The impact of global crises on mental health: GFC vs Covid-19

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Australians are continuing to struggle with their mental health during the pandemic, but how does this compare to other large-scale events like the GFC? Amelia Rizzo reports.

As Australians struggle through lockdowns, mass job losses and business shutdowns, increasing numbers of people are struggling with mental illness and stress.

Large-scale crises like the pandemic can have a large impact on psychological health, with Lifeline recording a 40 per cent increase in calls since 2019.

Similar stresses were felt during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, when financial instability and job losses were also an extended concern for many around the nation.

Filomena Toscano, who worked as an IT contractor during the GFC, said that although Australia wasn’t as severely affected as other countries, mental health in the workplace was a challenge.

“I felt that I had to take extra care in validating my duties and responsibilities to make sure my role in the workforce was valued,” she said.  

During 2009, average Australian hours of work fell, according to a 2012 ABS report. It was even more prominent in regional areas, where areas such as Broken Hill saw a 30 per cent decrease in employment in the same period.

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Throughout the GFC there was a general decrease in mental health, as employees coped with this employment insecurity. A SA study in 2011 found there was a large increase in anxiety for part-time and unemployed workers during and after it.

The Black Dog Institute’s White Paper, aimed at correlating suicide rates with unemployment rate declines, found that when Australia’s post-GFC unemployment rate rose by 1.8 per centage points to 5.8 per cent overall, suicide rates sharply increased by 12 per cent for unemployed women, and 22 per cent for unemployed men.

In comparison, the ABS reported that the Australian unemployment rate during the pandemic rose from 5.1 per cent in February 2020 to 7.4 per cent in July 2020.

One big difference between the GFC and the pandemic, however, is the stigma surrounding mental health.

Filomena says most people kept their struggles and difficulties with mental health to themselves during the GFC, to their detriment.

“It wasn’t at all freely talked about in the community.”

The impacts of stress

Dr Eric Tan, a senior research fellow at the Mental Health Centre at Swinburne University, says one reason people feel the impact mentally from these situations is that both the GFC and COVID-19 cause direct and indirect impacts on the basic needs of human beings.

Consequently, this causes many challenges and concerns about our health and financial stability.

“Events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the GFC are long lasting, and so the effects of prolonged stress are more applicable,” he said.  

Dr Tan says high stress for prolonged periods on the brain can affect the body in many ways, including causing persistent inflammation, which can lead to serious negative effects on brain structures and systems.

He says these reactions “can cause reductions in the hippocampus, which when coupled with ongoing inflammation is associated with the development of depression”.

The impact of the pandemic

Melbourne student Chethya Qunarathne, who like the majority of Victorian students is currently learning remotely, is struggling with the large study load online.

“I feel more anxious than I did last year completing my VCE,” she said.  

While there are a number of online mental health help services available, she admits that speaking to an online psychologist about her personal struggles does not feel the same as face-to-face appointments.

“I didn’t find it as engaging or helpful as in-person consultations.”

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Although there has been some increase in mental health programs and strategies aiming to assist those dealing with mental health issues, many individuals continue to struggle even with assistance.

The federal government has invested $26.9 million into the Head to Help program, an initiative that aims to provide free mental health assistance for Victorians, as part of their mental health package during the pandemic.

By comparison, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that mental health service expenditure by state and federal governments increased annually by 5.8 per cent \ between 2004 to 2009, with $1.4 billion dedicated to community mental health care initiatives,

Australians are continuing to battle through this pandemic, but with a range of services and reduced stigma in regards to mental health, there is more support and community than ever before.

If you or someone close to you is struggling with their mental health, there is help available. Contact Lifeline, BeyondBlue or a medical professional:

Phone: 13 11 14
Lifeline text: 0477 13 11 14