The invisible health concern Australians face in the coronavirus pandemic and how to get through it

Mental health is of great concern as measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak significantly impacts the lives of Australians. Source: Getty Images

Mental health services in Australia are experiencing a noticeable increase in people reaching out for help and say it is a normal reaction to feel anxious amid all the uncertainty.

As measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak fundamentally change the way Australians live, work and socialise, there have been concerns about how it is impacting mental health.

“There are certainly people who are recognising that their emotional health and wellbeing is being affected by the current situation,” MindSpot Executive Director Professor Nick Titov told SBS News.

Professor Nick Titov Director of Mindspot
Professor Nick Titov Director of Mindspot

“The reaction most of us are having, and we’re all affected, is for the most part completely understandable given the circumstances.”

MindSpot, an online mental health clinic associated with Sydney’s Macquarie University, is one of many mental health organisations including Kids Helpline, Beyond Blue and Lifeline that have reported a significant rise in calls and visits in the last two weeks.

“We have been operating for seven years and this is certainly the period of highest usage and highest sustained demands we have seen,” Professor Titov said.

The economic impacts of the health crisis has also created great uncertainty for many Australians, with businesses forced into what the government is calling "hibernation" and thousands of citizens accessing Centrelink support.

“There are quite a large number of people reaching out to us, not primarily because of mental health reasons or concerns but because they are seeking guidance signposting.”

The importance of mental health services was recognised by the federal government by its inclusion in the $1.1 billion funding package announced last week.

“I am very aware many Australians are understandably anxious, stressed and fearful about the impacts of coronavirus and what it brings," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said when making the announcement.

"We will get through this crisis by staying together, by supporting each other and ensuring that no Australian, even though we have to be isolated, should have to go through this alone."

But as the spread of the disease continues in Australia, social distancing measures have progressively tightened, leaving some like Romy Cole-Groth to become more secluded from her support networks.

25-year-old Romy Cole-Groth from Sydney
25-year-old Romy Cole-Groth said her anxiety has also grown as she becomes more concerned with the health of her loved ones.

Ms Cole-Groth, 25, suffers from an autoimmune disease and on medical advice was told to stop working and remain at home.

“Health anxiety and social isolation is the norm for people like me who deal with chronic illness and disability ... we have innate resilience and whilst we experience health anxiety, these social conditions are nothing new for us,” she told SBS News.

But Ms Cole-Groth, who lives in Sydney’s inner-west, has grown anxious by her possible exposure to the coronavirus as she receives her regular treatment in hospital.

“You can imagine it makes me anxious having chemotherapeutic treatments a hallway across from COVID testing.”

“The health threat is very real for those of us on cytotoxic medications. In the past seven days, I have been to hospital three times - twice through emergency and once to receive my biologic medication intravenously. I cannot control when complications unrelated to COVID-19 arise for myself and I need treatment in hospital.”

Lucy, a 27-year-old from western Sydney, is likewise becoming more anxious by the current climate after seeing the social and economic impact of the virus.

“It sunk in when my friends started to lose their jobs, and a dance studio I went to had to shut down … and then when I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to be able to hug my parents for months, maybe a year.”

Lucy, who was clinically diagnosed with anxiety seven years ago, said the current social distancing measures have meant her regular coping strategies to lower her stress levels are also being impacted.

“I have spent years understanding my anxiety and strengthening my coping strategies [but] it’s hard when most of these coping strategies are affected by COVID-19 [containment measures], like going for walks, going to the beach and swimming ... But I am developing workarounds to stay on top of it.”

Trying to redevelop healthy habits and routines is one way people can try to stay mentally healthy, say experts.

“We’re naturally trying to find our new normal and redevelop healthy habits and routines, given the restrictions,” MindSpot Executive Director Professor Titov said.

“One of the starting points is to recognise that we’re actually in an abnormal situation so to have really strong reactions is completely normal, and we have to be quite gentle and kind to ourselves and those around us.”

MindSpot, along with Beyond Blue, have developed strategies to help people during these uncertain times.

Among these, Professor Titoy recommends breaking out of the constant cycle of coronavirus news, doing physical activity within the current confines and trying to manage negative thoughts.

“A lot of these skills are really about challenging cognitions around helpful thoughts, about actually maintaining healthy habits and routines, and also skills which are around ensuring that people stay socially engaged with other people appropriately given the circumstances, which can maintain emotional resilience and wellbeing.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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