Coronavirus: COVID-19 lockdown triggers 'huge' increase in mental health issues

The COVID-19 lockdown will cause a surge in mental health issues for which GP's need to be prepared, according to health experts.

New Zealand has been in lockdown for four weeks and will not exit it until midnight on Monday 27 April. The dramatic shift in daily life has caused a range of issues but mental health is one which has GP Dr Kate Baddock concerned.

Dr Baddock told the Epidemic Response Committee on Wednesday that she and her colleagues have seen a "huge" increase in the amount of mental health issues people are facing. 

"We are seeing a huge amount of suppressed mental health issues at the moment, even those that we are consulting on other issues," she said.

Calls to emergency helpline 1737 Need to Talk have also increased since the lockdown began. In the last week the helpline had a 40 percent increase in call volume

Andrew Slater, the chief executive of the National Telehealth Service, says the reasons are varied. 

"We are hearing from a number of first time callers and texters," he told Newshub.

"Relationship troubles in bubbles and anxiety are strong emerging themes."

Slater says concern over alcohol and drug use is also common. 

Dr Baddock says many patients have "underlying" stresses related to the lockdown such as financial strain and job losses and these issues will not just go away when the lockdown ends. 

"We are going to see a huge amount of mental health [problems] over the next 12 months and beyond and we need to be able to deal with that," she told the committee. 

"[GP's] are the ones who patients trust and who they're going to come to and we need to have the funding to deal with it."

Though an initial cash injection had been given to practices before the lockdown began, a second tranche meant to help GPs weather the lockdown storm had not been forthcoming.

"The ministry, the DHBs and the minister had all agreed that funding was required and they could see the imperative need," she told the committee. 

Without the money, many practices may not be able to survive the financial stress of the lockdown, she said.

"It is an immediate need, and there will be practices and doctors who are out of work because of it."

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said on Tuesday there was an "active conversation" between Health Minister David Clark, general practice leaders and the Ministry of Health around "further funding", but would not comment further on the subject.

Where to find help and support:

Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737

Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email or online chat

Samaritans - 0800 726 666

Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757

Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)