How to outsmart your COVID-19 fears and boost your mood in 2021



It’s all about emotion.
Charles Postiaux/Unsplash, CC BY-ND

Laurel Mellin, University of California, San Francisco

After a year of toxic stress ignited by so much fear and uncertainty, now is a good time to reset, pay attention to your mental health and develop some healthy ways to manage the pressures going forward.

Brain science has led to some drug-free techniques that you can put to use right now.

I am health psychologist who developed a method that harnesses our rip-roaring emotions to rapidly switch off stress and activate positive emotions instead. This technique from emotional brain training is not perfect for everyone, but it can help many people break free of stress when they get stuck on negative thoughts.

Why the stress response is so hard to turn off

Three key things make it hard to turn off stress-activated negative emotions:

  • First, our genes make us worrywarts. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors survived by assuming every rustle in the grasses was a lurking hungry lion, not harmless birds hunting for seeds. We’re essentially programmed to be hyperaware of threats, and our brains rapidly launch stress chemicals and negative emotions in response.

  • Second, the chemical cascade of stress hormones in the brain associated with negative emotions impairs cognitive flexibility, goal-directed behavior and self-control.

  • Third, our tendency to avoid dealing with negative emotions puts people in a perpetual cycle of ignoring unpleasant feelings, which amplifies stress and the risk of emotional health problems.

Brain illustration
Thought vs. emotion in the brain.
Laurel Mellin, CC BY-ND

Traditional approaches for coping with stress were based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on modifying patterns of thinking and behavior. It was developed before our modern understanding of stress overload.

Researchers at New York University discovered a paradox: Although cognitive methods were effective in low-stress situations, they were less effective when dealing with the high stress of modern life.

Emotional brain training works with these high-stress emotions in an effort to tame them, releasing negative emotions as the first of two steps in preventing stress overload.

Step 1: Release negative emotions

The only negative emotion in the brain that supports taking action rather than avoidance and passivity is anger.

Studies have shown that the suppression of anger is associated with depression and that suppressing anger doesn’t reduce the emotion. Healthy release of anger instead has been found to reduce other stress-related health risks.

Our technique is to switch off stress overload by using a controlled burst of anger to help the brain exert better emotional control and allow emotions to flow rather than become chronic and toxic. After that first short burst, other feelings can flow, starting with sadness to grieve the loss of safety, then fear and regret, or what we would do differently next time.

You can talk yourself through the stages. To experiment with the process, use these simple phrases to express the negative feelings and release your stress: “I feel angry that …”; “I feel sad that …”; “I feel afraid that …”; and “I feel guilty that …”

Step 2. Express positive emotions

After releasing negative emotions, positive emotions can naturally arise. Express these feelings using the same approach: “I feel grateful that …”; “I feel happy that …”; “I feel secure that …”; and “I feel proud that …”

Your mindset can quickly change, a phenomenon that has many potential explanations. One explanation is that in positive states, your brain’s neural circuits that store memories from when you were in the same positive state in the past can be spontaneously activated. Another is that the switch from negative to positive emotions quiets your sympathetic nervous system – which triggers the fight-or-flight response – and activates the parasympathetic system, which acts more like a brake on strong emotions.

Here’s what the whole stress relief process might look like like for me right now:

  • I feel angry that we’re all isolated and I can’t see my new grandson Henry.

  • I hate it that everything is so messed up! I HATE THAT!!!

  • I feel sad that I am alone right now.

  • I feel afraid that this will never end.

  • I feel guilty that I am complaining! I am lucky to be alive and have shelter and love in my life.

Then the positive:

  • I feel grateful that my daughter-in-law sends me photos of Henry.

  • I feel happy that my husband and I laughed together this morning.

  • I feel secure that this will eventually pass.

  • I feel proud that I am doing the best I can to cope.

After a daunting year, and with more challenges ahead in 2021, upgrading your approach to emotions can be a drug-free mood booster. Our COVID-19 fears need not consume us. We can outsmart the brain’s fear response and find moments that sparkle with promise.

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Laurel Mellin, Associate Professor Emeritus of Family & Community Medicine and Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘I felt immense grief’: one year on from the bushfires, scientists need mental health support



Daniella Teixeira

Daniella Teixeira, Griffith University

One night in January 2020, I couldn’t sleep. I kept waking to check my phone for news from Kangaroo Island, off South Australia. Fires had already burned through several sites where I’d researched the island’s endangered glossy black cockatoos, and now it was tracking towards two critical habitat areas.

The areas were crucial to the birds’ feeding and nesting. I knew losing these places would be a disaster for the already small and isolated population. At home in Queensland, I felt helpless and anxious.

As ecology students, we learn a lot about the problems facing the most vulnerable life on Earth, but not how to cope with them. And as conservationists, we front up to ecological devastation each day, but sometimes without the professional support to help us deal with the emotional consequences.

This was exceptionally clear to me during the Black Summer fires. I was in no way equipped to deal with the possible extinction of my study species.

The author, Danielle Teixeira, with a glossy black cockatoo.
The author, Daniella Teixeira, with a glossy black cockatoo.
Mike Barth

What chance of survival?

The fires destroyed almost everything on the western half of Kangaroo Island. Most of Kangaroo Island’s glossy black cockatoo population lived in the burnt areas, and I was anxious to know their fate.

A colleague on the island emailed with some news. One critical habitat area I was concerned about, Parndarna Conservation Park, had been destroyed. The fires reached the other habitat area, Cygnet Park, but thankfully most of it was saved.

The eastern end of Kangaroo Island was untouched. This offered a sliver of hope; if the remaining habitat could be saved, the glossy black cockatoos had a chance of surviving.




Read more:
‘This situation brings me to despair’: two reef scientists share their climate grief


I started urgently raising money and dealing with media requests. Taking these pressures off the team on the island was one way I could be useful from afar.

As the fires raged, and for weeks afterwards, I poured immense energy into this mission, spurred by the belief that conservationists must be strong and resilient in the face of disaster. But I was stressed and worried. How could the island possibly recover from such a fire? What is my role as a scientist in such a crisis?

At one point, a friend and fellow conservationist checked in. He reminded me that taking time out is OK. I was thankful to hear this from another scientist; it made me feel better about periodically stepping away from my inbox and the ever-expanding fire scar maps.

Burnt landscape on Kangaroo Island
Conservationists are not always well equipped to deal with the tragedies they face.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Heading back to Kangaroo Island

I returned to Kangaroo Island in late February. Until then, I had not grasped the gravity of the island’s condition. In many places, no birdsong remained. The wind no longer rustled through the needles of the she-oak trees.

The most difficult time was returning to a nesting site of the glossy black cockatoo which I knew well. I found nest trees burnt to the ground. Their plastic artificial nest hollows, built to encourage breeding, were a melted mess.

A nest box that melted in the fires.
A nest box that melted in the fires.
Daniella Teixeira

Remarkably, amid the charred remains I found an active nest. The female watched me intently; she didn’t flee or make a sound. I watched her, amazed, and hoped there was enough food to support the four-month nesting period.

I felt immense grief standing at the nesting site. I grieved not only for the glossy black cockatoos and other damaged species, but also the loss that would come in the future under climate change.

At that time, we didn’t know how many cockatoos remained. But thankfully, in the following months it became clear most cockatoos escaped the inferno. In 2016, 373 birds were counted on the island, and those numbers increased before the bushfires, thanks to conservation efforts. In spring this year, field staff and volunteers counted at least 454 birds on the island.

It was a wonderful but surprising result, which might not have been the case if the fires took place during the breeding season when the cockatoos would be reluctant to abandon their nests. The concern now is whether the remaining habitat can maintain the population over time.

Coping with ecological grief

In the year since the fires, my acute grief at the plight of nature has lifted. But an underlying sadness, and concern for the future, remains. From my discussions with other conservationists, I know I’m not the only one to feel this way.

glossy black cockatoos on a branch
The fires destroyed critical habitat for glossy black cockatoos.
Dean Ingwersen

Black Summer was a wake-up call for me. As an early career scientist, I will inevitably face more crises, and dealing with them effectively means keeping my mental health in check. I believe conservationists should be offered more mental health education and support. I don’t have all the solutions, but offer a few ideas here.

Universities and workplaces offer limited counselling services, but they may not be enough when grief is an inherent part of your job. I believe there is scope for more ongoing support for conservationists, which should be integrated into regular workplace practices and training.

Regular discussions with supervisors and colleagues can also help. I find such open and honest discussions very beneficial. There is a shared sense of grief, as well as purpose.

Importantly, we should all work to break down the culture that says action is the only response to environmental disasters. Some conservation scientists feel they are risking their reputation or career progression by taking time out. But they must be given space to process emotions such as grief and anger, without guilt or shame.




Read more:
Hope and mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding ecological grief


And scientists are easily overworked and overwhelmed in workplaces, such as universities, when productivity and output takes priority over the welfare of staff.

Since Black Summer, I have made a concerted effort to spend more time in nature. I listen to birdsong and the wind, and marvel at the complexity of life. I do this not to remember what I’m fighting to save, but simply because it brings me joy.

The author with a nestling cockatoo
The author, with a nestling glossy black cockatoo, says conservation scientists need more mental health support.
Mike Barth



Read more:
I’m searching firegrounds for surviving Kangaroo Island Micro-trapdoor spiders. 6 months on, I’m yet to find any


The Conversation


Daniella Teixeira, Researcher, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A mental disorder, not a personal failure: why now is the time for Australia to rethink addiction



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Dan Lubman, Monash University

The year 2020 has challenged us all. The bushfires and then the pandemic forced us to reflect on what’s important, how we respond to crises as a community, and the ways we connect and support each other.

We’re still grappling with what the long-term mental health effects of this period of fear, insecurity and social disconnection might be.

At the start of the pandemic we saw a surge in alcohol sales and reported drinking. Almost one-third of people who purchased more alcohol expressed concerns about their own drinking, or that of someone in their household.

People often turn to alcohol or other drugs to help cope with stress, financial pressures, loss and trauma. Increases in drinking are consistently reported after natural disasters, acts of terrorism and economic crises.

It’s therefore timely to reflect on our perceptions of addiction, who is affected, and how we respond.

What is addiction?

In simple terms, addiction is the inability to stop consuming a drug or cease an activity, even if it’s causing physical or psychological harm.

A common misconception is that it’s a result of a lack of willpower or poor self-control. But in reality, addiction is a complex health disorder with a range of biological, developmental and environmental risk factors, including trauma, social isolation or exclusion, and genetics.

Around one in four Australians will develop an alcohol, drug or gambling disorder during their lifetime, and around one in 20 will develop addiction, the most severe form of the disorder.

Despite common stereotypes, addiction doesn’t discriminate. It affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

A group therapy session. One woman is standing and addressing three others.
It often takes people experiencing addiction a long time to seek treatment.
Shutterstock

Stigma is disabling

Addiction remains one of the most stigmatised of all health conditions globally. We grant compassion to people with health conditions like cancer, heart disease or diabetes, yet society doesn’t offer that same concern to someone with an addiction.

Too often, we blame the individual, believing the addiction is their fault. But addiction is an unfortunate consequence of something much more complex.




Read more:
Drug rehab: what works and what to keep in mind when choosing a private treatment provider


As a consequence of feeling shame and judgement, it can often take people many years to seek help. This is compounded by multiple barriers to treatment (such as geography, cost, waiting times and concerns about privacy).

Yet our refusal to have an honest conversation about how we respond to tobacco, alcohol, drug and gambling-related harm comes at a significant cost to the Australian community, exceeding A$175 billion annually.

A broken system

Across Australia, treatment for addiction remains fragmented, with limited opportunities for ongoing care. There’s no consistent national planning, despite evidence that for every $1 invested in treatment, society gains $7.

The situation is exacerbated by a health workforce that has had limited opportunities for undergraduate and postgraduate training in addiction, meaning emergency and primary care systems frequently struggle to respond.

This is in stark contrast with other chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma and heart disease, where there are clear training pathways, clinical guidelines and national models of care.

A man holds a small packet with white powder in one hand, and his phone in the other hand.
Addiction continues to have stigma attached to it.
Shutterstock

So, many individuals suffering from addiction and their families are left to navigate their own pathways to treatment.

A tragic consequence of this fragmented and failing system is that we continue to see preventable deaths associated with different types of addiction.




Read more:
How a simple brain training program could help you stay away from alcohol


Tackling the stigma

The recent SBS documentary series Addicted Australia follows ten brave Australians and their families as they seek professional help for addiction over a six-month period. It’s an important step in challenging prevailing myths and stereotypes around addiction.

The series opens the door to the realities of addiction, providing viewers with a deeper understanding of the disorder, the devastating effect it has on individuals and families, and what effective treatment and recovery looks like when people have access to a holistic model of care.

The hope is that this series will help change community perceptions about the reality of addiction, elevate expectations about what treatment should look like, and alter the narrative such that recovery is not just a possibility, but like for other health conditions, is a realistic goal.

Addicted Australia, which recently aired on SBS, is now available on SBS On Demand.

A call to action

Treating addiction like any other health disorder has to start with strong public policy reform and intervention to ensure the health system is adequately supported and resourced, so accessible and timely treatment is available to people who need it.

Until we change how we view addiction — from personal failure to a mental disorder, something we cannot control any more than we can control cancer — Australians, and millions globally, will continue to suffer.

We’ve partnered with more than 40 organisations to develop a national campaign, “Rethink Addiction”, that calls for a national action plan for addiction treatment and advocates for a change to Australia’s attitude and response to addiction.

We encourage anyone who has been touched by addiction or is passionate about reducing stigma to share their story and get involved in making the case for change.

After the year we’ve all had, there’s no better time to rethink addiction.




Read more:
We’re told to ‘gamble responsibly’. But what does that actually mean?


The Conversation


Dan Lubman, Executive Clinical Director, Turning Point & Director of Monash Addiction Research Centre, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Young people are exposed to more hate online during COVID. And it risks their health



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Joanne Orlando, Western Sydney University

COVID has led to children spending more time on screens using social networks, communication apps, chat rooms and online gaming.

While this has undoubtedly allowed them to keep in touch with friends, or connect with new ones, during the pandemic, they are also being exposed to increased levels of online hate.

That’s not just the bullying and harassment we often hear about. They’re also being exposed to everyday negativity — Twitter pile-ons, people demonising celebrities, or knee-jerk reactions lashing out at others — several times a day.

This risks normalising this type of online behaviour, and may also risk children’s mental health and well-being.

What are children exposed to?

Hate speech can consist of comments, images or symbols that attack or use disapproving or discriminatory language about a person or group, on the basis of who they are.

It can even be coded language to spread hate, as seen on the world’s most popular social platform for children, TikTok. For example, the number 14 refers to a 14-word-long white supremacist slogan.




Read more:
TikTok can be good for your kids if you follow a few tips to stay safe


People can be exposed to hate speech directly, or witness it between others. And one study, which analysed millions of websites, popular teen chat sites and gaming sites, found children were exposed to much higher levels of online hate during the pandemic than before it.

The study, run by a company that uses artificial intelligence to detect and filter online content, found a 70% increase in hate between children and teens during online chats. It also found a 40% increase in toxicity among young gamers communicating using gaming chat.

Of particular note is the rise of hate on TikTok during the pandemic. TikTok has hundreds of millions of users, many of them children and teenagers. During the pandemic’s early stages, researchers saw a sharp spike in far-right extremist posts, including ideologies of fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration and xenophobia.

Children may also inadvertently get caught up in online hate during times of uncertainty, such as a pandemic. This may be when the entire family may be in distress and children have long periods of unsupervised screen time.




Read more:
Social media can be bad for youth mental health, but there are ways it can help


Witnessing hate normalises it

We know the more derogatory language about immigrants and minority groups people are exposed to (online and offline), the more intergroup relations deteriorate.

This leads to empathy for others being replaced by contempt. Terms like “hive mind” (being expected to conform to popular opinion online or risk being the target of hate) and “lynching” (a coordinated social media celebrity hate storm) are now used to describe this online contempt.

Being exposed to hate speech also leads young people to become less sensitive to hateful language.
The more hate speech a child observes, the less upset they are about it. They develop a laissez-faire attitude, become indifferent, seeing hateful comments as jokes, minimising the impact, or linking hateful content to freedom of speech.

Teenage girls playing soccer outside, both trying to kick the ball.
In real life, people are sent off the pitch for bad behaviour. But there is no such consequence in online gaming.
Shutterstock

There is also little reputational or punitive risk involved with bad behaviour online. A child playing soccer might get sent off the field in a real-life sporting game for “flaming”, or “griefing” (deliberately irritating and harassing other players). But there is no such consequence in online gaming.

Social platforms, including Facebook and TikTok, have recently expanded their hate speech guidelines. These guidelines, however, cannot eradicate hate speech as their definitions are too narrow, allowing hate to seep through.

So kids are growing up learning “bad behaviour” online is tolerated, even expected. If what children see every day on their screen is people communicating with them badly, it becomes normalised and they are willing to accept it is part of life.




Read more:
Technology and regulation must work in concert to combat hate speech online


Witnessing hate affects children’s health and well-being

Prince Harry recently warned of a “global crisis of hate” on social media that affects people’s mental health.

It impacts the mental health of all involved: those giving out the hate, those receiving it, and those observing it.

If a young person has negative, insulting attitudes or opinions, this is often put down to having unresolved emotional issues. However, channelling pent-up emotions into hate speech does not resolve these emotional issues. As hate posts can go viral, it can encourage more hate posts.

And for people who are exposed to this behaviour, this takes its toll.
The increased mental preparedness it takes to deal with or respond to microaggressions and hate translates into chronically elevated level of stress — so-called low-grade toxic stress.




Read more:
6 actions Australia’s government can take right now to target online racism


In the short term, too much low-grade toxic stress lowers our mood and drains our energy, leaving us fatigued. Prolonged low-grade toxic stress can lead to adverse health outcomes, such as depression or anxiety, disruption of the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increases in the risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.

It can also cause a child to develop a low threshold for stress throughout life.

Children growing up in already vulnerable, stressed environments will be more impacted by the stress they are also exposed to long-term online.




Read more:
With kids spending more waking hours on screens than ever, here’s what parents need to worry about


What to do

Unfortunately, we can’t eradicate hate online. But the more we understand why others post hate speech and the strategies they use to do this helps a child be more in control of their environment and therefore less impacted by it.

Hate speech is driven not only by negativity, but also by the simplicity in how groups are portrayed, for instance, boys are superior, girls are side-kicks. Teach children to notice over-simplicity and its use as a put-down strategy.

An aggressor (the one dishing out the hurt) can also easily hide behind a non-identifying pseudonym or username. This type of anonymity allows people to separate themselves from who they are in real life. It makes them feel free to use hostility and criticism as a viable way of dealing with their pain, or unresolved issues. Teach your child to be aware of this.


Resources on the impact of toxic stress on young people, mental health support and what to do if you experience or witness online hate are available for parents and children.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone
you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
The Conversation

Joanne Orlando, Researcher: Children and Technology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bushfires, drought, COVID: why rural Australians’ mental health is taking a battering



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David Perkins, University of Newcastle and Hazel Dalton, University of Newcastle

Among the Bushfire Royal Commission’s 80 recommendations, released last week, was a call to prioritise mental health support during and after natural disasters.

The Australian Medical Association this week called on the federal government to implement the recommendations to lessen the health impacts of future disasters, noting the ongoing mental health fallout from the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

The Royal Commission’s report comes as Australia heads into a bushfire season during a pandemic. Some farmers have this year lost their crops due to unseasonal rain and hail, as many rural communities anticipate further “big weather” events. Certain local economies, which are reliant on exports like wine and barley, are concerned about strained trade relations with China.

The combined effects of these adverse events is taking a toll on the health and well-being of rural people.

A year of cumulative stress

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released last month showed rural suicide rates are much higher than those in the big cities.

The causes of psychological stress for rural people are many and varied, depending on who you are and where you live. Many are facing environmental and weather events at increasing frequency and intensity. Some of these events happen rapidly, such as fire and floods, whereas others are long-lasting and uncertain, like drought.

The effects of these events include direct losses such as injury and death, as well as loss of livestock and buildings. Indirect losses include declines in businesses and employment, and the disruption of social fabric when friends or family leave town.

Recovery or adaptation can take many years.




Read more:
Distress, depression and drug use: young people fear for their future after the bushfires


These stresses of course come in addition to life’s normal challenges likes illness, bereavement and relationship breakdown.

For rural people, COVID has likely compounded these cumulative stresses and contributed to higher levels of trauma, mental ill-health and in some cases, suicidal behaviour.

Band-aid policies

In most rural communities, access to mental health services is relatively poor.

There’s longstanding evidence Medicare Benefits Scheme expenditure for mental health services is skewed towards metropolitan services.

State expenditure is focused on hospital services and care for those with high and complex needs. Consequently, many rural people with mild to moderate needs are under-served.

Traditionally, governments respond to crises reactively and by treating these events as short-term and disconnected. But this isn’t the experience of rural people.

Each adverse event is accompanied by (usually short-term) funding announcements by governments and agencies for new Headspace centres, expanded telephone helplines, websites, counsellors, or coordinators in the most affected areas.

Sometimes there’s overlap of effort across different government departments, federal and state jurisdictions or from different disaster responses, potentially wasting resources.

For example, in NSW, the longstanding drought has recently broken. But the social and economic recovery will take longer — possibly up to five years with consistent rain as it did following the Millennium drought.

Counsellors were funded to support rural residents during the drought in 2018, with more counsellors funded in response to the bushfires. And now additional services are being offered due to COVID.

While the extra support is welcome, the fragmentation and temporary nature of the funding means rural people may not know what services are available, and accessing services becomes confusing.

What’s more, with short-term contracts, it may be the same staff moving between roles and agencies, therefore not actually adding new staff to support local rural communities. This funding instability makes it difficult to retain a stable rural mental health workforce.




Read more:
Budget funding for Beyond Blue and Headspace is welcome. But it may not help those who need it most


What can be done?

In the first instance, policymakers need to ask people living in rural areas what they need and involve them in the process of developing appropriate and accessible services.

Second, we need to adopt a systemic approach that examines the full range of adverse events that affect the mental health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. This means going beyond treating illness, to addressing environmental, economic, social and personal factors.

As part of this, we need people on the ground to support communities through preparedness activities such as educating people about mental health and how to access services, while stepping into disaster response and recovery as needed. Continuity and building on what already exists locally is key.

The Rural Fire Service is a good example of such a structure. It has a clear role in disaster response, but also works to prepare communities between disasters (for example, by conducting back-burning and educating about bushfire plans).

Localised support is important because preparedness and response look very different depending on where you live in rural Australia. For example, Lismore on the northern NSW coast experiences regular flooding, whereas Broken Hill in the state’s far west contends with more frequent drought, and fierce dust storms.

Third, to fully understand and plan for the diversity of rural communities, we need sophisticated data planning, collection and analysis systems. Beyond health data, we need to look at the social, economic, environmental factors which all contribute to mental health and the way people access care.

If we can do this well, local planning will become easier, more transparent and tailored to need.

Finally, rural communities need support to develop local leadership, so they’re empowered to lead local responses. This is unlikely to succeed with short-term band-aid solutions, but rather with long-term investment and strategic policy to build and sustain capacity to cope with adversity.




Read more:
Collective trauma is real, and could hamper Australian communities’ bushfire recovery


The Conversation


David Perkins, Director, Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health and Professor of Rural Health Research, University of Newcastle and Hazel Dalton, Research Leader and Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’ve been tracking young people’s mental health since 2006. COVID has accelerated a worrying decline



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Zlatko Skrbis, Australian Catholic University; Jacqueline Laughland-Booy, Australian Catholic University, and Jonathan Smith, Australian Catholic University

We have been following more than 2,000 Queenslanders from their adolescence into adulthood. The aim of the Our Lives study is to investigate how young people think about their future and how they master their trajectories in a world of rapid change and uncertainty.

In 2006, our research team began tracking more than 7,000 students who began high school in Queensland at the age of 13. Since then, the study has become the largest and longest of school leavers in Australia post the global financial crisis. The cohort turns 27 this year.

Every two years, we survey this cohort about their developing aspirations and experiences in work, study, housing, relationships and family. We also explore changes in their social attitudes and mental and physical health.

We did a special survey in June 2020 in response to COVID-19. We wanted to understand how the cohort had been affected since the previous survey six months earlier, in late 2019.

Among our findings are a sharp decline in mental health between 2019 and June 2020, especially among respondents living in urban areas and those without secure work. Marriage or de facto partnerships seem to be a buffer against sharper declines seen in young people who are single or living with housemates.

A decline in mental well-being

At the age of 22, in 2015, 82% of respondents described their mental health as excellent, very good or good. This fell to 70% at the age of 26 in 2019 — a drop of three percentage points per year.

But, only six months into the next year 2020 (in June), this figure had already fallen by a further four percentage points, to 66%. These data suggest changes in the young people’s lives during the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the existing downward trend in their mental well-being.



How different demographics have fared

Research has indicated women are more adversely affected than men by recessions, both economically and psychologically.

In line with this, the female participants in our study displayed significantly worse mental health during COVID than their male counterparts. The proportion of 27 year old males who described their mental health as excellent, very good or good in June 2020 was 70.5% compared to 63.5% for females.




Read more:
Young women are hit doubly hard by recessions, especially this one


Young adults living in major city areas, where COVID cases have largely been concentrated, experienced a decline in mental health — from 68.7% in 2019 to 62.2% in 2020. But the proportion of those living in rural areas actually rose from 70.9% in 2019 to 72.2% in 2020.

By their mid-twenties, a major gap emerged in the well-being of people with and without secure work. In 2015, when participants were 22 years old, 82.4% with permanent, ongoing work rated their mental health good to excellent, compared to 68.5% in 2020. The results were 77.6% in 2015 for those who were unemployed compared to 54.1% in 2020.

  ____


Emergency welfare measures, such as the JobKeeper wage subsidy and increase to JobSeeker, may have temporarily prevented this gap from widening.

One of Australia’s top mental health experts, Professor Ian Hickie, has argued an extension to JobKeeper and greater financial support for students in post-school education and training are critical for mitigating the predicted surge in youth mental illness.



What about relationships?

Security in young adults’ housing and relationships appears to provide a key buffer against the negative psychological impacts of COVID-19. Our data show young adults living out of home, or with a partner (married or de facto) report substantially better mental health in June 2020 than those who are single and living with parents.

Young people in who were living with housemates during the COVID-19 period experienced the sharpest decline in positive mental health.



Social distancing took its toll on the Our Lives cohort during the national restriction period, with 39% reporting feelings of loneliness or isolation. There were also signs of strain and conflict in the young people’s relationships with those in their household.

Around one-quarter of the sample reported a lack of personal space or alone time, while 16% reported experiencing greater tension and conflict in the household. These outcomes increased young adults’ chances of experiencing a major decline in mental health during the lockdown period.

However, the effects of stay-at-home restrictions were not inherently negative. For many young adults, restrictions provided more time for themselves (38%) and encouraged stronger relationships with partners or family (33%). These outcomes were associated with significantly lower chances of a decline in mental health.



It’s vital young people have good access to youth mental health services in the months ahead so their mental health doesn’t continue to drastically decline. This is particularly the case for young people who may be less able to turn to parents, partners or friends for help.

Research has consistently found young people with mental health issues are the least likely to seek out mental health information and access professional help when they need it.




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As ‘lockdown fatigue’ sets in, the toll on mental health will require an urgent response


There is hope that the collective experience of social distancing during COVID-19 may have helped reduce some of the stigma associated with seeking help. If this is the case, we must seize the opportunity to learn from the experience of the young people in our cohort and the Australians they represent.

For mental health, go to Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636The Conversation

Zlatko Skrbis, Provost, Australian Catholic University; Jacqueline Laughland-Booy, Research Fellow in Sociology, Australian Catholic University, and Jonathan Smith, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Social activity can be good for mental health, but whether you benefit depends on how many friends you have



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Ziggi Ivan Santini, University of Southern Denmark; Paul E. Jose, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington; Robin Dunbar, University of Oxford, and Vibeke Jenny Koushede, University of Copenhagen

We know having friends is generally good for your happiness and mental well-being. Likewise, keeping socially active and engaging in formal social activities like volunteering has been linked to better mental health.

But it is also possible to have (or do) too much of a good thing. In a recent study, we tracked people aged 50 and older from 13 European countries over a two-year period to explore how volunteering, education, involvement in religious or political groups, or participating in sport or social clubs influenced their mental health.

We also looked at how many close social relationships people had — the kind of relationships in which they would discuss important personal matters. We found social activities especially benefited individuals who were relatively socially isolated (with three or fewer close relationships).

For people with a higher number of close relationships, engaging in social activities did not appear to enhance mental health. It could even be detrimental for some.

Who benefits from social activities

Social isolation is a major health issue. Apart from compromising the mental health of isolated individuals, it is linked to many other adverse health outcomes, including dementia, heart disease and stroke and premature death. But people who experience social isolation can take steps to improve their situation – for example, by engaging in formal social activities.




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Among individuals who were relatively socially isolated (people with three or fewer close relationships), we found more engagement in social activities was linked to improved quality of life and fewer symptoms of depression.

On a population level, our estimates suggest if such people were to engage regularly in social activities, we would see a 5-12% increase in people reporting better quality of life and a 4-8% reduction in people experiencing symptoms of depression. This would be a substantial change to population mental health, given more than 70% of people in our sample (aged 50+, in Europe) have three or fewer close relationships.

There are many reasons being socially active is linked to better mental health and well-being. Social activities can be a way to establish new relationships, provide opportunities for social support and foster a sense of belonging within a community.

People clearing weeds
Social activities can increase a sense of belonging within a group.
Shutterstock/Syda Productions

‘Too much’ social activity

While research so far has suggested having more social relationships is always better, our study indicates this may not be the case. Just like too much physical activity can compromise mental health, too much social activity can also backfire.

When we looked at how the study variables (quality of life, symptoms of depression) mapped against our two variables of interest (number of social activities, number of close relationships), we found U-shaped curves. That is, poor mental health at low levels of social activity, good mental health at moderate levels of social activity, and again poor mental health at high levels of social activity.




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Depression appeared to be minimised when people reported having four to five close relationships and being engaged in social activities on a weekly basis. Any more social activity than this, and the benefits started to decline, disappear or turn negative.

This downturn was particularly clear among individuals reporting seven or more close relationships. For these very busy people, engaging in social activities was linked to an increase in depressive symptoms.

Woman under stress.
Too much social activity can backfire and lead to exhaustion.
Shutterstock/Maksim Shmeljov

People typically report having an average of five close friends. Extroverts tend to report having more friends, but pay the price of having weaker friendships.

Because our social capital (essentially the time we have to devote to social interactions) is limited and roughly the same for everyone, extroverts in effect prefer to spread their social efforts thinly among many people. This is in contrast to introverts who prefer to focus their social efforts on fewer people to ensure those friendships really work well.

This trade-off is at the core of our capacity to engage in social activities. If you engage in too many, your social time is spread thinly among them. That thin investment might result in you becoming a peripheral member of numerous groups in the community rather than being embedded in the social centre where you can benefit from the support of your connections.

Another possibility is that too much social activity becomes a stress factor. This can lead to negative outcomes, such as social over-commitment, emotional and cognitive exhaustion, fatigue or feelings of guilt when social relationships are not properly nurtured because of limited time.

This raises another important consideration, albeit one we were not able to investigate empirically in our study. Family is an important part of our social world, not least in terms of the emotional and other support it provides. Devoting too much time to community activities means less time for family. That bottleneck might well prove to be detrimental to well-being because of the strain it could impose on family relationships.

So what’s the take-home message? Perhaps just this: if you want to live a happy and fulfilled life, be actively social — but do so in moderation.The Conversation

Ziggi Ivan Santini, Postdoctoral associate, University of Southern Denmark; Paul E. Jose, Professor of Psychology, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington; Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Department of Experimental Psycology, University of Oxford, and Vibeke Jenny Koushede, Head of the Department of Psychology, University of Copenhagen

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Distress, depression and drug use: young people fear for their future after the bushfires



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Amy Lykins, University of New England

This week, the bushfire royal commission is due to hand down its findings. Already, the commission’s officials have warned the status quo is “no longer enough to defend us from the impact of global warming”.

Australia’s young people appear to know this all too well. Preliminary findings from our recent research show many young people are worried about the future. And those directly exposed to the Black Summer bushfires suffered mental health problems long after the flames went out.

Young people with direct exposure to the bushfires reported significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety, and more drug and alcohol use, than those not directly exposed.

It’s clear that along with the other catastrophic potential harm caused by climate change, the mental health of young people is at risk. We must find effective ways to help young people cope with climate change anxiety.

Concern about the future

Our yet-to-be published study was conducted between early March and early June this year. It involved 740 young people in New South Wales between the ages of 16 and 25 completing a series of standardised questionnaires about their current emotional state, and their concerns about climate change.

Our early findings were presented at the International Association of People-Environment Studies (IAPS) conference online earlier this year.

Some 57% of respondents lived in metropolitan areas and 43% in rural or regional areas. About 78.3% were female, about 20.4% male and around 1% preferred not to say.

Overall, just over 18% of the respondents had been directly exposed to the bushfires over the past year. About the same percentage had been directly exposed to drought in that period, and more than 83% were directly exposed to bushfire smoke.

Our preliminary results showed respondents with direct exposure to the Black Summer bushfires reported significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, adjustment disorder symptoms, and drug and alcohol use than those not directly exposed to these bushfires.

A banner reads: Sorry kids, we burned your inheritance
Many of the respondents were clearly concerned about the future.
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Many young people were clearly concerned about the future. One 16 year old female respondent from a rural/regional area told us:

From day to day, if it crosses my mind I do get a bit distressed […] knowing that not enough is being done to stop or slow down the effects of climate change is what makes me very distressed as our future and future generations are going to have to deal with this problem.

Another 24 year old female respondent from a rural/regional area said:

It makes me feel incredibly sad. Sad when I think about the animals it will effect [sic]. Sad when I think about the world my son is growing up in. Sad to think that so many people out there do not believe it is real and don’t care how their actions effect [sic] the planet, and all of us. Sad that the people in the position to do something about it, won’t.

Young people directly exposed to drought also showed higher levels of anxiety and stress than non-exposed youth.

‘I feel like climate change is here now’

Those with direct exposure to bushfires were more likely than non-exposed young people to believe climate change was:

  • going to affect them or people they knew
  • likely to affect areas near where they lived
  • likely to affect them in the nearer future.

Both groups were equally likely — and highly likely — to believe that the environment is fragile and easily damaged by human activity, and that serious damage from human activity is already occurring and could soon have catastrophic consequences for both nature and humans.

One 23 year old female respondent from a metropolitan area told us:

I feel like climate change is here now and is just getting worse and worse as time goes on.

One 19 year old male respondent from a metropolitan area said:

I feel scared because of what will happen to my future kids, that they may not have a good future because I feel that this planet won’t last any longer because of our wasteful activities.

When asked how climate change makes them feel, answers varied. Some were not at all concerned (with a minority questioning whether it was even happening). Others reported feeling scared, worried, anxious, sad, angry, nervous, concerned for themselves and/or future generations, depressed, terrified, confused, and helpless.

One 16 year old female respondent in a metropolitan area told us:

I feel quite angry because the people who should be doing something about it aren’t because it won’t affect them in the future but it will affect me.

Though they were slightly more upbeat about their own futures and the future of humanity, a significant proportion expressed qualified or no hope, with consistent criticisms about humanity’s selfishness and lack of willpower to make needed behavioural changes.

One 21 year old female respondent from a metropolitan area said she felt:

a bit dissappointed [sic], people have the chance to help and take action, but they just don’t care. I feel sad as the planet will eventually react to the damage we have done, and by then, it will be too late.

A young woman in a mask looks down.
Many participants listed COVID-19 as an extra stressor in their life.
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Extra stressors

Many participants listed COVID-19 as an extra stressor in their life. One 18 year old female said:

Slightly unrelated but after seeing all of the impacts on a lot of people during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of my hope for humanity is gone.

A 25 year old woman told us:

Due to the fact of this COVID stuff, we are not going to be able to do a lot of activitys (sic) that we did before this virus shit happen (sic).

A 16 year old male said:

At present with how people have reacted over the COVID-19 virus there is no hope for humanity. Everyone has become selfish and entitled.

Irrespective of bushfire exposure, respondents reported experiencing moderate levels of depression, moderate to severe anxiety and mild stress. They also reported drug and alcohol use at levels that, according to the UNCOPE substance use screening tool, suggested cause for concern.

What does this mean?

We are still analysing the data we collected, but our preliminary results strongly suggest climate change is linked to how hopeful young people feel about the future.

We are already locked into a significant degree of warming — the only questions are just how bad will it get and how quickly.

Young people need better access to mental health services and support. It’s clear we must find effective ways to help young people build psychological resilience to bushfires, and other challenges climate change will bring.

University of New England researchers Suzanne Cosh, Melissa Parsons, Belinda Craig
and Clara Murray contributed to this research. Don Hine from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand was also a contributor.


If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Amy Lykins, Associate Professor, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When too much news is bad news: is the way we consume news detrimental to our health?



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Evita March, Federation University Australia

Humans are curious and social creatures by nature. The news helps us make sense of the world around us and connects us with our local, national and international community. So it’s no wonder we’re drawn to it.

Objective, legitimate news also keeps us informed, empowering us with knowledge to make balanced decisions.

But the way we consume news has been profoundly altered by media developments. As news outlets have adapted to media trends, the way people watch, read and listen to news has changed. And these changes aren’t without consequences.

The way we consume news matters

The increase of online news, particularly when presented via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, has affected how we access and consume our news.

When news was delivered via traditional one-way outlets such as television and radio, we were passive receivers. But on social media platforms, we’re active consumers. We sculpt and cultivate our news through immediate feedback, such as reacts or shares.

There’s evidence this might not be especially good for us.




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Amid an unfolding crisis such as a pandemic, news presented via one-way outlets might be less damaging than news consumed online. In early months of COVID-19, researchers found news consumed online and via social media was associated with increased depression, anxiety and stress. The effects weren’t as bad when news was consumed via traditional media such as television and newspapers.

This isn’t limited to the pandemic. After the September 11 attacks, young people who consumed news via online sources experienced more PTSD symptoms than those using traditional media. This effect was attributed to more graphic images online, and the possibility for extra exposure as people could watch the footage repeatedly.

Where do we source news?

In an average week, more Australian news consumers source their news online (53%) than via print (25%). But perhaps surprisingly, television is still the most popular mode of news consumption. This year, 63% of Australians said they watched television news in an average week. Nevertheless, we’re far more actively engaged with our news than we once were.

Person viewing news on phone and laptop
Information is more accessible to news consumers than ever before — and graphic and repeated exposure could be bad for our mental health.
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Access to news is also radically different. The ability to consume news 24/7, via an almost endless variety of sources, has prompted experts to encourage us to moderate our news consumption.

Our bad news bias — not good news for our well-being

During times of crisis, we’re more drawn to news. In fact, Australians’ consumption of news significantly increased in 2020. During the 2019–20 bushfires, the percentage of heavy news consumers (people who consume news more than once a day) increased from 52% to 56%, and increased to 70% during the COVID-19 pandemic peak.




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Unfortunately, the impact of news on our well-being is also particularly salient during a time of crisis. Multiple studies have found the more we consume news during or after a tragedy, crisis or natural disaster, the more likely we are to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why are we so interested in bad news, anyway? University of Queensland psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues have noted bad is stronger than good. Humans have a “negativity bias”, whereby we pay more attention to negative information than positive.

“If it bleeds, it leads”

Journalists are said to capitalise on our negative bias to capture our attention. Some news sources have learned this lesson the hard way. When a city reporter from an online Russian news website decided only to report good news for a day, they lost two-thirds of their readers.

The problem is, this negativity bias in the news can make the world appear worse than it truly is.

If the news distresses you, try to remember sometimes publications manipulate our powerful cognitive biases to capture our attention.
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The repeated presentation of information can create cognitive distortions, meaning we’re likely to interpret newsworthy problems, like violent crime, as more prevalent than they really are.

This negativity bias might also explain the tendency to focus on ‘doom and gloom’ stories on social media, referred to as doomscrolling.

Research published this year showed when we perceive the daily news as negative, we can feel less positive overall. So it’s no wonder increased news consumption can impact our well-being.




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Those who use social media largely for news, instead of social networking, show increased anxiety and depression. These results highlight the importance of being strategic about how you use social media, particularly during times of crisis.

How can we take control of our news consumption?

First, it’s important to be aware your news consumption via different sources can look very different. Traditional media tends to focus on the facts, whereas stories, rumours, and human interest pieces are prioritised on social media.

Empower yourself with the knowledge that, as humans, we are subject to bias. The media and those producing the news know this. These biases, which make us wonderfully human, also make us wonderfully biased to the information we receive.

Our biases mean we’re more likely to be impacted by negative news and more likely to believe what we see is more prevalent than it truly is.




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That’s certainly not to say no news is good news. News is powerful, and helps us stay connected and informed. But in a world where we’re surrounded by news 24/7, it is important we are aware of our cognitive biases and the distortions they create. Let’s take control of our news consumption rather than allowing it to control us.The Conversation

Evita March, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Federation University Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Greater needs, but poorer access to services: why COVID mental health measures must target disadvantaged areas



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Graham Meadows, Monash University; Brett Inder; Frances Shawyer, Monash University, and Joanne Enticott, Monash University

COVID-19 outbreaks and the resulting lockdowns, particularly in Victoria, have adversely affected many people’s mental health.

Social isolation, financial stress, and anxiety about contracting COVID-19 can all contribute to psychological distress. For some people, these experiences may trigger mental disorders, such as depression.

People in lower socioeconomic groups are likely to be in particular need of mental health support in the face of the pandemic.

While federal and state governments have rightly boosted mental health services, we need to ensure these services reach those who need them most.

‘Better Access’ doesn’t guarantee access for all

The “Better Access” scheme entitles people to Medicare-subsidised sessions with a psychologist, occupational therapist or social worker, including via telehealth.

Recognising the mental health consequences of the pandemic, the federal government has increased the number of psychological therapy sessions subsidised under Better Access from ten to 20 sessions per year.

Well before COVID-19, we knew socioeconomic disadvantage was associated with poorer mental health. Our earlier research has shown very high psychological distress is much more common in the most disadvantaged fifth of Australian areas than in the most affluent fifth.

But for reasons including out-of-pocket costs and service locations, we’ve found people in poorer areas receive fewer Better Access treatments.

A female doctor speaks to someone on her laptop computer.
Better Access sessions can be delivered via telehealth.
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In Victoria, as in other parts of the world, COVID-19 has taken a higher toll on people in disadvantaged areas.

Not only have poorer areas suffered disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 infections, but they also seem to be enduring greater associated social and economic hardships such as job losses.

And if people in these areas need extra mental health support, they may find they’re under-served by the existing system.




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Three concerns

The expansion of Better Access may in fact deepen the inequity around access to these services.

1. Access to providers

The supply of therapists has not suddenly increased, so neither has the availability of treatment sessions. The increased number of allowable sessions will largely benefit people who already have access to treatment — and who are less likely to come from disadvantaged areas.

With scarce provider time, this potentially means fewer available sessions for those in disadvantaged areas.

2. Gap fees

Telehealth items continue to allow uncapped co-payments (gap fees). Whatever principled commitments practitioners may have to bulk billing, it makes financial sense to want to attract clients who can afford to pay.

So there may be better access for people with greater financial resources.




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3. A digital divide

Telehealth items, including video mental health consultations, may be less accessible in disadvantaged areas because of poorer access to technology, including reliable internet connections.

Those in disadvantaged areas may also be living in overcrowded conditions, and therefore have less privacy to use telehealth.

Where is the need greatest?

The Index of Relative Socioeconomic Disadvantage (IRSD) summarises a range of information about the economic and social conditions of people and households in Australia.

It can help planners direct resources to more disadvantaged areas — which, as we’ve shown, is particularly important for mental health services.

Our new paper offers a model for policy-makers to apply what we know about the IRSD and poorer mental health to planning and monitoring mental health services.

We created a spreadsheet using area IRSD scores to estimate mental health resource needs for different areas.

In Melbourne, for example, we estimated more disadvantaged parts of the western suburbs have a need around 2.5 times greater than parts of the eastern suburbs.

We used Victoria as an example, but this model could easily be adapted for use elsewhere.

How can we make services in Australia more equitable?

We hope our research will complement other Australian tools so the influence of disadvantage on mental health-care needs can be more consistently and transparently taken into account when designing mental health services.

State-based mental health services are often funded by areas, such as those for adults with serious mental illnesses in Victoria. So getting the funds to where they’re most needed is possible for state and territory governments.

But with services such as Better Access, which are funded by Medicare item rather than by geographic area, we will need new ways to ensure they’re distributed equitably.

A young woman has her head in her hands.
COVID-19 has taken a toll on Australians’ mental health.
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A thought experiment

The government could encourage a practitioner using telehealth to ensure 40% of these services get to people living in areas in the lowest 40% according to the IRSD.

The government could also implement an overall bulk-billing target of, say, 50%. Disincentives could follow if the provider falls short of these targets.

For example, a provider would receive commonwealth funding for all services provided if they achieved the 50% target. If not, they would receive funding for all bulk-billed consultations, plus the same number of co-payment services.

So, if a provider only bulk bills 40% of their clients, 80% of their services would receive funding. Similar mechanisms may operate for IRSD targets.

Such a move would likely face opposition, including from practitioners who might find it difficult to change their referral and charging practices. For some, at least initially, their income would suffer. So it could be challenging to introduce.




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This is just a draft proposal and the details, including specific targets, could be refined in discussion with professional bodies. The model in our paper could be used to assess if changes succeed in improving equity.

But something like this could see people with the greatest mental health needs, particularly those in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, better able to access services.The Conversation

Graham Meadows, Professor of Adult Psychiatry, Monash University; Brett Inder, University Professor; Frances Shawyer, Research Fellow, Monash University, and Joanne Enticott, Senior Research Fellow, Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation (MCHRI), Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.