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Julia Gillard talks mental health in the time of COVID-19

- May 19, 2020 4 MIN READ

The coronavirus crisis has delivered opportunities for both hope and optimism alongside despair according to former PM, and Beyond Blue Chair, Julia Gillard.

Loneliness, anxiety and fear can manifest during the pandemic – while opportunities for connection can also flourish. So, what are the priorities and opportunities moving forward to ensure we have the right support in place at the right time? It’s a tricky tightrope walk according to Gillard as many people reel from the impact of the virus.

As a nation, we can already see the effect the pandemic is having on the economy and personal finances of millions of Australians. But what of the impact on the country’s mental health? As the dust settles on COVID-19 are we heading for a looming mental health crisis too?

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard says the steps we take now to provide support will make or break how well we cope in the future. She says none of us could possibly have imagined the world we are now living in.

“We have been left reeling trying to comprehend the pace and scale of change,” says Gillard. “As human beings, we are hardwired to crave stability and be in control and the pandemic has rocked our concept of security.”

Under these circumstances, Gillard suggests it is natural to be fearful of the future. However, she assures that the progress we have made so far in slowing the pandemic is a testament to the courage of families and businesses all across Australia. Still, Gillard says, this progress has not come without sacrifice.

“It has hit many Australians hard and the road to recovery will be a long one, but there are opportunities and reasons for hope as we navigate to the new normal,” Gillard says.

The former PM says her role at Beyond Blue has given her insight into how Australians are coping with the fallout from the virus.  While Beyond Blue anticipated an increase in calls due to the pandemic, she says that traffic to the site is extraordinary as Australians seek help in dealing with the stress and pressures of the impact of the virus.

To give you an idea of the level of collective anxiety, the mental health service provider’s coronavirus thread has seven times the traffic of its bushfire thread even at the height of the bushfire crisis.

“Initially people were anxious about health and their loved ones getting sick and whether we would see scenes like those of other countries with the high death tolls… Increasingly now it’s the struggle with loneliness. Since Easter we have seen an increase in those who feel overwhelmed and exhausted.”

Gillard says what has been heartening, however, is the spirit of collaboration and common purpose in the mental health sector which has allowed a rapid scale-up of services to meet demand. National cabinet approved funding has allowed beyondblue to build up a 24 /7 service to ensure people always have access to help. While Gillard applauds the support given by the government to mental health services to date, she says we can”not afford to set and forget”.

“As a community, we have never been in this situation before. So, we know the needs of the community will evolve. Some communities will require more support than others.”

Gillard says recent Grattan Institute analysis shows those on low incomes will be twice as likely to be out of work than those from higher income brackets due to COVID-19 shutdowns. Of those workers, she says a disproportionate number will be women and young Australians.

She anticipates the effect of unemployment will have an impact on mental health.

“It can negatively impact a person’s sense of identity and purpose,” Gillard says.

Fortunately, Gillard says necessity has given rise to innovation that could help deal with this fallout. After years of lobbying for telehealth services to no avail, the past six weeks has seen the rollout of services she says mental health providers like Beyond Blue and others have been “arguing for, for years”.

“Telehealth provides greater choice and will prevent some from slipping through the cracks.”

And while Gillard acknowledges we’ve never lived in a time like this before, she says there is still much to be learned from those with lived experience of mental health issues.

“We see how valuable their insights are for the wider public health [from our online forums]. They can share unique lessons and we can draw on their hard-won resilience as we support the community through this pandemic.”

If there is one upside to the pandemic, Gillard says it is the possibility more employers may shift to embrace remote work.

“I’m certainly hoping employers will take from this crisis a new appreciation of the possibilities of flexible and virtual work which are better for work and family life balance.

“I also hope that mental health is prioritised. At the same time, this vital work is done it is also possible for businesses to plan how to build mentally healthy workplaces.

“While there is naturally trepidation on what lies ahead there is also reason for hope, Gillard says.

“Our world may have temporarily shrunk but our perspectives have expanded. Our world may never be the same again, but we can get on the other side and be stronger for it.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, seek help.  You can free call beyondblue 24/7 on 1300224636.

The author was a guest of CEDA

 

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