A Red Cross survey has found that two in five Australians say their mental health has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, with a similar number feeling less hopeful about the future. Indeed, the Productivity Commission estimated that mental illness costs the broader Australian economy at least $200 billion each year in healthcare costs, lost productivity, economic participation, career costs, disability and premature death.
It pays to keep well. Here, psychiatrist Dr Ruth Vine, Australia’s first Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health, walks us through how we can better understand our mental health, and not miss the signs that we – or those close to us – might need more support or a mental health care plan.
1. Take the pressure down
“The first consideration for your mental health needs to be: ‘what can I do for myself?’” says Dr Vine. “Feeling anxious, worried or more unstable in your mood are all very understandable things. What matters most right now are the small adjustments we can make in our life that mean we don’t become overwhelmed.”
As study after study has shown, a little care taken by way of self-care really does pay dividends.
“You might think, ‘Okay, in order to address this I’m going to talk to my best friend today … I’m going to get a little time to myself by going for a walk … I’m going to give myself some treats or set myself goals I know I can achieve’. Many people will find they can work through worries with these adjustments,” says Dr Vine, who notes that commonsense, but hard-to-do things such as going to bed at a reasonable hour matter too.
2. Feel your feelings
Of course, even with self-care moments throughout the day, negative feelings come up. When they do, “give yourself that allowance to feel distressed,” says Dr Vine. “Sit in your room and rant at the world for a while to let off steam.”
For many women taking care of families and ageing parents, Dr Vine also acknowledges that checking in with your feelings might not be something you have time to do.
The good news: we can let ourselves off the hook. “Sometimes that’s a really good coping mechanism because it does allow you to carry on and do all the things you have to do,” says Dr Vine.
3. Learn skills from wellbeing resources
For people who can’t create those moments for themselves throughout the day, Dr Vine says coping becomes more challenging. “It’s much harder for women with young families who can’t get time on their own, or if you’re living with someone who is not supportive or you’re isolated from people you love,” she says. “For people who don’t feel they can make those adjustments, that’s when it helps to reach out for more structured resources.”
A good next step, says Dr Vine, is visiting headtohealth.gov.au, where you can find free mindfulness courses, access the mood gym app for managing anxiety, get practical advice for coping with acute stress and also learn about good sleep hygiene, among many other resources.
4. Ask for help
We may throw around the words “I’m not coping” casually, but when it happens, the feeling is dire. “I could have a bad day and feel grumpy, but I sort of think, ‘oh well, I’ll do some gardening and get over it’. But if you can’t concentrate and you feel like crying all the time and like nobody knows how rotten you feel, then that is the time to seek professional help,” says Dr Vine.
“There are ways through this.” Your GP can connect you with a counsellor or whomever they deem appropriate for your situation, or you can speak to someone for free by calling Beyond Blue (1300 224 636) or Headspace (1800 650 890) for young people and their families.
“Some people may need to see a clinical psychologist if they have a pre-existing mental illness that has been exacerbated by all of this; others may find one or two sessions with a counsellor gives them the techniques they need to move forward,” says Dr Vine.
5. Be open to change
As we have reemerged from the pandemic, there have been, and will be, new challenges and changes.
“It may take more time for some people to adjust,” says Dr Vine, noting that this may be especially true for people who have had a delay in their life, in terms of career or education or other significant life events.
“But it’s also important to recognise there will be things to celebrate and enjoy. There is power in saying, ‘I hope things will be better’. Hope is a really important thing in our life.”
How to support someone struggling with mental health
“If you see someone not looking well or not responding in the way you might expect, asking how they are feeling and if there is anything you can do is reasonable,” says Dr Vine. “But keep in mind that for a lot of people, it is quite hard to answer that question.”
Once you’ve raised your concerns, be ready to return to the topic at a later date. And most importantly, ensure you have the time to do that.
“You need to think, ‘Am I in the right headspace to ask this person how they are feeling? Am I ready for them to take time, for them to burst into tears, push me away or want to talk another time?’ There’s no point asking someone ‘how do you feel?’ if you’re too busy to stick around for the answer.”