A message from the NSW Mental Health Commissioner Catherine Lourey
If COVID-19 can be thanked for anything, it might be for creating an unprecedented focus on mental health and prompting the community to take stock of what counts when it comes to mental wellbeing.
Some wonderful things have occurred amidst the overload of bad and heartbreaking news, things that could ultimately bring us back as a more cohesive and resilient society, positioning us to better deal with mental illness and guide us on how to better support each other generally.
For context, let’s look back ten or fifteen years. If you were feeling out-of-sorts or living with depression or anxiety, you may have been likely to keep a lid on things for fear of stigma and isolation. You might have avoided reaching out for help or talking about your situation for fear or losing your job or having family and social networks think less of you. Suffering in silence, with no help or support, and maybe not even realising ‘that thing’ on your back was a mental health issue, your situation might have got so much worse. You might have lost your job and key relationships anyway. You might have turned to drugs, ended up homeless or gone to the darkest imaginable places.
Of course those things still happen, but times have certainly changed. These days we have people from across the spectrum of society opening up about mental health issues. Mental health is a national priority, with funding that couldn’t have been imagined in past years. Savvy education programs and initiatives mean more people know what the signs and symptoms of mental health issues are and how, when and where to get help.
So along comes wretched COVID-19, and mental health initiatives and awareness has been supercharged to another level, with mental health impacts being taken as seriously as physical, social and economic impacts. The Commonwealth and states have stepped up. For example, the NSW Government recently committed an extra $73 million for 180 additional mental health clinicians and peer workers and a suite of bang-for-buck programs delivering enormous cost-effective outcomes. Simple things such as a virtual technology to reach people in remote areas and more staff to help people in their homes (as opposed to hospitals) means a difference between people getting help early, and worlds of economic and social pain if individuals end up overwhelmed and unwell.
On the matter of extra support, it’s nothing short of inspiring to see peer workers - people with a ‘lived experience’ who have their own journey of recovery to where they can make a career of supporting others in need of help - stepping up across the mental health sector to do their bit. Who better to support those struggling than those with ‘insider knowledge’?
Awareness of mental health issues and early intervention are the biggest weapons in the fight. That phone call to a help line could result in the anxious young woman from a remote country town feeling more assured about her lot and being guided to support services that could be life-changing. That peer worker contact with the middle-aged man in the suburbs could be the difference between the man staying ‘on-course’ with clinical or counselling assistance, instead of falling through the cracks and cycling through hospitals and homelessness. That smile with an acquaintance in the street, that pleasant chat over the fence with a neighbour - at a time when mental health awareness is high - could be the spark that brightens your day or week, and gets you thinking that things might not be so bad.
The facts are almost half (45%) of adults will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives, and each year around one in five people will, but with the right information and support most will get better or go on recovery journeys resulting in fulfilling and meaningful lives.
Sure, what we’re going through with COVID-19 is extreme, with people being affected in different ways. But understand there’s nothing unusual about feeling unsettled or anxious in the face of uncertainty - that’s part of being human. If it’s persistent or debilitating though, take the next steps - talk to a friend, your GP, a counsellor, call a helpline or the 1800 011 511 Mental Health Line, a professional advice and referral service.
Thankfully, we’re far better informed and equipped as a society to deal with mental health issues. When we come through the other side of COVID-19, we’ll probably be another ten paces ahead, freer to engage with each other and have better senses of wellbeing and social connectedness.