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Mental health and the hidden death toll of COVID-19.

For 24-hour mental health crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. A trained crisis supporter is ready to take your call.

Australia has done an enviable job at squashing the epidemic curve of COVID-19. But as the National Cabinet begins to chart our way out of social distancing restrictions, there are urgent calls for it not to ignore another looming crisis in the process.

Mental health.

Modelling led by the University of Sydney has presented a stark warning about a possible surge in suicide risk in the wake of COVID-19, to the point that it could claim more victims than the virus itself.

Watch: Sadness versus depression.

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The research looked at the adverse impact of COVID-19 on unemployment, social dislocation and mental health in Australia, and found that there may be a 25 per cent increase in the number of suicides. Thirty per cent of those are likely to be among young people.

In a joint statement about the findings, released today, Australian Medical Association President Dr Tony Bartone, Co-Director of University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre Professor Ian Hickie AM, and the executive director of youth mental health research organisation Orygen, Professor Patrick McGorry AO, called for the cabinet to prioritise mental health and suicide prevention in their COVID-19 recovery plans.

“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,” they said.

“Such a death rate is likely at this stage to overshadow the number of deaths in Australia directly attributable to COVID-19 infection.”

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The modelling suggests that this higher rate is likely to persist for up to five years if the economic downturn lasts more than 12 months.

Those likely to be worst affected, according to the modelling, are: young Australians; those who live in rural and regional Australia; and those who live in areas hardest hit by job losses.

Listen: The entertainment industry has been hit particularly hard by lockdowns.

Nieves Murray, CEO of Suicide Prevention Australia, the national peak body for suicide prevention, echoed concern about the possibility of this secondary COVID-19 death toll.

“We know that at least 15 per cent of all suicide deaths aren’t connected with an established mental health issue, but are connected to distressing life events like losing a job, being in too much debt, being socially isolated or losing a loved one,” she said in a statement.

Flattening the mental health curve.

The mental health toll of the pandemic is already being felt by Australia’s frontline crisis services.

Calls to Lifeline have been at an all-time high since lockdown measures were imposed in March. In that month alone, the mental health service answered almost 90,000 calls for help, an increase of 25 per cent over the same time last year. For Beyond Blue, the spike is around 40 per cent.

Experts are concerned that the already struggling system is not equipped to cope if things get even worse.

“As restrictions on physical distancing and isolation are eased, Australia’s mental health system, already poorly designed and seriously under-resourced, must urgently be equipped with the capacity to respond to the expected dramatic increase in demand for services,” Dr Bartone, Prof Hickie and Prof McGorry said.

The trio called on the National Cabinet to adopt a number of measures to boost that capacity, including the appointment of a Mental Health Deputy Chief Medical Officer, and the expansion of youth mental health services and telehealth to support people in regional areas.

Calls for fast, whole-of-government action were also made by Suicide Prevention Australia, which offered its own recommendations on the back of the research, including the urgent adoption of a national suicide register. (Currently, data on suicide is patchy and slow; it can take up to two years for a suspected suicide to be officially investigated and recorded, according to the ABC.)

“Continuing to do the same thing, or more of the same, will not change the rate of suicide. We must think and act differently,” CEO Nieves Murray said.

“This means creating an environment where all parts of government work together to prevent suicide – tackling risk factors like unemployment, housing insecurity, and financial distress, rather than waiting until people in our community reach the point of crisis.”

The Federal Government tabled a boost to mental health services back in March, as part of a $1.1 billion coronavirus relief package. According to The Australian, that plan is currently being formulated and will be put to the National Cabinet next week.

Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
Kids’ Helpline: 1800 55 1800

The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It’s okay to feel this way, but it’s also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus – How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

Feature Image: Getty.

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