Former chief psychiatrist of Victoria Ruth Vine has been given the role to listen to community concerns and provide advice to the federal government, with a focus on anxiety linked to social distancing and economic stress.
“Her role is two-fold; one, obviously, through the course of the pandemic to add to the support we have for mental health and then secondly beyond that to look at the role of mental health in coordinating with the states, the territories and the Commonwealth,” Hunt told Sky News.
Vine will sit alongside Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, who recommended mental health be treated as a priority amid the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, commonly known as novel coronavirus.
Isolation, health issues, and economic anxiety can all “understandably have a huge impact on people’s mental health,” Hunt said. Loneliness and social distancing are now more common contributors to people’s mental health than before due to the CCP virus.
Australia began restrictive travel measures against the threat of the pandemic on Feb. 1 when it closed borders to China, leading to tougher social distancing orders domestically in the following month.
Restrictions have been psychologically trying for people. Mental health support and emotional assistance non-profit organization Lifeline saw a 25 percent increase of incoming calls, answering about 90,000 “calls for help” in March, equating to one call every 30 seconds.
Economic depressions have a history of having “demonstrated impact on mental health,” Hunt said in an interview with Sky News.
This is one of the reasons “why our goal is to get ahead of the curve on mental health just as we’ve done with the coronavirus, with the physical health treatment,” he said on 2GB Sydney also on May 13.
With the focus now on mental health, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has requested a “pandemic mental health plan” to be presented to the national cabinet on May 15.
Billion Dollar Boost for Medicare and Mental Health
The Australian government has provided $669 million to expand Medicare-subsidised telehealth services with an additional $74 million going to mental health support.
Health Minister Greg Hunt intends to expand access to telehealth services and make it permanent fixture post-pandemic. Telehealth is an online health-service where patients can reach health care professionals and access educational content. It covers all medical needs including consultation, as well as non-clinical services.
Since the CCP virus outbreak, there has been a big uptake of telehealth services, there have been “approximately 9 million telehealth consultations, since it was introduced” according to GP reports, a significant amount of those are for mental health reasons.
Telehealth has been a “service to people in their own home when they are potentially isolated when they might be lonely when they might have anxiety or pressure.”
Government modelling has forecast a 50 percent increase in suicide cases directly related to the economic shutdown and the associated distress.
The modeling also points to the possibility of suicides outstripping direct deaths from the CCP virus.
Government spending of $74 million will support mental health organisations Headspace, Beyondblue, Lifeline, Kids Helpline.
“We are planning, preparing, to try to get ahead, to provide the support,” Hunt said.
“All of these things are very, very important. The Black Dog Institute to help with our medical professionals, who’ve had heightened stress, heightened conditions.”