Mental health issues are ubiquitous in contemporary life: the notion that mental illness causes suffering to individuals, relationships and communities is now widely acknowledged and less stigmatised.
What are the causes of rises psychological distress in the pandemic and what remedies are most effective?
Almost one in three younger Australians aged between 18 and 34 experienced high levels of psychological distress at the height of this year’s lockdowns. Compared to 2019, calls to Lifeline and Beyond Blue increased by 28% and 31% respectively this year, with Lifeline experiencing the highest number of calls in its 58-year history.
It is undeniable that the pandemic has a negative effect on psychological well being. However, COVID-19 is not the only risk to mental health.
Solely placing blame on the pandemic fails to consider the wider structural, economic and social conditions that are the root cause of increasing distress.
Economic hardship related to insecure employment, inadequate income and housing anxiety have all contributed to a rise in mental health issues over the last decade. These problems can easily be overlooked in the context of a pandemic.
Poverty and inadequate income substantially increase the risk of depression and mental health issues. For many people, especially the vulnerable and disenfranchised, the pandemic exacerbated already existing conditions that are highly conducive to generating psychological distress.
Addressing these original economic circumstances needs to be a priority moving forwards.
The Mental Health Think Tank that was set up last year, albeit with funding from the BHP Foundation, said cost-of-living pressures have been a major contributor to the rise in distress during the pandemic.
The body of 14 prominent experts in the think tank – which includes former Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry and former national mental health commissioner Professor Maree Teesson – argues that a re-establishment of last year’s boosted income support payments would be the most “decisive” action the Morrison government could take to improve people’s mental health.
Teesson told the Guardian that they interviewed more than 1000 people to determine the central influences driving mental distress. “Economic insecurity, unemployment and importantly the prospect of unemployment were key drivers in multiple studies,” Teesson said.
Despite the expanding public discussion of mental health since the onset of the pandemic, Teesson said the impact of financial stress was too often left out of the conversation.
The think tank has called for the restoration of last year’s financial support measures that were created as a response to the pandemic, including the coronavirus supplement for JobSeeker and for youth allowance recipients, as well as rebooting JobKeeper.
“This is absolutely the first and most decisive action the Australian government could take,” Teesson said.