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There’s a covert crisis taking shape in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This secondary crisis is shaping up to be nearly as worrisome as the larger public health crisis that has been grabbing headlines all across Australia and the world. It’s a mental health crisis of epic proportions.

COVID-19 has brought with it a countless number of stressors that are adversely affecting Australians’ mental health. Many entrepreneurs have made the decision to either temporarily or permanently close their businesses; this has led to high levels of unemployment, which in turn has resulted in financial worries for significant numbers of Australians. Social isolation is another major cause of stress. Fear of sickness, and actual sickness, are additional factors contributing to a stressed-out, anxious state of mind for large numbers of Australians.

Collective solutions to the mental health crisis

Some aspects of this mental health crisis will require us to act collectively if we hope to put a swift end to it:

We need to train and deploy more qualified mental health professionals

Australia was already facing dire shortages of experienced mental health professionals before COVID-19 became an issue. In particular, shortages of mental health nurses, psychiatrists and school psychologists have been ongoing. In the wake of COVID-19, demand for virtually all sorts of mental healthcare has been spiking, exacerbating the shortages of mental health workers.

Considering the high rate of unemployment in Australia right now, it would make logical sense for some displaced workers to consider transitioning into careers in mental health. However, for most unemployed Australians, such a transition would involve making a substantial investment in education. Mental healthcare professionals do tend to have spent significant time and effort training for their vocations:

Psychologists

To become a psychologist in Australia, it is necessary to obtain university credentials including a postgraduate degree. A further investment of time must be made in completing supervised clinical practice.

Mental Health Counsellors

One must have proper training to become a mental health counsellor in Australia. This can be achieved by obtaining either VET training or a university degree. It is also possible to study a Master of Counselling or other advanced degree, although an advanced degree is not an absolute requirement to get hired as a mental health counselor in Australia.

Mental Health Nurses

Mental health nurses in Australia must first train as registered nurses, which involves studying a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Then to become a mental health nurse, it’s typical to either acquire specialist work experience in a mental healthcare environment or to study a postgraduate degree that would include relevant coursework in the field of mental health.

It’s vital that we train and equip many more mental healthcare professionals, including mental health nurses, counsellors and psychologists.

We need to ensure that mental healthcare receives adequate funding

In the past, there have been times when calls to help lines went unanswered. This was largely due to lack of sufficient funding.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, numbers of calls to help lines such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue have been dramatically rising. If we want these calls to reliably be answered, we need to ensure there is sufficient funding to pay our mental health counselors for responding to the calls.

We can use internet-based technologies to safely deliver mental health support and training

In-person meetings are not a necessity for facilitating the vast majority of mental health support and training consultations. It is therefore possible to administer beneficial mental health support using either the humble telephone or the currently-popular teleconferencing technology platforms such as Zoom and Go2Meeting.

Individual solutions to the current mental health crisis

These are a few of the things individuals can do to assist with putting an end to the current mental health crisis:

1. Help your elders and look after their needs

Our elders tend to be at the greatest risk of getting sick or hospitalised from COVID-19. If you’re able to go out for essentials, you could help to ease their burdens by offering to do some of their shopping and errands, too. Consider checking in on them periodically to make sure their needs are met.

2. Be alert for signs that your loved ones could need emotional support

Experts have been predicting that the numbers of suicide victims could surpass the numbers of deaths from the actual COVID-19 virus. Thankfully thus far, the reality hasn’t been as grim as the forecasters anticipated, with suicide rates having been relatively unchanged at the end of 2020. However, that doesn’t change the fact that many people are, indeed, extremely vulnerable to suffering from panic, anxiety, stress and depression right now. It is imperative that we look after each other and support each other through this troubling time.

Some people who intend to commit suicide display visible signals of their intentions. Be on the lookout for the most common signs that someone you love could be suicidal: If you notice emotional extremes, excessive tearfulness, abnormal shifts in their diet or sleep patterns, or self-destructive behaviours such as a dramatic increase in drug or alcohol abuse, those are some potential warning signs that all is not well. If any of your loved ones show these or other signs of needing emotional support, you can encourage them to seek help.

3. Raise awareness of the options people have for getting help

Anyone who needs help can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. Beyond Blue has also created a Coronavirus support service line at 1800 512 348. Kids who need help are encouraged to call the kids’ helpline on 1800 55 1800.

4. Limit your own exposure to bad news from the media

Of course, it is important to keep informed of the latest news regarding COVID-19. However, it’s also crucial to be cautious about overexposure to distressing media information. If you find that watching the news causes you to feel anxious and stressed out, it’s a good idea to simply turn it off.

These are some of the things we can do, collectively and individually, to fix the mental health crisis in Australia. Together, we can get through both the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting challenges to our mental health.

This is a sponsored article produced in partnership with Edith Cowan University.

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