The psychosocial impacts of the coronavirus situation are emerging in the community. Mental health services in Australia are reporting significant spikes in service demand.
The situation seems to be impacting on each and every person. At a minimum people are struggling with disruption to routine, ongoing uncertainty and constant change.
For many others, it is adversely affecting what we know to be the determinants of mental health – things like social connection, physical activity, financial security, personal safety, food security, education, and service access. This is known as situational distress.
For a number of groups in particular, the experience may be exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. For example:
- People already living with a mental health condition may find that their anxiety, depression, obsessions, and/or compulsions are heightened and more difficult to manage
- People experiencing financial insecurity, mortgage stress and employment insecurity (including people in and around retirement)
- People who are vulnerable or already experience social isolation, and who may rely on a limited source of regular outings for social connection (such as visits to general practice, coffee shops or libraries) may find they are unable to make these outings, and may also have more difficulty accessing services and social support providers.
Stress can place people, especially those who are disadvantaged, at risk of new or exacerbated mental ill-health and addiction. We know from previous experience about the likely rise in drug and alcohol misuse and increased rates of family violence during times of crises, both in Australia (e.g. bushfires) and internationally.
Under the current circumstances, Australia is at risk of an increase in suicide, and the majority of these would likely be men.
While suicide prevention is often considered in the context of mental health, we need to get better at responding to situational distress, both as service providers and as a society.
Improving support for men
We know that cultural norms around masculinity can have a two-fold impact under these circumstances: for many men, culturally-embedded notions of ‘stoicism’ and strength can manifest as an inability or reluctance to recognise and acknowledge feelings of concern (such as worry or fear) and a reluctance to seek professional help.
Feelings of anxiety or distress can become channelled into more ‘comfortable’ or traditional male ways of being such as behaving with anger and aggression, using alcohol and drugs, or social withdrawal.
This inability to recognise and discuss emotions can lead people to despair and isolation, and eventually, crisis. We know that many men only seek help at a point of crisis if at all.
Emerging understanding in Australia about improving support for men’s mental health suggest conversations need to be framed with an emphasis on solutions and strengths rather than mental unwellness.
Right now, any contact with a health professional or service provider is an opportunity for a brief psychological intervention. Health providers should not expect all men to necessarily articulate situational distress, and need to be ready to embed conversations about coping and healthy self-care strategies into routine care.
General practice in particular, for the foreseeable future, may remain as the key health service provider in the community, and needs to be better supported, with skills, confidence and financially, to support the ongoing mental wellbeing of our community.
The Australian Government through PHNs is investing in new ways of tackling suicide at community sites across the country. Recent announcements about extension of funding for the next two years provides timely opportunity to respond to the crisis the current situation poses.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or considering self-harm, please reach out to:
Lifeline webchat, www.lifeline.org.au (7pm-midnight)
Lifeline SMS text service, 0477 13 11 14 (6pm-midnight)
 Three out of every four deaths by suicide in Australia each year involve men