Australian Mental Health Prize 2020 highlights long-term impact of COVID-19

It would be an understatement to say that people’s mental health is being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Australia’s mental health system must be prepared to address the long-term issues.

This was the main message from Professor Richard Bryant AC, UNSW Sydney Scientia Professor, when he launched this year’s Australian Mental Health Prize today via an online forum.

Running now for five years, the prize recognises Australians who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of mental health or the prevention and treatment of mental illness.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is causing unprecedented pressures on people around the world,” explained Professor Bryant.

“Apart from the anxieties of infection, people are experiencing considerable stress arising from changes to work structure, unemployment, financial pressures, schooling, concern for family and the elderly, and social isolation.”

Professor Bryant further explained that previous pandemic such as SARS, “… have shown that mental health issues spike during the outbreak, and more worryingly, can lead to longer-term problems well beyond the pandemic itself”.

Everyone needs to remember that the hidden threat from COVID-19 is the long-term mental effects.

Professor Bryant continued, saying that strategies can be employed to manage mental health in the context of COVID-19.

“It is important to note that many of the stress reactions many of us experience during the pandemic are not necessarily a mental disorder but rather reflect understandable stress reactions to a severe situation. In this sense, many of the strategies that can be used at this time are those used to help people cope with ongoing stressors rather than mental disorders.

“Health systems are being developed and implemented around the world to try to provide mental health services to hugely increased numbers of people. These services need to adopt innovative treatment formats to accommodate social distancing, potentially large numbers of people requiring help, and targeting people who traditionally do not seek mental health assistance.”

Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty from UNSW Medicine agrees with Professor Bryant’s comments and believes it is more important than ever to publicly acknowledge and address the unprecedented levels of mental health issues that will arise from the COVID-19 crisis.

“The mental health sector will need to adapt to the changing environment we are all currently living through. It is imperative that we acknowledge and celebrate the dedication and work of the mental health sector in assisting Australians through these difficult times,” Professor Brodaty said.

“We encourage clinicians, health professionals, community groups and individuals to nominate people whom they feel are making a real difference in the area of mental health research, advocacy or service delivery for the 2020 Australian Mental Health Prize,” concluded Professor Bryant.