‘It’s not safe’: people with mental health issues switching to online services

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Emergency departments were once a safe haven, but people with mental health issues are now staying away. Ebony Weston reports.

People who previously used mental health services such as emergency departments are saying they no longer feel safe there, a psychologist at Open Horizons Psychology said.

“For a lot of people who were previously comfortable accessing health services, [COVID-19] has stopped them feeling safe,” she said.

“There have generally been less presentations to the emergency department and general practitioners for mental health concerns,” Susan Bullock of Open Horizons psychology said.

Susan Bullock. Photo courtesy Open Horizons Psychology

“This is concerning, as these will be people who need extra support around this time and indicates that they may be in a place where they are feeling very vulnerable, but are also feeling as if they are unable to easily and safely access services.”

Shayla Strapps, a deputy chief executive of Ruah Community Services, told the ABC that she feared individuals who urgently needed treatment were not receiving help due to being scared of exposure to COVID-19.

However, Lifeline has experienced some of its busiest days ever during the lockdown, often taking more than 3000 calls a day.

Lifeline chairman John Brogden said call numbers had been rising through summer, with many people affected by the bushfires.

“Now we’ve had the coronavirus [shutdown], we’ve seen our calls get as high as 3200 a day — that’s the highest we’ve ever seen,” he told the ABC.

Research conducted by the Black Dog Institute estimated that during previous pandemics, 25-33 per cent of the community also experienced high levels of stress, and that people with existing mental health concerns are more at risk during this time.

Ms Bullock said fears related to the pandemic made people deeply uncertain.

“It has contributed to an overall increase in feelings of loneliness and anxiety and generally increased feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness for lots of people,” she said.

Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health support service, has recently invested $10 million into a 24/7 online support forum, providing free information, counselling and referrals online.

During March, there was a 30 per cent increase in calls and emails to the original service provided by Beyond Blue, with one in three directly affected by the pandemic, a media release from Beyond Blue said.

Ms Bullock said some people feel more comfortable with online counselling when they can talk via a screen.

“For some it has actually allowed them to be more vulnerable as they feel safer sharing with the boundary of a screen between them and the health professional. For others it is challenging and doesn’t feel as containing or meaningful as face to face work,” Ms Bullock said.  

Both Beyond Blue and Lifeline have had major funding to their services since the pandemic originated, this has helped millions of Australians overcome the personal difficulties of the outbreak.

CEO of Beyond Blue, Georgie Harman said it was normal to feel low during these times.

Their goal is to help people manage and seek support for mental health now so they can stop it from becoming more overwhelming in the future, she said.

“We know that prevention and early intervention can reduce the impact of mental health issues, so a dedicated service that gives people easy to access support is vital, especially in these extraordinary circumstances.”

If you or someone you know feeling down during this time, reach out and seek support.

  • Beyond Blue Support Service: 1300 22 4636
  • Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
  • Black Dog Institute Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
  • Mental Health Australia: 1300 726 306
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800
  • Headspace: 1800 650 890