What will be our COVID keepers beyond the pandemic?

I was recently asked three seemingly simple questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the mental health of all Australians in 2020. Three questions to try and highlight just how this global pandemic has impacted us all, and how it may endure when it comes to the mental health of our nation. And it will.

Those questions were, and still are:

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt?

What will you stop doing?

And, what will you keep doing?

I’ll begin by answering what we are going to keep doing. We all know we have to keep doing more of what we’ve been doing for decades, but with more agility, more intensity, and much, much more care for us all. 

And I say care because we have to keep actively listening more to those at the heart of our mental health ecosystem. The people with a lived experience of mental illness and the friends, family and loved ones who care for them.

We have to put people at the centre of what we need to advocate for and achieve, and keep the ideas, services and success stories in our system. If our system is to expand and help the increasing numbers of people who will need it over the coming days, months and years, then we need to listen now to those who are at the centre.

People who may never have engaged with the mental health system if not for the pandemic, and people who will be in need of a range of supports and help, just like the many who were already using or needing the mental health care system.

… no doubt COVID has been a catalyst for change.

We also have to remember that when the pandemic began, we weren’t starting from a perfect system by any means. Early advice from the mental health service system has identified that where there were already inequities and access issues, these have been further underlined or exacerbated by COVID.

But there’s also no doubt COVID has been a catalyst for change. To see telehealth go from basically a series of small pilot programs to a fully functioning and viable option nationally, in what felt like just days back in March and April, was our first clear sign that the pandemic was going to change mental health care and service delivery.

Clearly we have to keep the ramped-up telehealth services that we now have, but more than that, we have to learn from the last six months and take that evidence to tailor new and improved programs that complement existing structures and service delivery options.

There is also consensus for the need to think about telehealth more broadly than just doing the same thing, a different way. We need to understand why people would choose to use it, was it working for both the provider and the recipient of services, how access to technology and connectivity issues affect people’s use of telehealth, and what feedback from those who receive and deliver services and results were being identified that could inform improvements.

Similar to the advances that were made with telehealth, wouldn’t it be great if when we are able to look back on the coronavirus pandemic, we can say ‘WOW! What a game changer it was for homelessness in our community and for real policy and procedural change.’  In fact, wouldn’t it be great if we could say the same for many of the social determinants of mental ill-health, and for those people most impacted by disadvantage in our communities.

There are those who are always more at risk of missing out…

It’s not as simple as getting telehealth up and running, and thinking that will solve everything, especially for those who were already vulnerable (the elderly, youth, those who live in rural and remote settings, the homeless, the unemployed, those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, those in the LGBTIQ+ community, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples). There are those who are always more at risk of missing out, particularly when services rely on active and informed help-seeking capacity, or are in remote, rural or less affluent areas.

At Mental Health Australia our vision is for mentally healthy people and mentally healthy communities. To strive for this goal we work with our more than 120 members representing 1,250 organisations to advocate for improvements in mental health policy and service provision.

We do so agnostically and for all, and while our focus has often steered towards mental illness and  services, for many years we’ve also talked about the impact of social determinants of mental ill-health, and how crucial they are to the overall health of our nation. A fact we not only have to acknowledge, but act on if we are to learn anything from COVID.

You only have to look at the success of JobKeeper and JobSeeker in providing people with some financial stability in a time of crisis, to understand how social policy measures outside of the health system can and do have a direct positive impact on the mental health of many in our communities. 

We will all never forget the images of thousands of people lining up outside Centrelink Offices across the country in March, but imagine if those lines had stayed there for weeks on end. We know the mental health impact that would have ensued, let alone the social unrest.

Everyone on this planet has had to adapt in some way to the pandemic.

So of course the social world and community in which we live plays a huge role in our mental health and wellbeing, and that for me leads to one of my biggest learnings in all of this. The learning that we as human beings who have all experienced considerable change and uncertainty this year, can adapt.

Everyone on this planet has had to adapt in some way to the pandemic. Which for many has been, and will continue to be, extremely difficult.

Closer to home my own daughters in Melbourne have joined with five million other Victorians to experience one of the toughest lockdowns worldwide. The primary result of discipline has helped Victoria return to COVID-19 numbers akin to other states, but like everything this year, it will be impact that we need to monitor, and do so over a long period.

When a comet flies through the sky, it is the tail that makes it more visible and leaves behind that lasting impression. Six months into this pandemic, and still well and truly ‘in it’, especially when you look at the rest of the world, the COVID-19 tail may not even be visible yet, but we know it is coming.

How we prepare our people and communities to handle its impact will be vital, and that’s probably my most significant learning to date. It will be what we do today, when it comes to policy development and implementation, and when it comes to responding to the many recommendations in the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health, or when it comes to developing programs that are holistic and address the many social factors that often contribute to mental illness.

I’ll stop flying so much for meetings…

What we do now, and what we plan for, and put in place will help all Australians through the tail of this pandemic and hopefully out the other side as well. Help those people who needed help well before March 2020, and help the many more that have and will become part of the mental health ecosystem in the future.

Oh, and finally, “what will I stop doing as a result of COVID?” That’s easy. I’ll stop flying so much for meetings, which comes with the added bonus of being good for the environment and good for productivity. I’ve met more people on video calls this year than I would have ever been able to do in person. While of course it’s not the same as a face-to-face conversation, and won’t ever replace it, connecting over video has been one of the nice things to do in the pandemic. It has also increased the ability we have to collaborate and unite when it comes to advocating for mental health reform and for the people who need it most – a welcome silver lining in a year of clouds.

To find out more about Mental Health Australia or to read some of our latest policy submissions and our detailed analysis of the 2020 Federal Budget go to www.mhaustralia.org  

About the author

Portrait of Leanne BagleyLeanne Bagley has been the CEO at Mental Health Australia since April 2020. She has clinical qualifications in Occupational Therapy and Family Therapy, a Masters of Business Leadership and a PhD in Psychology in organisational culture and performance.

Before joining Mental Health Australia, Leanne worked for Western Victoria Primary Health Network as CEO for three years. Previously she has worked in clinical settings and was also Director of Mental Health and Drugs at the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services. She has served as a non-executive director on a variety of boards including the Western Alliance Academic Health Science Centre, Tweddle Child and Family Health Centre and Eating Disorders Victoria.