How to access mental health support during the time of coronavirus

People are seen walking with face masks on to prevent virus infection. Source: AAP

For those who receive regular mental health support, and for those seeking assistance for the first time, the coronavirus has presented some difficulties – but mental health services are rising to the challenge.

Australia’s mental health services are dealing with something they’ve never seen before - COVID-19 and the effect that’s having on Australians’ psyche.

There are “a breadth of problems that this current situation throws up,” according to Ros Knight, the president of the Australian Psychological Society and a practicing clinical and counseling psychologist.

“Everything from the average person in the street who really life has gone along reasonably well for and all of a sudden they’re finding themselves anxious and stressed trying to deal with this situation and perhaps not used to feeling like that and not knowing what to do with it,” she explained.

“All the way through to people with significant mental health issues being triggered by the current context depending on what sort of mental health issues they have, through to people being isolated in their own homes and feeling lonely.”

Preparing for high demand

Knight said while they’ve seen an increase in people seeking mental health support due to COVID-19, psychologists have reported seeing a decrease in their regular customers who are cancelling their appointments, choosing to wait until things settle down before resuming.

But Knight said if things stay as they are for an extended period of time, the industry is bracing for a surge in demand.

“Most of my colleagues and I are going to step up to the plate and deal with the influx as best as we can. Government is obviously looking at other models and trying to expand the workforce perhaps by using provisional psychologists and things like that,” she explained.

“We’re just currently working through ways of adapting if that surge does happen.”

Insight talked to NSW Australian Medical Association President, Dr Kean-Seng Lim, for some general advice about the coronavirus.
Insight talked to NSW Australian Medical Association President, Dr Kean-Seng Lim, for some general advice about the coronavirus.

How to access help

Knight explained that many of her colleagues are still offering face to face appointments, while enforcing physical distancing, practicing proper hygiene and undertaking thorough cleaning of their offices. She stressed this may change in the coming days and weeks.

For patients and practitioners who are self-isolating or at high risk of COVID-19, Telehealth services are being offered. ‘Telehealth’ lets practitioners offer their services via different technologies such as Skype, phone calls, Zoom video conferencing and more.

“For most people that can feel almost the same as coming in face to face and there’s really good evidence that it works for most issues for most people,” Knight said.

What are the costs?

Knight said for face to face appointments the costs have stayed largely the same, some health insurers offer rebates on psychological services, depending on your level and type of cover. But for those using Telehealth, sessions are bulk-billed only, so there is no cost to the consumer.

Knight said patients are still required to get a mental health plan from their general practitioner (GP) before accessing services. If you have a mental health care plan, you will be entitled to Medicare rebates for up to 10 individual and 10 group appointments with some allied mental health services in a year.

“I would absolutely suggest that people phone their GP ahead and try and find out what the GP practice is doing about that process.”

“Be willing to be flexible, it may be that your usual GP can’t do it but maybe there is another practice around that can do it.”

Top five tips for managing your mental health in the time of COVID-19

Knight has these suggestions to help people deal with stress and anxiety that may be brought on by COVID-19.

1. Acknowledge anxiety. Knight encourages us to recognise that anxiety is normal; it’s a response to threat. She suggests acknowledging that you may feel anxious but that you don’t need to make decisions based on anxiety. Knight explains that it’s better to pause, take time to calm down and then think about the decisions you need to make which may be about what you need to buy from the supermarket or appointments you need to make. “With anxiety you shouldn’t let it drive, take time to step back.”

2. Maintain a level of normalcy. Knight said it’s best to maintain as much of your normal lifestyle as possible. She suggests finding ways to have a routine so going to bed and getting up at normal times, communicating with friends via the phone or video calls, eating healthy meals, limiting alcohol, exercising regularly, practicing meditation and getting enough sleep. “Set yourself up to live, not just to survive.”

3. Set goals. Knight suggests trying to set yourself some projects and targets. “To a certain extent society does drive a lot of our projects and at the moment that is less clear,” she explains. So if you are stuck at home Knight said it’s time to get into something you’ve always wanted to do – finish that series of books, that series of videos, paint those walls. By doing this “it feels like at the end of it there will be a sense of achievement over something rather than just having survived.”

4. Have fun. In these challenging times Knight said humor, enjoyment and fun is all very important. Whether you share funny videos of your pets, or have remote parties with friends, it’s important we still do things that give us joy.

5. Keep COVID-19 in its place. As the situation, and government advice, surrounding COVID-19 changes, Knight acknowledges that it’s important people keep across vital information, so do check in a couple of times a day. Beyond that Knight said we don’t need to be online constantly getting the latest updates from around the world hearing how horrible it is. “Keeping COVID-19 in perspective that is absolutely crucial for peoples mental health on a daily basis.”

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyond Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.