Beyond Blue’s call has been backed by experts from the Australian Psychological Society and the Black Dog Institute.
The service, which is already operating in some parts of the country, would effectively be free to clients, as the charge for sessions would be capped at the Medicare rebate. It would allow regional Australians with limited access to clinical professionals a first port of call for mild-to-moderate mental health issues.
Those identified as experiencing issues too severe to be addressed with coaching would be referred to psychologists and psychiatrists.
On Thursday, the national mental health body released figures showing two in three calls to the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service nationally were coming from Victoria, up from 43 per cent in June.
In the week to Thursday, there was a 21 per cent increase in visits to the organisation’s digital coronavirus support site; more than half of those were from Victorians, the highest traffic volume from any state or territory since the pandemic began. During the pandemic, 900,000 people have used Beyond Blue’s online support forums.
“Put simply there will never be enough psychologists and psychiatrists to service the mental health and wellbeing needs of all Australians,” said Georgie Harman, CEO of Beyond Blue.
“Part of the answer is scaling up the workforce of mental health coaches who provide evidence-based support to the hundreds of thousands of Australians with mild to moderate anxiety and depression.”
In July, when Melbourne and Mitchell Shire were back in stage three restrictions to limit the spread of coronavirus, contacts to Beyond Blue about anxiety spiked 50 per cent and contacts about depression doubled.
Associate Professor Grant Blashki of Melbourne University’s Nossal Institute for Global Public Health said low intensity mental health intervention through Beyond Blue’s NewAccess program had already been commissioned by public health networks in some parts of Australia (in Victoria, it is only available in Gippsland). Analysis showed most patients recovered after engagement with its mental health coaches.
A trial late last year of the NewAccess model by the national work health and safety and workers’ compensation authority Comcare was found by PricewaterhouseCoopers to have achieved a 78 per cent recovery rate. Fifty employees from two public service agencies were paired with NewAccess coaches to develop practical tools and strategies to tackle day-to-day issues contributing to mental health issues, including stress.
Dr Blashki said low-intensity coaching “has a great role” in meeting the surge in demand for support during the pandemic. “Particularly at the moment people are really having lot a of difficulties … we’ve got to pull out all stops to try and get people the assistance that’s going to help them. Many people don’t know about this option,” he said.
Australian Psychological Society president Ros Knight said Beyond Blue’s proposal was “fabulous” and would be a valuable part of a new escalating model of mental health treatment for Australians, being considered by the Productivity Commission.
“It’s going to really provide flexibility of support and assistance to the public,” she said. “In the current predicament things aren’t improving across large chunks of Australia; the more services we have the better and being able to tailor the level of intervention to what a person’s need is is a brilliant idea.”
Ms Knight said the cognitive behaviour therapy model used in low intensity coaching was ideally suited to people whose overall health is good but “their mental wellbeing is somewhat compromised” by stress such as that being experienced in the pandemic.
She said of the NewAccess model “that’s an absolutely awesome way to do it” so long as coaches were trained, with the help of the clinical supervisors, to pick up on when people were experiencing a more serious condition than should be addressed with clinical intervention.
Helen Christensen, director for the Black Dog Institute, said there was emerging evidence low intensity coaching was helpful but it would work best to scale if combined with digital support and some clinical support via telehealth, as a “blended intervention”.
“We recognise that 50 per cent of the population has psychological distress, which is a normal reaction [to the pandemic] and can be helped by all sorts of interventions,” Ms Christensen said.
“We have infrastructure set up to cope with the physical effects of the pandemic but we don’t [yet] have infrastructure set up to cope with the psychological effects that you can scale up to a population level.”
Dylan, a mental health coach at the only Victorian NewAccess service, in Wonthaggi, said low-intensity cognitive behavioral therapy coaching involves guiding people through exercises to help them reflect upon, reassess and manage issues they are experiencing.
“I’ve seen a lot of difference in the way people think about specific events in their life, and have the ability to reframe events and look differently at them, understand their triggers … it gives them the awareness to use strategies to understand and build capacity to manage [mild to moderate] anxiety and depression.”
Sign up to our Coronavirus Update newsletter
The Productivity Commission’s mental health inquiry report is due to be tabled in Parliament soon.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt last Sunday extended the number of Medicare-subsidised psychologist sessions from 10 to 20 following The Sunday Age campaigning for the increase in its editorial column that morning.
A spokesman for Mr Hunt said: “The Federal government has only two days ago announced an additional $12 million for pandemic surge support services including $2.5 million for Beyond Blue surge support capacity.
“This is the fourth stage of mental health support that includes an over $1 billion investment in Telehealth.”
Amy Thyer, 24, who lives with anxiety and uses some low-intensity techniques to moderate it, said she feels the pandemic has produced a level of anxiety for most people.
“Everyone’s affected by it, and everyone to some degree would be experiencing some uncomfortable feelings from time to time.
“Just talking about it makes it so much better; knowing you are not alone and just taking [the job of managing it] off yourself, knowing you can have a space where you can talk about it is really helpful.”
Wendy Tuohy is a Sunday Age senior writer.