In the shadow of Australia’s success at staying home and flattening the COVID-19 curve is the black dog.
“We need to continue to support others as they are at home because loneliness and anxiety, depression, they’re all real and they’re all potential consequences of the good things that people have been doing,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told Today this morning.
The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre (BMC) last week released its modelling of the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on unemployment, social dislocation and mental health, resulting in a “tragically higher rate” of suicide which may increase if the economy deteriorates further.
“The modelling shows that there may be a 25 per cent increase in suicides, and it is likely that about 30 per cent of those will be among young people,” it said in a joint statement with leading Australian mental health experts.
“We are facing a situation where between an extra 750 and 1500 more suicides may occur annually, in addition to the 3000 plus lives that are lost to suicide already every year.
“Such a death rate is likely at this stage to overshadow the number of deaths in Australia directly attributable from to COVID-19 infection.”
The statistic of 1500 deaths, being a more than 50 cent rise in suicides, was the result of a worst-case scenario modelling an unemployment rate of 15.9 per cent and youth unemployment at almost 35 per cent.
The official ABS unemployment estimate for April will be released on Thursday.
New suicide prevention modelling released today by the BMC focuses on the urgent actions needed to potentially save thousands of lives in a coronavirus-impacted Australia and will be considered by state and territory leaders at National Cabinet on Friday.
WHAT DID THE MODELLING FIND?
The centre focused on the NSW North Coast Primary Health Network, using the region’s 530,000 people and a combination of suicide statistics and productivity data to get an idea of the “national picture”.
The link between the mental wellbeing of Australians and our economic performance is “often overlooked”, co-lead of the BMC’s new Centre for Mental Wealth, Associate Professor Jo-An Atkinson, said today.
The modelling considered scenarios where specialised mental health services were increased by two to 11 per cent per year, based on pre-COVID-19 capacity.
Within that sector are mental health GPs, psychiatrists, allied health professionals such as specialist social workers and community mental health services.
Researchers found an eight to 10 per cent reduction in suicide, self-harm hospitalisation and emergency department (ED) presentations could be achieved by investment in a combination of specialised mental health services, IT-enabled co-ordinated care and post-suicide attempt “assertive after-care” such as active outreach and enhanced contact to someone after an attempt.
This investment hypothetically prevented 53 suicide deaths, 669 suicide attempts and 4516 emergency department presentations over five years in the NSW north coast region alone.
“This would translate over the five years to 2650 lives saved, 33,450 fewer suicide attempts and 225,800 fewer presentations to EDs nationwide (if similar conditions apply),” the centre said in a statement on Wednesday.
It also found that without urgent and effective action, up to half a billion dollars in productivity losses would be directly attributable to mental health and suicide in a “coronavirus-impacted world”.
BOLSTERING THE SYSTEM ACROSS THE BOARD
BMC co-director of health and policy, Professor Ian Hickie, wants to see mental health services strengthened with the same sense of urgency as ICU beds were more than doubled for the pandemic.
“In the same way that hospital beds and intensive care capacity were increased in preparation for COVID-19 cases, the national capacity to provide rapid and effective care for those with a mental health crisis can be increased immediately,” he said in a statement today.
“We now need to be smart about tackling the mental health curve.”
Last week, Prof Hickie told ABC 7.30 it had been “entirely possibly to actually predict deaths by suicide”, just as fatalities from the coronavirus itself were forecast, “by modelling those factors we know will lead to deaths, particularly in young people”.
“All of these have gone through the roof in the last six weeks,” he said.
Today, in regards to the latest modelling, he urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ensure young people do not suffer “lifetime consequences” of the economic downturn.
“The results show … different levels of investment in mental health programs and services will play a vital role in supplementing efforts to increase community connectedness and the social and economic supports required to help flatten this curve,” Prof Hickie said.
“We need to be proactive about mental health, and learn from the past but also look to the future.”
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NEW APPOINTMENT A ‘WATERSHED’ MOMENT
The federal government today appointed a deputy chief medical officer for mental health, Associate Professor Ruth Vine, previously Victoria’s chief psychiatrist.
“We take this very seriously,” Mr Hunt said.
“That’s why we’re trying to get ahead of the curve with mental health in just the same way we have done with the virus.
“We are certainly not out of the woods with the virus … but equally with mental health.”
Prof Hickie described it as a “most significant step forward” and said Dr Vine was an “excellent choice”.
“Greg Hunt has put mental ill-health on the same level as physical ill-health in the post-COVID-19 world,” he said.
“It’ll be a test of National Cabinet’s commitment to this,” he said.
Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Nieves Murray welcomed the announcement and wants to see immediate action as a result.
“Any meaningful response needs to take a whole of government, whole of community approach to suicide prevention,” she said in a statement to news.com.au on Wednesday.
“We hope that Ms Vine will move into her role quickly as we need action now to reduce the high levels of distress in our communities.
“We applaud the intention to develop a long-term plan to support mental health and wellbeing, but we also know there are people who are disconnected and distressed right now. These people need urgent support.”
Suicide Prevention Australia wants to see “safe spaces” established that give people in crisis an alternative to waiting in an emergency department.
“We also recommend at least one frontline officer in every Centrelink and tax office trained in suicide prevention so that vulnerable people making contact with government services can get the timely help they need,” Ms Murray said.
The Brain and Mind Centre is holding a free public webinar at 6pm AEST on Wednesday about active interventions to flatten Australia’s mental health and suicide curve post-COVID-19. You can register here.