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Catholic psychologist says Australia’s mental health is getting worse under COVID-19

Help needed: “Queensland is seeing an alarming increase in mental health problems, especially among the young.”

LOCKDOWNS, economic distress and the constant stream of bad news from the coronavirus pandemic have all taken their toll on the mental health of Australians, a Catholic psychologist has said.

Brisbane psychologist Nahum Kozak said there had been a sharp increase in the number of people seeking help with a great demand being placed on psychologists.

His comments echoed new information coming from Canberra, where Health Minister Greg Hunt announced there had been a 15 per cent rise in the number of Medicare-subsidised mental health services being delivered.

The numbers were worst in Victoria, which had undergone an extensive lockdown order and has been the centre of Australia’s most recent outbreaks.

Calls to Beyond Blue’s support line were up 77 per cent in Victoria over the rest of the country and another 16 per cent with calls to Lifeline.

Mr Kozak said the mental health sector had struggled to respond to the demand and had – like most industries – had to innovate on the fly.

He said at North Brisbane Psychologists, where he practised, they had significantly extended telehealth offerings.

“Many relationships are under significant stress – particularly if people are not equipped with the means to have a calm conversation with one another and work out how they can adapt to the changing situation,” he said.

“However, I’ve also seen instances in which lockdowns and all the other restrictions in place have been a godsend for some relationships with people able to spend more time together and rediscover their spark.

“There is usually some good that can be drawn out of a difficult situation.

“However this doesn’t take away from this being a stressful and overwhelming situation for most of those affected, and those affected are huge swathes of the population.”

One of the less spoken of issues of the pandemic has been its most spoken of issue – the pandemic itself.

The constant cycle of pandemic news being delivered via television, radio or online could pose a risk to people’s mental health.

“Being constantly on the alert can pose a risk for people, and it’s important to take a break from the pandemic where you can – for instance, try to limit the amount of ‘doom-scrolling’ that you do, and instead take some action, however small, towards something you value,” Mr Kozak said.

He said this might be a creative project, gardening, time with immediate family or engaging in fitness.

“Taking a small action towards one thing you value can have a massive impact on your individual wellbeing,” he said.

MORE FROM NAHUM KOZAK: Australians in loneliness epidemic despite nation excelling in employment, social connectedness

Last month, a Senate inquiry into the Federal Government’s pandemic support heard grave warnings of a second domestic violence wave because of the impending reduction in wage subsidies and unemployment payments.

“We predict there is going to be a significant increase in demand for our services when financial support and restrictions currently in place are currently removed,” Women’s Legal Services Australia’s Helen Matthews told the inquiry.

Women’s Legal Services Australia has already seen soaring levels of demand, with 50 per cent of calls in Queensland going unanswered in May when the state exited lockdown.

Domestic violence: “Clearly if there is any evidence of emotional or physical violence, this is also a major flag.”

The Queensland Bishops’ Election Statement, released on September 7, also highlighted the mental health pandemic and domestic violence scourge coming to the fore.

“Queensland is seeing an alarming increase in mental health problems, especially among the young,” the bishops said.

“It is also seeing rising levels of violence in personal relationships and families, as the time of lockdown has shown in appalling ways.

“How can our community support women and their families in creating a more supportive and child-friendly community?”

Unfortunately, determining who was, and who was not a danger, was not always obvious.

Mr Kozak said people should be aware that perpetrators of domestic violence were often highly charming individuals to those outside the pattern of abuse.

He said that even for those people caught in the cycle of abuse, the perpetrator “may be charming, kind, and loving to their partner between episodes – this could lead people to decide that ‘things mustn’t be so bad after all’”.

He said these characteristics were a well-documented part of the cycle of abuse and part of what kept the cycle going.

“Concerned friends and family should seek advice about how best to help,” he said.

“Specific concerns are if someone is being controlled by being isolated from friends and family, belittled, gaslighting, having access to funds removed, or have other freedoms curtailed in any other way.

“Clearly if there is any evidence of emotional or physical violence, this is also a major flag.”

Mr Kozak said to call DVConnect on 1800 811 811 if you are concerned about a family or friend who you suspect is in a domestic violence situation in order to get advice on the particular situation.

In responding to the overwhelming demand for mental health professionals, Mr Kozak and many other healthcare professionals have tried new ways of delivering help.

Mr Kozak said a large percentage of his work was for couples’ therapy and one of his innovations was offering a Marathon Couples Therapy.

“This is where instead of coming once a week over a period of months, couples come to an individual therapist for an intensive two days of couples’ therapy (and) couples’ retreat,” he said.

“This intensive process has been getting strong positive results, with couples having greater opportunity to learn better communication skills in the new format.”

For more information, visit https://northbrisbanepsychologists.com.au/marathon-therapy.

If you need someone to talk to, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36.

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