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Australian bishops put mental health first as lockdowns magnify unseen battle faced by millions

Social justice: “Three million workers have mental ill-health or are caring for someone with mental ill-health,” the ACBC statement said.

WITH Australia still gripped by pandemic, “understanding and support” for mental health has been identified as a nationwide priority in the 2020 Australian Catholic Bishops Conference social justice statement.

COVID-19 is not only causing physical, social and economic strains, it is also heaping pressure on the mental health of many people in ways that are hard to see.

“People experiencing mental ill-health are not some ‘other’ people, they are ‘us’,” ACBC president and Brisbane Archbishop, Mark Coleridge, said in the forward to this year’s social justice statement released in the lead-up to Social Justice Sunday on August 30.

“People in our families, faith communities, workplaces and society are suffering mental ill-health – and they can be of any age or socioeconomic background. Whoever and whatever they are, they need our understanding and support.

“It is surely time for us to make mental health a real priority, so that all people may know the fullness of life which Jesus offers (John 10:10).”

The 2020 Social Justice Statement ‘To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health in Australia Today’ sets out to explain mental health in the clearest terms, pointing out that each of us needs the bonds of family, friends and the broader community “to celebrate the joys and hopes of life” and are important “in times of anxiety and despair”.

“Mental health can be seen as a continuum. At one end are people who are feeling well and coping with the demands of daily life. This is the case for 60 per cent of all Australians,” the statement said.

“At the other end are people experiencing mental illness.”

Common conditions include anxiety and depression, while others relate to psychosis, including schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder.

In 2018, a Church survey of 15,000 young Australians identified mental health, followed by school or study, drugs and alcohol, and body image as the main issues facing young people today.

Mental illness typically emerges in adolescence and early adulthood.

Three-quarters of people who develop ill-health first experience its symptoms before they are 25 years old.

 “There is the pressure to succeed at school, to start university or find work. Lack of affordable housing, significant debt early in life, and the ‘gig economy’ can cause huge pressures,” the social justice statement said.

“This is a time in life when young people at risk can withdraw from family and friends, engage in risk-taking behaviours and form a reliance on drugs and alcohol.

“We are deeply saddened that over 3000 people are lost to suicide each year and that young people aged 15 to 24 years of age are most vulnerable.”

Suicide accounts for around one third of deaths among people in this age group, with around 90 per cent of victims experiencing mental ill-health.

Stresses occur at all stages of life.

While the birth of a child is a great joy, it can also be a difficult time.

Up to 20 per cent of women experience depression during pregnancy and following birth, and so called postnatal depression can have severe and prolonged effects on daily routines and care of a child.

Work – too much, or lack of it – place stresses on family relationships.

“Three million workers have mental ill-health or are caring for someone with mental ill-health,” the ACBC statement said.

“We are all aware of the mental and emotional impact of separation and divorce.

“The breakdown of a relationship is distressing for each partner and can have a lasting impact on children.”

An especially acute problem is the impact of domestic violence and abuse on women.

They are the most likely to suffer mental ill-health, with far higher levels of trauma, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts than the general population.

The statement points out that people over 75 receive some of the lowest levels of mental health care – at a time when major life changes are a cause for increased distress – grief for deceased spouses and friends, limited finances, losing independence and moving into residential aged care.

“Because depression is regarded as common among frail-aged people in aged care, it may be seen as ‘normal’ and individuals and their carers are less likely to identify and treat the illness,” the statement said.

The statement also points to other recent disasters – prolonged drought, and bushfires that have caused “environmental-related anxieties”, and “led to resignation and loss of hope”.

“Suicide rates in rural and remote communities are 66 per cent higher than in major cities,” the statement said.

The recent bushfires wiped out entire communities.

Lives were lost, communities displaced, homes and businesses were destroyed. The greater frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters amplify the impact climate change is having on mental health.

“We now face the COVID-19 pandemic. In our vulnerability we realise that we are not in control,” the statement said

“Our daily routines have been disrupted and over a million people have lost their jobs or been stood down. Our workplaces and churches have been closed and we have been forced to isolate ourselves from others.”

The statement says “anxiety and fear of the unknown” are normal psychological responses that can spur positive responses “to protect ourselves and our communities”.

However these same fears can incapacitate us, and can become “fear of our neighbour”.

“The number of people experiencing or at risk of mental ill-health has increased during this period of pandemic,” the statement said.

“Many more will be distressed or relive previous trauma through the impact the virus is having in their lives.”

The Productivity Commission estimates that the cost of mental ill-health and suicide is between $43 and 51 billion each year and that there is an additional cost of $130 billion per annum associated with diminished health and reduced life expectancy.

“ These costs will increase as Australia responds to the pandemic,” the bishops’ statement said.

“But the real cost of mental illness is far more than economic. It is felt in the stigma and discrimination experienced by the most vulnerable – being labelled, shunned, denied support, or not even being recognised.”

In the workplace people with mental ill-health can be judged incompetent and denied opportunities for advancement. At community gatherings they can be excluded, avoided or experience dismissive treatment.

“This denies a person’s human dignity and their right to live life to the full,” the statement said.

“It is a rejection of the gifts that they have to offer and their membership in the Body of Christ.

“Our parishes, organisations and communities should be places of acceptance, care and healing, not places of rejection or judgement.

“Furthermore, as Pope Francis constantly reminds us, we have to take the initiative to go out to those pushed to the edges, rather than waiting for them to come to us seeking welcome.”

The ACBC statement explores the interplay of poor mental health, homelessness and incarceration, and the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people on key measures of disadvantage including mental ill-health.

“Around 40 per cent of people coming into

prison and those being discharged back into the community have a previous diagnosis of mental illness,” the statement said.

“They are ten times more likely than the general population to report a history of suicide attempts and thoughts of suicide.”

The statement highlights the alarming imprisonment rates for indigenous Australians – making up three per cent of the Australian population, but almost a third of people in prison.

The deterioration of mental health amongst offshore refugees and asylum seekers is also described as a violation of human rights, often compounding pre-existing poor mental health as a result of disasters and wars, persecution and torture from which they fled.

“The policy (of offshore detention) seems aimed at breaking their spirits, but it does the rest of us spiritual harm too,” the statement said.

The bishops’ statement concludes with an acknowledgement of the harm done in failing to protect and care for children and vulnerable adults in institutions.

“We again say sorry to the Stolen Generations and their families for the Catholic Church’s complicity in the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their Indigenous families,” the statement said.

“We say sorry to all the survivors of childhood institutional abuse and their families.

“We commit ourselves to continue to advocate for the humane and just treatment of asylum seekers, refugees and humanitarian entrants.”

The complete statement ‘To Live Life to the Full: Mental health in Australia today’, can be downloaded at:

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