Our state of mind is worrying
It won’t surprise many that mental health is one casualty of the Covid-19 crisis, even though it may appear less immediately visible than other health effects or the economic cost.
District health boards began to notice increased demand for mental health services within a couple of months of the first lockdown. Ko¯i Tu: The Centre for Informed Futures, an Auckland University think tank and research centre led by Sir Peter Gluckman, warned in June that Covid-19’s impact on our wellbeing was only starting to be appreciated. Along with Covid19’s devastating effect on already vulnerable sectors of society, Gluckman and his colleagues expected to see a second cohort of at-risk people after national and international economic downturns and expected increases in unemployment.
In Spain, which has had more than 700,000 cases and more than 31,000 deaths, the psychological effects of Covid-19 were published in a report in June. It was found that 36 per cent of participants reported moderate to severe psychological impact, 25 per cent showed mild to severe levels of anxiety, 41 per cent reported depressive symptoms and the same number felt stressed.
It is also a time of great anxiety in countries such as ours that have largely escaped the high death tolls seen elsewhere. Political uncertainty adds another layer of worry to an already stressed population.
Ko¯i Tu followed up its earlier warnings on Covid-19 with a report this month that spoke of the urgent need to confront a ‘‘pandemic of psychological distress among youth’’, rising ‘‘at an alarming rate’’, in New Zealand and internationally. Both ‘‘the underlying causes and the need for prevention and intervention’’ in this growing youth mental health crisis have been largely ignored, Gluckman and his co-authors said.
We have nearly reached the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, which has been running in New Zealand since the 1990s but has never been more pertinent. A growing openness and understanding of mental health issues is undoubtedly a positive development. The sense of personal shame is diminishing, although it has not gone completely.
One of the most revealing accounts of mental health that appeared this week came from National MP Todd Muller, who talked about the issues that arose during his 53 days as leader of the Opposition.
Despite a high-flying corporate career, Muller said he experienced anxiety and panic attacks only after he took over from previous leader Simon Bridges in May. It says much about the demanding nature of politics that not even dealing with a botulism scare while holding a senior role at Fonterra was as stressful as leading National.
Muller pointed to Sir John Kirwan and Mike King, who took away ‘‘the perceived shame or reluctance of talking about it to people’’. Both Kirwan and King have also led campaigns to raise awareness of mental health in the farming community. On one of these missions, King noticed that children as young as 11 were talking about mental health concerns. He saw that new selfawareness as a positive.
But awareness campaigns are only part of it. We also need to be confident that systems are working and people can get help when they need it. This means that Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton’s grim description of a shortage of inpatient beds and psychiatrists leading to a ‘‘perfect storm’’ after years of underfunding is the worst news we could have heard during Mental Health Awareness Week.