pandemic’s silver lining

Early concerns about the potential impacts on Australian’s mental health from the COVID-19 crisis have been supported by new data that shows the extent of the crisis’ effect on many who were already feeling vulnerable.

Jill Newby, Clinical Psychologist at the Black Dog Institute & Associate Professor at UNSW

The Black Dog Institute’s research that covers the early intense period of the pandemic shows that 78 per cent of respondents to an online survey reported that their mental health had deteriorated since COVID-19’s outbreak.

Levels of anxiety, depression and stress rose among the 5000 survey respondents, reflecting their worries about their own health, and particularly their family and friends.

But the way ahead may be with increasing the use of digital mental health programs to ensure those in lockdown can still get access to the support they need.

Survey participants who had a self-reported history of a mental health diagnosis had a significantly higher distress, health anxiety, and COVID-19 fears than those without a prior mental health diagnosis. The study found that uncertainty, loneliness and financial worries were reported in half of the respondents. There was 62 per cent of respondents who reported elevated levels of depression, a further 50 per cent who reported elevated anxiety and 64 per cent elevated stress levels.

The crisis-driven lockdown has increased many Australians’ physical isolation as well as adding significant economic burdens, related to job security and its attendant risk to mortgages and rent. The adoption of precautions, including handwashing or using hand sanitiser was common but the study found that higher engagement with such hygiene was associated with higher stress and anxiety.

The research study concluded the results showed the “serious acute impact’’ of the pandemic and the “…need for proactive, accessible digital mental services to address these mental health needs, particularly among those most vulnerable, including those with prior history of mental health problems.’’

“Digital interventions, which have been shown to be highly effective and cost-effective for depression and anxiety treatment will be crucial to respond to these ongoing mental health concerns, as they have capacity to deliver high-quality interventions for distress at scale, and to those in social isolation who are unable to attend face-to-face services,’’ the study’s report observes.

The study’s lead author, Associate Professor Jill Newby - who is a clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute and the University of NSW, said there were already some digital support programs available. The Black Dog Institute offers a free self-help digital mental health program called My Compass, but Assoc Prof Newby believes there are still more opportunities to tap in technology, to support people dealing with mental health issues, and to act as a stepping-stone to more specialised clinical care.

There will be an additional study to help identify how proactive respondents are in coping with the lockdown, canvassing how much time they spent exercising, being socially connected and the hobbies or personal projects they took on to fill in their time.

Not everyone has been able to embrace those options. Assoc Prof Newby explains that some people who are depressed struggle with motivation and exercise is not an easy activity to consider. Others will suffer with a kind of grief, at the absence of the activities they enjoyed before lockdown, especially if those activities were central to their sense of self. “All those things are OK,’’ she says, “we have to acknowledge that it’s normal to feel like that.’’

Complicating the overall picture is the explosion of information about the virus and its real (and sometimes false) origins and consequences. “There’s been an information overload,’’ Assoc Prof Newby says. “It was all very confusing at the start of the pandemic and it’s been all-consuming. The key is to be informed but not too obsessed: that can breed anxiety and fear. We do need to develop a critical faculty.’’

Further study will also reveal some of what Assoc Prof Newby refers to as the “silver lining’’ of the situation – a closer connection to our community and our neighbours, a greater empathy with others, and a slowing down, changing gears from the fast-paced work, family and social commitments.

But the question is how long will that silver lining last? And what happens to all of those shifts in thinking during a second spike of the virus?

Assoc Prof Newby believes it’s difficult to know how a new outbreak will impact on vulnerable Australians. Uncertainty can provoke anxiety, and it may become a matter for many people to try to manage their negative thoughts. On the other side of the equation, she will trust the research to reveal how many Australians maintain the “silver lining’’ behaviours in the post COVID-period. She remains optimistic that Australians are resilient. “It’s a tiny number – 7000 Australians have had the virus, out of 24 million,’’ she says.

Black Dog Institute

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