Mental health: a government priority

We know now that COVID-19 has affected both the mental and the physical health of Australians across the nation, and will continue to do so. The Australian government has clarified the priorities of their response to COVID-19; in the words of Ms. Christine Morgan, CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, “our mental health is as equally important as our physical health during this time.” This is echoed in the statement of the “The Commission’s Chair, Lucy Brogden […] ‘the mental health and wellbeing is a key pillar of the national response to COVID-19.”

Financial stimuli

What has been done? On the 29th of March, the government committed $74m to combating mental illness associated with coronavirus. It emphasised “awareness and prevention measures including a communications strategy on maintaining mental health during the pandemic”: “$10M to establish a COVID-19 support line and additional funding to expand existing support services”. Today, on the 15th of May, “The Federal Government says it will spend an additional $48.1 million on mental health following the National Cabinet’s adoption of a National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan”. In a nutshell:

  • $7.3 million will go towards collecting mental health data
  • $29.5 million will go towards outreach to vulnerable communities
  • $11.3 million will be spent on communication, including a national “it’s OK not to be OK” campaign

SUMMARY OF GOVERNMENT ADVICE

There are two key sources outlining the government’s advice on maintaining mental health during coronavirus: 

What is the nature of this advice? It’s obvious that there is an emphasis on basic, concrete and comprehensible chunks of advice: the website states that #InThisTogether is “a collection of simple and practical tips to support Australians’ mental wellbeing.” This seems to appeal to the “down-to-earth” Australian ethos.

Departing from the faceless use of social media 

The campaign urges people to “talk, don’t just type”. Implicitly, face-to-face verbal contact is considered more valuable for mental health than any faceless interactions. We are urged to “get creative in the ways [we] connect”, and much has been made of the use of technology to do so; importantly, the emphasis is on face-to-face contact through platforms like Zoom and FaceTime, not direct messaging.

This idea is also present in the government’s calls to reduce the intake of news on social media. One of the campaign’s slogans is “follow the facts: pause the scrolling”. They note that “incorrect information is easily shared, particularly via social media” and that “constantly tuning in to news about COVID-19 can be overwhelming, confusing and increase anxiety”. Obviously they want to maintain awareness, and we are directed to two websites to do so:

  • australia.gov.au
  • health.gov.au

The emphasis here is on shifting attention from impersonal online media to “reality”: other people and indeed our bodies and physical surroundings. Both websites promote physical exercise: a slogan of the #InThisTogether campaign is “get sweaty: exercise is great for your mental health.” The health.gov.au page fleshes out the sub-heading of “take breaks” with “step outside into the fresh air”.

VULNERABLE GROUPS

On the stimulus announced today, Ms. Christine Morgan stated “We also heard very, very strongly about the fact that there are particular vulnerable groups, and we need to meet the needs of those vulnerable groups.” Several have been identified. To the end of protecting them, the stimulus package from the 29th of March included specific measures. The emphasis is also on all Australians making an active effort to “reach out” those people “who are particularly vulnerable for different reasons”: this is a subheading on the advice listed on the health.gov.au website.

The financially vulnerable

  • Ms. Christine Morgan stated “we understand the impacts and consequences the virus is having on our lives, especially for those whose employment, financial, social and housing circumstances, and livelihoods are impacted”
  • A #InThisTogether slogan is “financial stress is real: talk about it”

Those with existing mental health issues

  • Lucy Brogden, Chair of the Commission (see beginning): “For those of us who already live with mental ill health we will need more support now from loved ones and from professional support services.” 
  • 29th of March package included “Continued support for a further 12 months for people with severe mental illness seeking to transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme”

Healthcare workers

  • 29th of March package included “a specific platform to support frontline health workers”
  • #InThisTogether slogan: “helpers need help too”

Further “targeted support for vulnerable Australians” in the 29th of March stimulus:

  • expansion of the Community Visitors Scheme and Older Persons Advocacy Network for our older Australians
  • expansion of headspace Digital Work and Study Service for our young Australians
  • additional counselling services for new and expecting parents through PANDA’s National Helpline
  • development of mental health and wellbeing resources for Indigenous Australians through Gayaa Dhuwi