Updated: May 29
CoVID-19 spurs improved public attitudes towards mental health.
The pandemic is an opportunity to create a new era of public awareness – and support – for sufferers.
By Michael Lukman, Gen Advisory Pty Ltd
Debate about how Australia recovers from the CoVID-19 pandemic cannot only focus on getting back what has been lost. We must also ask: how do we build on gains from COVID-19?
Few gains have been more important than the enlightened approach to discussing mental-health issues during COVID-19 and the response of policymakers, business and the community.
From day one, the Federal Government acknowledged mental-health risks from more people suffering depression and anxiety due to COVID-19-related stress. The government in March commendably allocated $74 million for mental-health services.
Business, too, stepped up. The response of Australia’s Authorised Deposit-taking Institutions (ADIs) to allow temporary deferral of home loans or provide emerging bridging loans to small businesses, for example, was magnificent. We will never know how many lives these actions saved, but ADIs deserve great credit.
The community, as always, led the way. From families checking in on elderly relatives self-isolating at home (via web-conference), to helping neighbours in need, to kids writing positive messages on sidewalks with chalk, these actions supported the nation’s mental health.
We must embrace, protect and keep these gains long after COVID-19 ends.
Australia needs a stronger culture where those experiencing mental-health problems at home or in the workplace feel confident to talk about them and seek help. A culture where companies provide extra support for those with mental-health issues and there is permanent, higher funding for community services that do such good work in this area.
Most of all, we must help those in need now. Sadly, the effects of COVID-19 on mental health are clearer by the day. March was the busiest month ever for suicide-prevention service LifeLine. Beyond Blue, an anxiety and depression service, in April reported a 30 per cent increase in calls and emails and said one in three related to COVID-19 worries.
Longer term, governments and business must plan for ongoing mental-health consequences from COVID-19. With 2.6 billion people in lockdown worldwide, we are experiencing the “largest psychological experiment ever”, notes the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Professor Elke Van Hoof, a global health expert, warned there will be a second epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020, and that more psychological help must be provided within three to six months after the lockdown ends.
Smart, sustainable business
Providing extra support is not just the right thing to do. It is good business. The Productivity Commission in 2019 estimated that mental health and suicide cost the Australian economy up to $51 billion annually – a figure that will surely grow after COVID-19.
Longer term, diminished health and reduced life expectancy due to mental-health conditions could cost up to $130 billion, estimates the Productivity Commission.
Up to 3.9 million Australians suffer from some form of mental illness and one in eight visits to General Practitioners (GPs) relate to that condition, according to the Productivity Commission.
In its draft Mental Health report released in October 2019, the Productivity Commission estimated 1 million Australians with mental-health conditions go untreated each year (the final report is due by May 23).
I am not a health expert, but it is reasonable to assume the “gap” between those needing mental-health help and those receiving it will grow after COVID-19, given the spike in service demand.
So, how do we narrow that gap? Clearly, complex problems such as mental health require multi-dimensional solutions over many years. I believe one part of the puzzle is for Australians to be more open and tolerant towards mental health, as we have been during COVID-19.
In the course of banking industry and regulatory career, and now through my firm Gen Advisory, I have seen too many “high-octane” workplace cultures in the finance sector.
The great strength of ADI cultures – competitive, ambitious, hardworking people – can also be the sector’s shortcoming with mental health. The sector cannot afford to have employees who are reluctant to raise mental-health issues, fearful it will hurt their career.
We need bankers who are confident to raise mental-health issues in the workplace if they arise, and ADIs that support them. And financial-services organisations that understand how mental health can affect their customers during COVID-19 and beyond.
A better conversation about mental health was building long before COVID-19 and grew louder during it. Let us not waste those gains, but use them to smash through an “inflection point” in mental-health awareness and support in Australia, for years to come.
CoVID-19 has clearly devastating for many, in terms of its health and economic impacts. But there are silver linings to be found.
A healthier and more understanding conversation regarding mental health is one of them.
Michael Lukman is founder and Managing Director of Gen Advisory Pty Ltd, a specialist professional services firm which helps ADIs fulfil their commercial and social objectives.
The Gen Advisory team: Michael Lukman, Scott Middleton, Tony Zabel, Eleni Aroney, Scott Glasgow, Fitria Susanti, Fachry Ali, Anthony Schilt.