Mental health needs expected to double in wake of COVID-19

Mental health services are being warned to brace for "increasing levels of disillusionment and despair in the months ahead" as the country fights to recover from the economic and psychological impacts of COVID-19.

Researchers at the University of Auckland's Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Studies say demand is going to double this year.

"Before COVID we know that in New Zealand about 20 percent of the population in any particular year will have psychological difficulties warranting some sort of intervention or support, psychology professor Richie Poulton told The AM Show on Friday morning.

"With the extra stress - and it's been a huge stressor, and continues to be a stressor - this rate will increase. We don't know exactly by how much, but it's not inconceivable that in the next couple of years we could be looking at rates in the population almost double that of what we would normally expect."

The problems - and some potential solutions - are detailed in the centre's new report, Protecting and promoting mental wellbeing: Beyond COVID-19

"We must prepare and act now," the report says. "There is a potentially eerie parallel between the lack of medical preparedness seen in some jurisdictions around the world (mainly public health capacity and basic pandemic planning) and what might occur in the psychological arena.

"That is, we have a reasonable understanding of what to expect in terms of psychological and social impacts... We have the opportunity to prepare. Failure to do so will likely lead to considerable, but avoidable psychological damage and suffering, affecting at least three living generations. This must not occur."

Co-author Sir Peter Gluckman - the former Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister - told Newshub it's vital the Government's proposed reforms are accelerated to ease the mental health impacts of the pandemic and coming recession.

"It can magnify anger, distress, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and even suicide. Therefore getting there early and dealing with people's mild stress disorders is the way to proceed." 

Before the pandemic hit, the Government had commissioned a ministerial inquiry into New Zealand's mental health services. It found the annual cost of serious mental illness was an estimated $12 billion, and recommended implementing a national suicide prevention strategy - and urgently. 

"The Government - to its credit - picked up on that and has been trying to gradually move away from a traditional model of hospital-based care into the community, acknowledging that communities themselves have a really good handle on the particular needs of that group of people," said Prof Poulton. 

"We're not saying that it's broken... we're just saying that you need to expedite, make those changes that were always planned, at a much, much faster rate. This has to happen like yesterday, as opposed to months or years from now because the need is upon us."

Much of the underlying mental health problems have been obscured by the "euphoria" of New Zealand's apparent success at eliminating COVID-19 and the move to alert level 1. 

"That will pass soon sadly," said Prof Poulton. "We will be confronting the reality of what lies ahead, and for many it's a career that's gone - there's just a void. For many, their lifetime's work has gone down the tubes, in terms of small businesses."

"It's destroyed their business, destroyed opportunities for jobs particularly in the travel industry," added Sir Peter. "Many jobs have disappeared and many never come back."

That's particularly true for the tourism sector, with unfettered international travel unlikely to resume until a vaccine is available - which could take years.

"The world won't be the same again - outside the borders of New Zealand, COVID-19 thunders on," said Prof Poulton.

Richie Poulton.
Richie Poulton. Photo credit: The AM Show

Indeed, the past 24 hours worldwide saw more confirmed infections than ever before - more than 130,000 - and another 5000 dead. Rates of infection are picking up in many places which have tried to ease lockdown measures, such as the US and India. 

The OECD on Thursday warned of more "pain to come" for the New Zealand economy, which is expected to shrink almost 9 percent - provided there isn't another outbreak of COVID-19 here and we remain at alert level 1. Unemployment is expected to hit almost 10 percent - a rate unseen since the early 1990s. 

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