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Call to expand Medicare-funded counselling as pandemic hits mental health

“We just can’t see a way that 10 is going to cut it this year,” she said.

Ms Knight, who is also a clinical psychologist, said research showed significantly higher levels of mental health-related problems were already emerging from the pandemic.

She said more of her clients were suffering from the isolation and social restrictions caused by COVID-19.

“This just seems to make 10 sessions pale into insignificance to address what’s happening to people at the moment,” she said. “I’ve had to hospitalise more people than I would normally.”

Health Minister Greg Hunt has been contacted for comment.

On Thursday the Australian Psychological Society released a statement saying loneliness was a growing problem in Australia, citing previous research that showed one in four people experienced loneliness before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms Knight said being lonely increased the chances of poor mental health.

“We know that loneliness lowers the level of psychological health, with sufferers reporting higher levels of depression, anxiety, social difficulties and loss of confidence.”

Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said the pandemic was having a profound effect both on people with mental health conditions and those who had not struggled previously.

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She said the nation’s response “must be ready for the task”.

“That response doesn’t necessarily mean more of the same,” she said. “We must use this opportunity to change some of the structural and service gaps in the system, especially for where people live and where the biggest need is.”

Ms Harman said more Medicare-subsidised sessions should be provided to people who need them, but the allocation should match each person’s need.

Headspace chief executive Jason Trethowan said there was an urgent need to provide more than 10 counselling sessions, particularly for people aged between 12 and 25.

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“COVID-19 is a disaster that’s unprecedented in our lifetimes and we are anticipating a rise in young people needing support for their mental health, both in the short and long term,” he said.

However, he praised the federal government for expanding access to telehealth while people were isolated in their homes due to social restrictions.

A joint statement issued by the Australian Medical Association and leading mental health advocates Professor Patrick McGorry and Professor Ian Hickie said the COVID-19 pandemic would probably lead to higher rates of suicide and mental illness.

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue’s coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

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