Mental health plan no answer to surge in youth job losses

The Federal Government’s National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan, announced on Friday 15 May, is grand enough in its rhetoric but the money on offer is peanuts, given the gloomy forecast for young people, and will do little to prevent suicide.

In fact none of the $48.1 million announced is for mental health services for young people. Monitoring, research, older Australians and a communications plan take most of the money.

Turns out we are not all in this together. Unemployment and other effects of the lockdown will exacerbate the psychological pressures on young people for whom there are already big gaps in mental health services. 

The $10.4 million communications campaign giving Australians the confidence to reach out for help and the information they need will not be much help if the services are not there.

There is no investment in Covid-related mental health promotion, prevention or care. 

The Health Minister argues that recent suicide data shows no increase in rates in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania but Professor Ian Hickie, Head of the Sydney University Brain & Mind Centre warns that the figures are too early to be meaningful and that the pandemic could claim more deaths by suicide than from the virus itself. He called for rapid and effective action. The bottom line here is to support youth employment and youth-specific services.

Health care workers world-wide have reported high rates of anxiety and depression and there is nothing in this plan for them.

In April the unemployment rate for 15-20 year-olds was higher than the general population at 13.8%.

It’s likely to be higher in May and to stay high for the next decade if previous recessions are anything to go by. In 1992 youth unemployment reached over 20% – almost twice that of the broader unemployment rate.

Students in casual part time jobs in retail and hospitality (40% of younger workers) and new graduates have been hit hard by the last-come-first-to-go principle. Internships and placements have been cancelled.

And young people in the casual workforce were largely excluded from JobKeeper supplement because of the >12 months of regular employment rule adding serious financial pressure to many. 

About 3,000 people die by suicide in Australia each year. Suicide is a leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 44 and mental health experts are calling for a national suicide register, linking data from ambulance crews, hospital emergency departments and police. A national register would improve and expand surveillance of suicide and strengthen the evidence base for prevention. Queensland established a register in 2004 and Victoria in 2011. However, some states have yet to establish them and there is no nationally consistent approach to reporting on suicide.

Suicide. We can’t pretend it doesn’t happen.

Who else is talking about mental health and Covid-19?

Ian Hickie, says there is a lack of cohesion between sectors and jurisdictions

“The federal governments will spend a little bit on helplines and awareness, the states will spend a bit more on emergency departments, the non-government charity sector on befriending and charity helplines,” 

“It’s poorly coordinated, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t meet those who are in trouble, it misses those who are marginal, who are most at risk, it misses the young, it misses those where the employment sector really matters.” –

He says 50% of pandemic related suicides in young people could be prevented over the next five years with improvements in employment rates and follow up care.

In early May, a joint statement Professor McGorry, Professor Hickie and AMA chief, Dr Tony Bartone said:

Australia will likely see increases in youth suicide and a surge in demand for specialist mental health services as the full and lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is experienced across the community.

Orygen youth mental health services published modeling showing a 32% increase in Covid-19-related psychological distress for 12-25 year-olds. And Executive Director, Professor McGorry says the plan just released would cost far more to implement than had been allocated. He said unless serious action was taken, the deaths and damage caused by mental illness would overshadow those caused by COVID-19.

Beyond Blue had a 60% increase in people seeking help compared to the same time last year. Lifeline calls doubled:

“In the last three weeks, the number of callers who contacted Lifeline and wanted to talk about COVID-19 has jumped from 23% to over 50%.

And the longer this lasts the more calls we will receive. We expect calls to continue to rise as the impact of business closures, social isolation, health concerns, and financial stress continue to take a toll on the mental health of Australians.”

John Brogden, CEO of Lifeline

Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive, Nieves Murray called for the creation of “safe spaces” where Australians could go for mental health support without having to attend hospital emergency rooms, and for Centrelink staff to be trained in suicide prevention.

The World Health Organisation called for countries to urgently increase investment in mental health services. –  

The UN points out: Decades of neglect and under-investment in addressing people’s mental health needs have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN said on Thursday, in a call for ambitious commitments from countries in the way they treat psychological illness, amid a potential global spike in suicides and drug abuse.

Disclosure: Lyn Allison is a Director on the Board of Orygen but does not write on behalf off Orygen

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