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We're still at the start of the middle of this pandemic

Opinion

Despite the mental health challenges that lay ahead, Queenslanders are well-placed to stay resilient if we all keep looking out for each other, writes Queensland Health Director-General Dr John Wakefield

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For many of us, the easing of restrictions in Queensland was a very welcome return to being able to work, study, exercise, and to socialise more freely with our families, friends, and colleagues.

We are social creatures: it is an integral part of who we are and one of the key foundations of our mental health and sense of wellbeing.

As we approach 300 days since the start of the pandemic, so much has changed for so many of us. Changes that would have once seemed unimaginable seem almost normal now, and these changes are ongoing.

Once restrictions started being eased, many of us felt a sense of relief – that an end might be in sight. But we still have a long way to go. We’re are only at the beginning of the middle of this pandemic.

To get a sense of how the pandemic has affected us, and in order to provide helpful health and mental health information, research commissioned by Queensland Health asked Queenslanders what had changed for them during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between the April and September this year, two in three people said, “the way I socialise” or “travel or holiday plans”. These were higher proportions compared with those who reported changes in their work, shopping, finances, employment, or income.

Australians also made significant changes to their working lives during the pandemic, with nearly half (46 per cent) of all working Australians working from home in late April and early May, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). In mid-August, 33 per cent of Australians reported attending their workplace less often than before COVID-19.

These changes to work and socialising were a double whammy for many – not able to socialise freely with friends and family, and reduced or no face-to-face contact with work colleagues, school, or university or college friends. People living alone were more alone than ever.

Large-scale disasters like pandemics are almost always accompanied by increases in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and other mental and behavioural disorders. Domestic violence, child, and elder abuse also tend to increase.

Sometimes, it is only weeks and months after that the full mental health impacts emerge or are felt. For this reason, mental health experts fear an emerging wave of mental health and social issues.

The ABS reports that in mid-August, Australians reported experiencing feelings associated with poorer emotional and mental wellbeing: almost half (46 per cent) felt nervous at least some of the time; two in five (41 per cent) felt everything was an effort at least some of the time; one in four (24 per cent) felt hopeless at least some of the time; one in six (17 per cent) felt so depressed that nothing could cheer them up at least some of the time; one in six (16 per cent) felt worthless at least some of the time.

The mid-August results were consistent across Australia with no significant differences reported by people in Victoria when compared to the rest of Australia.

These impacts may not be spread evenly across the population. Right now, emerging evidence points to our young people, seniors, and those with pre-existing mental health issues being more affected.

Research conducted by Swinburne University based on a survey of more than 6000 people suggested that depression scores for 18- to 25-year-olds were almost four times higher than usual for that age group when first results came back in April. Scores for stress and anxiety were up almost as much. The study found that people with pre-existing mental health problems seemed to be particularly affected.

It’s not hard to find reasons why. Year 12 students have had their most important school and social year seriously disrupted. School leavers and recent graduates have found it increasingly difficult to find employment, as businesses shut down and the job market contracted. Young people have lost jobs. Those with parents who have lost jobs or businesses would be feeling those stresses in their families, too. Economic pressures can lead to relationship or family breakdowns.

Young people’s social lives were turned upside down. Those social lives became even more online – with all the pressures and mental health risks that that can entail.

At the other end of the demographic, our most-vulnerable-to-COVID-19 cohort, our seniors, have been worrying about their health while sometimes avoiding doctors’ visits for fear of infection. They also report experiencing more isolation and loneliness. Agencies like Anglicare report that single age pensioners are particularly affected.

Lots of struggle and loneliness out there. Even though we have returned to some semblance of work and school and social lives, there’s never been a more important time for us to check in with each other. Let’s see how we are doing. Let’s check in with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours. Let’s check in with anyone who seems to be struggling, be they familiar, acquaintance, or stranger.

If you are worried about yourself, or someone else, help is available. Please use this link to find a mental health support service in Queensland.

Queensland Health also has our Dear Mind campaign and online resources to help Queenslanders strengthen and maintain their mental wellbeing. You can find out why “me time” is important, find out about the six building blocks to strong mental wellbeing and find activities to support them, subscribe for regular wellbeing tips, and find links to other resources and support, including COVID-19-related information. The Dear Mind website is here.

Queenslanders are a resilient bunch. By looking out for each other, we got through the lockdown and the ongoing changes.

By looking out for each other, we can get through what the next year might hold, too.

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