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‘These things can build up’: $48m for COVID-19 mental health plan

“We have had people disconnect from services … and we have had people really challenged with accessing services,” Ms Morgan, who heads the National Mental Health Commission that drafted the plan, said on Friday.

“We do need to look at things such as risky behaviour that so many of us are engaging in to try and cope with the pandemic … those health issues associated with substance use and substance abuse, gambling [and] domestic, family, sexual violence.”

The 51-page National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan said the pandemic might exacerbate existing mental health conditions or give rise to new ones. Those with existing conditions were “especially vulnerable during emergencies”.

Research to date showed people were reporting feelings of despair, fear, anger and boredom linked to the pandemic as well as problems with alcohol, illicit substances and gambling.

Mr Morrison said 957,000 mental health services had been delivered over the past four weeks and the number of people accessing services had stabilised to pre-pandemic levels.

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But Ms Morgan said reaching out to vulnerable Australians would be crucial in avoiding a spike in suicides. Modelling by Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre last week suggested the pandemic could result in a 25 per cent increase in suicides over five years, based on an unemployment rate of 11 per cent. The official unemployment rate jumped to 6.2 per cent last month as almost 600,000 people left the workforce, and the Reserve Bank expects it to be 10 per cent by the end of June.

“We will significantly improve the data so that we can be much more informed,” Ms Morgan said. “We need to be where people can access services. We need to be where people live. We need to be where people learn. We need to be where people work.”

Mr Hunt said while no rise in suicide rates had been recorded in the initial four months of the pandemic, efforts were being made to “get ahead of the curve”.

“We watch very carefully … because these things can build up. They can brew. People can dwell,” he said, adding “anybody can feel the stress of mental health … in unprecedented times”.

Brain and Mind Centre co-director, psychiatrist Ian Hickie, said Friday’s announcement was a step in the right direction but there was not yet “the right scale of investment” to tackle the nation’s mental health challenge.

“We could easily face at least a 25 per cent increase in suicides in this country because of the job losses … the 600,000 additional Australians out of work,” Professor Hickie told the ABC.

He said the way Medicare funded mental health should be overhauled from the current system of allowing rebates for 10 psychologist sessions a year, to support teams of GPs, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists delivering integrated care.

“We’ve got stuck in a very 1950s model of psychology delivery and psychiatry delivery of individual sessions,” Professor Hickie said.

Beyond Blue chief executive Georgie Harman said the mental health system was in need of “profound” change and called on government to “reshape the system so the people who need support have options that match their needs”.

If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact Lifeline 131 114, or beyondblue’s Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service at coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au or 1800 512 348.

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