COVID-19 and mental health what have we learned?

Swinburne’s Centre for Mental Health (CMH) hosted its annual Hope seminar on Friday 16 October 2020. This year’s event focused on the theme “Managing serious mental health disorders: What has 2020 taught Australia?” and featured an afternoon of talks from experts at the centre.

This year’s Hope Seminar was held virtually for the first time in response to COVID-19 restrictions.

No health without mental health

Director at the CMH, Professor Greg Murray opened the event with his talk focussing on the lessons learnt from 2020 as well as CMH’s highlights for the year.

“The biggest takeaway from 2020 so far is the spotlight it has placed on mental health,” says Professor Murray.

“We are seeing more nuanced discussions as well as an appreciation for mental health and wellbeing. There is also reduced stigma around mental health issues as a result of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns,” he adds.

The Federal Government has doubled their investment in Medicare rebates for psychological services, providing Australians much better access to mental health services. These shifts have propelled the CMH to collaborate with industry partners to further research into developing monitoring systems through digital devices.

Most recently, the CMH have partnered with Readiness Pty Ltd to improve the identification and treatment of mental health issues in organisations across Australia, and SiSU Health Group to expand their health measurement stations to include mental health.

“COVID-19, with all its challenges has also provided us with opportunities to collaborate and further our work in the mental health space,” Professor Murray concludes.

The telehealth revolution

Professor Murray was followed by Director of the National eTherapy Centre (NeTC), Associate Professor Neil Thomas. NeTC runs Swinburne’s Mental Health Online (MHO) initiative. The MHO team developed how-to guides to help mental health practitioners set up for remote consultations back in March when the COVD-19 lockdown began.

“Telephone and digital mental health services have always been a component of Australia’s mental health system. Services such as Lifeline and Mind Spot have been in place even before COVID-19 happened,” says Associate Professor Thomas.

However, COVID-19 has led to the widespread adoption of telehealth services as a medium to deliver mental health services and this has brought about various challenges and opportunities.

Telehealth has made it possible to engage groups who are geographically dispersed and acted as an equaliser in the power imbalance between the clinician and the client.

This shift has led to some challenges, namely digital divide issues as well as staff wellbeing and zoom fatigue on the part of the clinician.

Nevertheless, the telehealth revolution has also brought about many opportunities. “We are exploring the efficacy of blending different support services, including a therapist-assisted self-guided model,” Associate Professor Thomas explains.

What is the data telling us?

Senior Research Fellow at the CMH, Dr Andrea Phillipou, is part of the Swinburne research team that has been tracking the mental health of Australians through the ‘COVID-19 and you’: Mental Health in Australia now (COLLATE) project. Dr Phillipou has previously authored a paper looking into how Australians’ eating and exercise behaviours have changed as a result of COVID-19.

Her talk focused on the findings from the COLLATE study, specifically on how Victorians have been coping with COVID-19.

“The impacts of COVID-19 has been quite widespread, it has changed the way we work, live and socialise,” says Dr Phillipou.

“Through the COLLATE project, we have been able to observe how Australians are reacting to COVID-19 during its many stages, for instance, we found that younger people were experiencing more stress, anxiety and depression during the early stages of COVID-19,” she adds.

The online survey opens for 48 hours at the beginning of every month and the questions are continuously updated to reflect the changes as COVID-19 progresses.

“In Victoria, specifically, we saw an improvement in the quality of life, followed by a slight dip in August, associated with the implementation of the second lockdown. However, the data tells us that hopefulness is starting to pick up again in September, which is encouraging,” she explains.

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