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Catholic psychologist Paul Stevenson says mental health impact of COVID-19 could last years

Seeing symptoms: Paul Stevenson.

THE coronavirus pandemic is tending to “dial everything up to 11” in mental health, Catholic psychologist Paul Stevenson says.

“Where people have anxiety or depression, what COVID tends to do is it tends to exacerbate the symptoms of that and particularly because a lot of the symptoms for those conditions are about hopelessness and helplessness, and being out of control,” Mr Stevenson said from his Brisbane practice.

“So I think generally there is a pervasive kind of anxiety that I (notice) in just about everybody that I see, regardless of the reason that they come to see me.”

Mr Stevenson, who until recently was president of the Australian Association of Psychologists and the Australian College of Clinical Psychologists, said that was probably “the major broad-spectrum” factor he had noticed.

He pointed also to a couple of specifics that would come out of the COVID-19 experience as well.

“Being a virus it will lend itself to a post-viral infection or a chronic fatigue syndrome – that’s a big part of it,” he said.

He referred to the term “long COVID”; “it pertains to people who have been infected by the virus and who will, for a time afterwards, suffer a number of physical pains – lungs and respiratory conditions in general”.

“But, like all viruses, the potential for a post-viral depression, which we now call chronic fatigue syndrome, is very rife,” Mr Stevenson said.

“That will be the thing that lasts now for a couple of years.

“Even after we get the vaccine, we’re going to find that people are going to be affected by a long-term clinicity.”

He said post-natal depression would be a major factor psychologists would need to be concerned about.

“During the COVID crisis over the last nine months or so there’ve been two major issues with regard to parents having children,” he said.

“One will be the delay of it – not wanting to bring a child into an uncertain world; but the other is the anxiety felt by women who are carrying a baby during this period of time, and always being frightened that they themselves will contract the virus and that it will impact their pregnancy.

“It’s just made everybody who’s thinking about parenting really become very anxious or reconsider.”

Related to the economic impact of COVID, he said “you’ve got a series of other issues – the impact of insolvencies, bankruptcies”.

“You’ve got the poverty – the new-found poverty by people who would never in their lifetimes expect to be unemployed and who suddenly become unemployed,” he said.

Pandemic woes: “But, like all viruses, the potential for a post-viral depression, which we now call chronic fatigue syndrome, is very rife.”

“(There’s) the prospects that they’ll go back onto a $40-a-day JobSeeker allowance at Christmas time, of all times.

“All of that anxiety is weighing very, very heavily on people – and the unemployment mutual obligation stuff … anxiety is huge.

“It just goes on and on … It’s hard to find something that’s not affected, or a person that’s not affected by this.”

People who were marginalised or in lower socio-economic situations, and people living with disabilities were particularly affected.

“People with chronic health conditions, and elderly people, naturally, in aged care, and those who are not so far away from it – all of those people who are in that vulnerable group are much more affected than a lot of younger people who consider themselves to be invincible,” Mr Stevenson said.

“The more vulnerable you feel, the worse it is.

“I’m 65 and diabetic, and there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about whether I’ll get it, particularly working in hospitals as I do.

“You think about this every day.”

Mr Stevenson said one of the problems with people getting the help they needed was that the greater share of Government funding for mental health during the pandemic was going to a couple of high-profile companies and not filtering down to the smaller practices in the community.

He said the larger operators seemed to be over-run with referrals because of this, “and they can’t keep up with the demand”.

“Whereas Medicare has increased the number of sessions that people can have with us (smaller practices) … there’s no conduit that gets those people to us or gets us to those people,” he said.

“That’s the piece of the puzzle that’s missing, and so we’ve got this very narrow band of resources going into the community, and quite a lot of my colleagues are calling me to say, ‘What can we do about this; we’re just not getting referrals?’

“So the vast majority of psychologists are outside the circle of where they can be of assistance to the general population.”

Mr Stevenson expects some of the mental health issues arising out of the pandemic to continue beyond this year.

“I can see the chronic fatigue nature of things … going on for probably two or three years,” he said.

“I can see the post-natal depression lasting that long …

“I can see the distress caused by poverty and unemployment going on … that’s unforeseeable, as long as that would go on – it’s just an indeterminate amount of time into the future.

“We could go several years before we get unemployment back to what it was, and certainly, come Christmas time, I think it’s going to be devastating when all of these supplements stop.

“I can’t imagine that anybody could go back to living on $40 a day, and particularly not people who have never been unemployed, people who never ever thought they would ever be unemployed.

“This can’t happen in a fair and ethical society.”

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