Australians’ mental health has declined during the COVID-19 lockdown. Record-high calls to helplines like Lifeline show that many people are currently suffering.
Encouragingly, data from 2020 shows that the mental health of many Australians improved once the outbreak was contained.
But the evidence review we released today from Australia’s mental health think tank suggests the reality is far more complex for those emerging from lockdown.
While many will recover, some Australians who were particularly badly hit by the pandemic will find it more difficult to bounce back.
Read more: We have been tracking young people’s mental health since 2006. COVID has accelerated a worrying decline
finding pressure points
We synthesized over 100 Australian studies and reports about COVID-19 and mental health to find out who experienced poor mental health and why.
We found that some Australians, including children and youth, First Nations people, women and those experiencing mental or physical disabilities, unemployment or financial stress, were more affected by the pandemic.
In other words, the pandemic exacerbated existing Australian mental health inequalities.
Read more: Lethargy, irritation and stigma are among all possible psychological effects of Delta living in the community
We also asked over 2,000 Australians to describe the impact of the pandemic. People’s liberal responses provided clues as to why some groups had poorer mental health.
Rather than fear of infection, Australians described how the pandemic “pressures” individual triggers for poor mental health by reducing financial stress and social support.
Rising unemployment and economic stress
Australians who lost work had poor mental health during the pandemic. Many reported that these experiences were made worse by stigmatizing messages about unemployment:
The government doesn’t see that the mental impact of being unemployed and being seen as scum when you feel different. (female, late 30s, NSW)
Increased financial stress was a primary cause of poor pandemic mental health. Financial stress made dealing with lockdown restrictions more difficult, especially for families
The bills keep coming in, the real estate agent demands that the deferred rent be paid in full… The daughter needs glasses, the other daughter is worried and depressed. (female, 50, Victoria)
For many people, good mental health is closely tied to being able to have a home and family.
Research has shown that the burden of stressful lockdown care, including homeschooling, falls primarily on women.
On the positive side, receiving temporarily increased job seeker pay was associated with a better standard of living and less anxiety.
One person told how,
For the first time in years I was able to pay for necessary medical treatment. (female, 20, NSW)
However, the removal of this payment was described as “crushing your mental health” (Female, 20, Tasmania).
low social connections and support
Our review showed that lockdowns and restrictions disrupted Australians’ social interactions and were a major driver of anxiety and depression, particularly for young people.
The restrictions meant they missed out on early life experiences, such as transitioning to school or university.
Read more: Students returning to school with anxiety, bereavement and gaps in social skills – will school have enough mental health resources?
Youth with disabilities experienced compromised learning outcomes and loneliness.
The adults noted that COVID-19 restrictions and isolation measures led to loneliness, loss and disconnection. Participants experienced this separation in their various social roles:
Being single had exhausted the option of dating. As a friend, the opportunity to connect with my nearest and dearest had changed. As an employee, I felt isolated from my work and my colleagues. (female, mid-20s, NSW)
The family interstate defendant experienced “impaired mental health”, as the restrictions “completely isolated me from my family and friends living in Sydney” (female, mid-20s, Victoria).
Read more: The shifting sands of COVID and our uncertain future have a name – Frontier
Our review showed there has been an increase in racial stigma for First Nations and Asian Australians during the pandemic. Added to the unemployment stigma described above, the social stigma that has left people isolated during the pandemic, possibly putting pressure on mental health.
National data shows that loneliness decreased on average after restrictions were eased.
However, this was not the case for everyone. Many people with existing mental health problems experienced increased social anxiety in the months following the lockdown:
I now feel more fragile emotionally (and) more socially anxious – being around a lot of people no longer feels normal. (man, early 30s, Victoria)
I had a panic attack last week and when I was supposed to attend my first individual class, I couldn’t attend. (female, early 20s, Victoria)
what can we do about it?
Our review showed that the pandemic negatively affected the mental health of some Australians, inhibiting their ability to maintain social roles and relationships that provided a meaningful life structure pre-COVID .
Unemployment meant losing their planned “identity” and preventing them from financially supporting their families.
Read more: It doesn’t matter if you cry a little in lockdown. you are grieving
We need to continue improving access to quality mental health care. Equally, policy changes outside the traditional “health” domain will also be critical to our recovery.
Ensuring post-pandemic policies All Having enough income for Australians to thrive and providing opportunities for meaningful work, education and re-engagement with the community (for example, through education scholarships) will protect the mental health of Australians.
These are essential for our transformation in “living with covid”.