Mental health fears as Melburnians lock down

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

8/07/2020 5:07:32 PM

A new survey shows wellbeing amid the pandemic was improving, but another lockdown may about to change that for millions of Victorians.

Stressed man alone
Almost half of the people surveyed said they are more stressed as a result of COVID-19.

One thing that seems to be particularly striking about the coronavirus is its ability to infiltrate almost every aspect of people’s lives, from their sense of financial security and relationships, to their overall mental health.
Now, new data released by the Australian National University (ANU) reveals just how overarching that impact has been. Almost half (47%) of the more than 3200 Australians surveyed said they are more stressed as a result of COVID-19.
Three in 10 say their finances have worsened, while one in five feel their relationships are worse off – the effects felt mostly by Australians under the age of 45.
Even as confirmed cases were on the decline, and social distancing restrictions started to ease in May, younger participants still reported being under serious psychological stress.
Study co-author Professor Nicholas Biddle said this was due to a combination of lack of social interaction, financial and housing stress, and job market instability – all of which appear to have a greater impact on young Australians.
‘[There is] quite a strong association between loneliness, social interaction and mental health outcomes,’ he told newsGP.
‘So in terms of understanding what’s worsening psychological distress, it would appear that that social interaction is having a much greater effect than even the financial impacts.’
So what does this mean for the mental health of those in Metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire preparing to return to stage-three restrictions for six weeks?  
The experience will be different this time around, of course, given it is the not the entire country that is affected. The statement so often heard as Australia locked down in March, ‘we are all in this together’, no longer applies.
While Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews was outlining a return to lockdown earlier this week, leaders elsewhere were discussing increasing attendance at sporting events and indoor venue capacity.
‘When restrictions are moving in the same direction for everyone, it’s a lot easier to deal with that,’ Professor Biddle said. ‘There’s kind of a sense of solidarity when everyone’s going through a very similar thing and we can see that an end in sight.
‘But this is going to be very different, I think, when things are just having opened up again, and then for a certain proportion of the population things have to close up.’
Yet, Professor Biddle says, it will likely again be younger Australians who bear the brunt of the second shutdown, with industries that employ large numbers of young people, such as hospitality, further restricted.
‘There’s certainly going to be immediate as well as long-term effects of the shutdown on the labor market and all of the things which would flow from that,’ Professor Biddle said.
‘That’s in no way to say that those lockdowns aren’t necessary, or that a public health response isn’t required.
‘Premier Andrews has certainly made clear that he’s well aware of what the effects are going to be, but that doesn’t make them any less onerous or burdensome for particular segments of the population.’
Professor Phillipa Hay, Chair of Mental Health at Western Sydney University, fears the contrast in realities between states and territories will likely exasperate feelings of anxiety and isolation for Victorians.
‘It’s very unhealthy from a mental health perspective; sort of like splitting off the bad guys from the good guys,’ she told newsGP.
‘There’s often this, who’s got the worst rate, which country is worst, which country is doing it right, which country is doing it wrong.
‘Nobody really knows the long-term outcome of this, and it’s really unhelpful, and certainly won't help people’s mental health. But it also probably won’t help the nation and the world going forwards to overcome COVID effectively.’
Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd called on Melburnians to make their mental health a priority.
‘This is going to be really tough for the people of Melbourne who find themselves moving back into lockdown,’ he told the ABC’s Radio National.
‘It’s really important to remember the things that we did last time ... remaining socially connected to each other even while we’re physically distant.’
Professor Kidd said blaming people for the rising cases is unhelpful, and that most people followed social-distancing rules.
But Dr Margaret Heffernan, an academic and behavioural researcher at RMIT University with a focus on culturally and linguistically diverse communities, believes stigmatisation is inevitable, having already noted the dissemination of misinformation online.
‘All of a sudden we saw light at the end of the tunnel, thinking we’ve all complied with the health department regulations, we’ve all been good citizens, now we can get back on with life,’ she told newsGP. ‘But we can’t.
‘So I think in Melbourne there’s going to be simmering resentment by people who’ve been complying with social isolation and hygiene … and unintended stigmatisation of perceptions of groups of people who have not complied.’
While the ANU data started to show an upward trend in wellbeing in May, Dr Heffernan believes the heightened uncertainty will see Melburnians returning to lockdown take a turn for the worse.
‘We need to look globally, but where do look?’ she asked.
‘We’re not getting useful data out of China easily. America’s a mess, Canada’s got another spike and has gone into lockdown equally. So we're not seeing any certainty about the end point of when this might all end.
‘And until we can get some certainty, we’re going to be in this state of transition, which creates anxiety.’

Melbourne-based GP Dr Cathy Andronis believes the city could prove to be an example of what may inevitably lay ahead for the rest of Australia.

As a result, Dr Cathy Andronis, a Melbourne-based GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Psychological Medicine network, says GPs are anticipating a significant rise in feelings of helplessness and sense of loss of control. But she admits it is yet to be seen how that will translate into visits to the GP.
‘Often when people feeling hopeless and helpless, they seek medical attention less when in fact they need medical advice and treatment more,’ Dr Andronis told newsGP. ‘So there’s a concern that people will also miss important appointments.
‘A lot of patients have been looking forward to having face-to-face appointments with hospitals, outpatient departments … so now this has set people back.’
As other states forge ahead, Dr Andronis says that GPs themselves have not been immune to the impacts of COVID-19, and that many are feeling ‘disillusioned’. But, if anything, she says Melbourne will likely prove to be an example of what may inevitably lay ahead for the rest of Australia.
‘I think most doctors deep down knew this is the most likely scenario, because there’s no reason why when the rest of the world has experienced a pandemic that we really have a particularly high chance of being unscathed,’ Dr Andronis said.
‘My main advice is that GPs should remain mindful and concentrate on day-to-day moments of pleasure or joy whenever they can get them. Slow down, get plenty of sleep, eat well and keep to a healthy lifestyle, keep exercising.
‘We know that it will pass, but it’s going to probably take longer than we anticipated.’
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