Huge jump in Australians seeking mental health help during pandemic
23 December 2020
In just four weeks during the pandemic, Australians contacted three mental health helplines more than 140,000 times, and 7.2m Medicare-subsidised mental health services were delivered in just over six months.
On Thursday the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare published a series of reports examining the effect of Covid-19 on the health system, with data showing a substantial increase in mental health-related services since 20 March when pandemic restrictions were first introduced.
Phone and online support organisations in particular reported substantial increases in demand. In the four weeks to 27 September, almost 83,500 calls were made to Lifeline, a 15.6% increase from the same time in 2019. In the same period, Kids Helpline received more than 32,000 calls and online contact requests, a 14.3% increase on 2019, and more than 27,500 calls were made to Beyond Blue, a 21.3% increase.
The data also shows that between 16 March and 27 September, 7.2m Medicare-subsidised mental health-related services were delivered nationally, 2.5m via telehealth. This represents a 15% increase on the same time last year. In the four weeks to 27 September, mental health-related prescriptions dispensed under the pharmaceutical benefits scheme rose 5.9% compared with 2019.
The data comes as the antidepressant sertraline – sold under the brand name Zoloft – entered the top 10 list of Australia’s most commonly prescribed drugs for the first time, coming in at number nine. The institute report also found access to some cancer screening services decreased during the pandemic. A spokesman, Dr Adrian Webster, said there were about 145,000 fewer screening mammograms performed through BreastScreen Australia between January and June compared with January to June 2018.
“The situation improved after restrictions were eased, with around 12,000 more screening mammograms performed … ,” he said.
Although elective surgery was affected by pandemic restrictions, the three with the most significant decline in public hospitals were varicose vein treatment, myringotomy (a procedure to allow fluid to drain from the ears), and tonsillectomy.
However, the data showed the rate of more urgent elective surgeries was largely unaffected.
“The long-term health effects of cancelling or postponing non-urgent elective surgeries are not yet known, and it is unclear whether patients may have opted for alternative treatments if they were unable to proceed with surgery,” the report said.
In the week starting 16 March, there were 15,300 elective surgeries performed in public hospitals. By the week starting 13 April, this had fallen to 4,800. As restrictions eased, the number increased: in the week starting 22 June, there were 14,200 surgeries performed.
The data also showed a significant decline in emergency department attendances for injuries, falling from 5,800 attendances in the week beginning 24 February to 3,400 in the week beginning 30 March.
“These trends coincided with the restrictions on public and social gatherings and activities, including sporting events and travel restrictions,” the report found.