Speaking to Women on Boards as we mark Mental Health Month, WOB member Debora said more needs to be done to meet the mental health needs of employees, particularly as we emerge from COVID lockdowns.
She says lack of funding for some services and shortages of mental health workers, and the pressures of the pandemic, are placing pressure on mental health services which could lead to long-term effects for many Australians.
“There is no one-size fits all,” she said. “We aren’t at the end of the COVID road yet so longer-lasting impacts remain undetermined. I am not a clinician but based on what I hear and read, I would expect In my view those who have suffered the most distress from COVID and who may have ongoing mental health challenges if they can’t access appropriate services would be those put under ongoing financial stress, those whose domestic lives and relationships were already difficult which has been exacerbated under lockdowns, and possibly young people yet to embark on their career path and children and adolescents already prone to mental distress.”
She said more still needs to be done to address the large gap in mental health services for the “missing middle” - people who, for example, a GP, LifeLine or Headspace cannot help because their issues are too complex but who are not unwell enough for a hospital bed - which she puts down to lack of funding in this area and lack of capacity and workforce in both the public and private health sector.
“It will continue to worsen as not enough is being done and if there are long-term ramifications from COVID, it will be even worse.”
She said even people who can afford to get private psychological help will have difficulty now finding one in time, and it is likely to be worse post-COVID. “Without that level of help their mental health can will decline into severe with life-long ramifications.”
So what can be done? “Government funding for the right services goes without saying but something urgently needs to be done to increase the number of mental health staff in Australia,” said Debora, pointing to peer support programs and training grants for small businesses. “This could be a new source of workforce and evidence increasingly shows peer workers appropriately trained can make a real difference.”
She said other things boards and businesses can do to help look after the mental health of their employees is regularly check the service levels and satisfaction rating of employee assistance program providers to see if they really are delivering what staff need and making sure staff are not over-worked.
“Also having staff regularly take part in volunteer work introduces staff to the idea that things like this can be done outside of work and may assist some who are struggling with some levels of mental distress on the basis that there is evidence that helping others makes you feel good too."
WOB member Jane Austin is Executive Director of TheMHS Learning Network, an international learning network for improving mental health services in Australia and New Zealand which has a Mental Health Services virtual learning conference from 13- 15 October covering a range of issues, challenges and new ideas in mental health.
She said COVID-19 has presented many real challenges, with vulnerable people especially affected and that Mental Health Month is a good reminder for us to look after people close to us who may be affected by mental distress.
“We also know that young people facing other pressures, like exams, are increasingly affected. We also mustn't forget the frontline staff in mental health services who are dealing with increasing demand and having to change and adapt services very quickly to cope with that.”
She said the good news is that significant reforms in mental health system design and service delivery are on the way. “We are hopeful these will bring about long overdue changes, including access to more 'joined up' community- based supports for people.”
“We need to make 'navigating' supports easier for both the people who access them and the frontline workforce, including GPs. Services also need to be designed more from the perspective of the people who will use them - those with lived experience and carers. It is also vital to support the ongoing development of the peer workforce, which is a growing need in Australia and New Zealand.”
Social inequities highlighted
Martina McGrath is a PhD student at Melbourne University’s Centre for Mental Health. The WOB member also works as a lived experience research consultant and is a Co-chair of the International Association of Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) LGBTQA+ Special Interest Group.
She said it is her belief that COVID-19 has further highlighted the social and health inequities in Australia.
“Of most concern to me is how our young people are coping with the ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns in various states and territories. What has been pleasing to see is increased funding and resources to support everyone, including youth people via telehealth options. It’s important to note that overwhelmingly young people prefer online chats and text messaging services as a way of finding help.”
She said as well as young people many vulnerable and priority population groups are equally doing it tough including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, LGBTQA+ people, those from non-English speaking backgrounds who may struggle to understand public health advice often only disseminated in English, people with varying abilities, such as those living with hearing or vision impairments and also transient and homeless people.
“Against this backdrop of many people at risk due to COVID-19, I can’t even fathom the daily and unrelenting burden, fatigue and stress on all our front line workers.”
Martina said it is time to put aside personal and political manoeuvring and self interests and work through these challenges together, across party and business sector lines. “I also think all governments should be engaging with people with lived experience, as we too as a broad collective can offer solutions and ideas that may just end up meeting what we deem as unmet needs during this time.”
About Mental Health Month
National Mental Health Month is an initiative of the Mental Health Foundation Australia (MHFA) to advocate for and raise awareness of Australian mental health. This year the theme is ‘Mental Health: Post Pandemic Recovery Challenges and Resilience'.