Crocodile tears on mental health

17 September 2021
Simone White

Australian politicians and business leaders have very suddenly become interested in mental health. It’s not the kind of interest we’re accustomed to—hollow weasel words, patronising gestures like RUOK day or bosses badgering workers to “take responsibility” for their wellbeing by doing mindfulness and yoga in personal time they don’t have. Instead, it comes with a clear action plan: “live with covid”.

According to this plan, re-opening the economy and ending lockdowns must happen for the sake of our mental health. Never mind the mental health impacts of the deaths that will result, or the mental and physical trauma that will be inflicted on health workers in grossly under-resourced hospitals. And never mind the impact of potentially life-long disabilities associated with long-covid, or the effect on unvaccinated children who, returning to school, risk contracting the virus and spreading it to vulnerable relatives.

The deep cynicism and shameless hypocrisy of federal and state politicians and business leaders pretending to care about the mental health of workers is sickening. The state of the public mental health system, which they are responsible for, has been in crisis for more than a decade. Workers, students and the poor who come into contact with it know the system is struggling to cope. This criminal lack of support has never worried the anti-lockdown hand-wringers before.

I am a mental health professional on the frontlines, and have been for 24 years. Everyday my colleagues and I contend with the appalling state of public mental health “care” in Australia. The problems are not just a product of the pandemic. Patrick McGorry, Professor of Youth Mental Health at Melbourne University, recently described how the mental health sector “was already woefully unable to meet the level of need for care even prior to the pandemic”.

Ask any mental health worker what that looks like and they’ll tell you: there are no hospital beds for people who have tried kill or harm themselves, prisons are filled with young men with serious health and substance use problems, Indigenous youth who need help can’t access it, and parents with severe burnout trying to look after kids with complex and life-threatening illnesses can’t get the care they and their children need.

Frequently in mental health emergencies, there is just no help available at all. Speaking to the ABC in August, Professor McGorry detailed how he had spent the previous weekend trying to find a bed for a young woman in Victoria at high risk, but was not able to find one. He is the executive director of the Orygen Youth Health service and a former Australian of the Year. If he can’t find a bed for a critically unwell and at-risk young person, who can?

Ask any one of the thousands of mental health workers, nurses, paramedics and other health workers about their experience and they will tell you heartbreaking stories of people who cannot get the help they need, both now and before the pandemic.

This takes a toll on the workers themselves. There are constant reports emerging in the mainstream media about burnout and breakdown of health staff in Melbourne and Sydney in the face of the COVID-19 onslaught. There will be more trauma impacts and severe burnout as the crisis unfolds. It happened in Victoria’s outbreak last year—we know nurses have been leaving the profession, resigning or taking significant time off. Recovery from trauma and burnout is possible, but at a minimum people need time out for stabilisation and restoration and some will need specialised support. For this to happen, there needs to be leave available and other workers able to replace those taking time off. Otherwise, the burden on others is intensified and there is pressure on workers to resume work before they are ready. But there is no indication that those in charge are preparing for this eventuality.

The workload on mental health workers is only becoming larger. Calls to Lifeline have increased by 40 percent compared to two years ago and calls to Beyond Blue are up 30 percent since the start of the NSW outbreak. Patrick McGorry in the Saturday Paper reports there is an overall 30 percent increase in demand for youth mental health services. Waiting lists for therapists and counsellors in Melbourne and Sydney have blown out, with many waiting six months for an appointment.

Liberal governments are keen to put this down to the strain of lockdowns, and to use it to aid their relentless campaign to reopen. Lockdowns are of course difficult. Human beings are socially and neuro-physiologically wired for connection. When we feel alone, abandoned and that our survival is at risk, we suffer.

But it’s as much about how lockdowns are implemented that make them difficult to cope with, rather than that they are implemented at all. A new mental health think tank comprising 14 mental health experts across Australia recently reviewed the literature about the drivers of mental distress during lockdown. Speaking to the Guardian, Professor Maree Teesson said they found, “Economic insecurity, unemployment and importantly the prospect of unemployment were key drivers in multiple studies”. The first policy paper of this think tank has called on the government to urgently reintroduce the coronavirus supplement for jobseeker and youth allowance participants.

It’s a no-brainer that financial security along with a range of other properly-funded community, therapeutic and social supports help people get through lockdown. As does the sense that the effort is collective and worth making to prevent deaths. But all that is currently missing, and it’s exactly what those who profess to care about mental health don’t want to provide. They’d rather force us to accept the virus than provide the resources needed to eliminate it.

There is plenty that could be offered to people to greatly reduce, or even stop mental distress, even in prolonged lockdown situations. But it won’t come from our governments or the 80 CEOs of Australia’s largest businesses who signed an open letter to government in September imploring them to stop lockdowns and open up the economy.

These are the people who have been savagely gutting health and social services for decades and who refused to lift unemployment and welfare payments, even after almost three decades of uninterrupted growth in the Australian economy.

To improve our collective mental health, a struggle against the priorities of the cynical hypocrites who are weaponising mental health to protect their profits is sorely needed.

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