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Beyond its immediate threat to physical health, the coronavirus pandemic puts a considerable strain on individuals’ mental wellbeing. Factors such as social isolation, financial stress, and mourning for the loss of loved ones have taken their toll; a survey conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that rising demand for professional help has caused a disruption in mental health services of 93% of countries worldwide. Addressing the widespread COVID-19-induced decline of mental health is of utmost urgency, and it should be made a public priority.

One example of a proactive response to this emerging crisis can be found in Australia, where the government announced on 9 October that it will expand the scope of its existing Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative. Operative since 2006, this scheme provides individuals with a GP, psychiatrist or pediatrician’s referral with Medicare support for up to 10 individual and 10 group therapy sessions per year. Under the recent reform, it has become even more powerful, granting those experiencing pandemic-related duress eligibility for up to 10 additional sessions per year until 30 June 2022. As a result, an unprecedented $5.7 billion has been dedicated to mental health spending in 2020-21 (1 Australian Dollar is roughly equal to 0.55 Pound sterling, i.e. around £3.1 billion).

Though the Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative faces criticism for having a negligible impact on the prevalence of psychological distress of the population as a whole, evidence suggests that those who have taken advantage of its services met with positive outcomes. Accordingly, it should not be entirely dismissed just because of its imperfections. With additional measures to overcome socioeconomic and geographical disparities, as well as targeted efforts to encourage uptake by those who need it, the scheme has great potential for ameliorating psychological hardships among the Australian population.

The UK can learn much from the Australian undertaking to enhance its own mental health services in the time of the COVID-19. According to an ongoing long-term study led by the Mental Health Foundation, high proportions of Britons have reported feelings of loneliness, anxiety, fear, and hopelessness since March, with young populations, the unemployed, and those with pre-existing mental or physical health conditions having been disproportionately affected. In a time of crisis, these issues, especially among those with pre-existing mental illness diagnoses, should be of immediate concern. Yet, a staggering press release from Mind UK revealed that, in May 2020, 22% of surveyed mental health patients had appointments cancelled, or faced difficulty getting through to their GP or Community Mental Health Teams. Nevermind those seeking to reach out for help for the first time.

Unfortunately, the reproachable state of mental health services at the peak of the first national lockdown is a thing of the past. Although it cannot be retrospectively addressed, it can and should be learned from. Today, with a clear anticipation of the ongoing influence of coronavirus on populations’ day-to-day lives, policy makers are in a position to combat the onset of its chronic effects, and prevent further deterioration of the conditions of those currently afflicted by mental illness. Offering heavily subsidised therapy sessions may be an excellent solution to accomplish this goal.

Though it may be expensive – considerably more so than in Australia, given the size of the UK’s population – reduced-cost therapy sessions will likely only be attended by those who really need them. The effort involved in obtaining a professional referral, as well as the time-intensive nature of psychologist appointments serve as a hefty deterrent to those who do not expect to extract at least some benefit from the use of mental health services. As demonstrated in Australia, provided that the sessions are up to standard, those who seek help have the opportunity to achieve mental relief. 

Treating mental illness, either through psychological or pharmacological means, is and will continue to be an expensive project. If not for the sake of alleviating suffering, there is an economic argument for providing high-quality mental health support. Beyond its toll on individual suffering, mental health problems create large costs for both affected individuals and broader society. As detailed by a Mental Health Foundation report, the provision of health and social care, lost employment, missed opportunities, and output losses takes a considerable toll on the UK’s economic performance. The NHS estimates that, in 2016, the total cost of mental health problems is roughly £105 billion.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the state of mental health worldwide; the fact that this matter demands prompt address is indisputable. Australia’s Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative, and even more so the recent announcement of its expansion, should serve as a guide for the UK Government moving forward.

Izabela is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Benh LIEU SONG]