Pandemic inequalities and the mental health crisis

December 18, 2021
Graphic: The Digital Artist/Pixabay

The harrowing global effects of COVID-19 have been accompanied by a crisis in mental health, with levels of psychological distress and demand for mental health services growing exponentially.

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 rising psychological distress in the pandemic and what remedies are most effective?

Almost one in three young Australians aged 18–34 experienced high levels of psychological distress at the height of the lockdowns in 2021. Compared with 2019, calls to Lifeline and Beyond Blue increased by 28% and 31% respectively in 2021, 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 past 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 forward.

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 the re-establishment of the increased income support payments introduced in 2020, as well as rebooting JobKeeper, would be the most “decisive” action the federal 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.

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