As boundaries between work and home vanish, employees need a ‘right to disconnect’


Mick Tsikas/AAP

Barbara Pocock, University of South AustraliaIf you have been in a children’s playground recently, you may have seen a distracted parent absorbed in an intense phone conversation, swatting a child away.

Sure, some are ordering tickets for The Wiggles, but most are not — they are working. They might have officially knocked off, be on leave or it might be a weekend. But as surely as if they were in the office, they are at work.

Many of us know that tug of double consciousness: the child’s pressing need pitted against a complex issue on the other end of the phone demanding every neurone we can muster.

You do not have to be a carer to feel this tug. It still finds plenty of people who just want some quiet time, an uninterrupted run, a life beyond work.

It’s the growth of this tug, affecting more and more women and men, which has fuelled the push for a “right to disconnect” from work. This includes a recent significant victory for Victoria Police employees to protect their time away from work.

Availability creep

Our forebears would not recognise the ephemeral way we work today, or the absence of boundaries around it. But powerful new technologies have disrupted last century’s clearer, more stable, predictable limits on the time and place of work.

This is called “availability creep”, where employees feel they need to be available all the time to answer emails, calls or simply deal with their workload.

Sydney CBD skyline with headlights on the freeway.
Australians did even more unpaid overtime during COVID than before the pandemic.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

And that was well before a pandemic that piled revolution upon revolution on the way we work. A 2020 mid-pandemic survey showed Australians were working 5.3 hours of unpaid overtime on average per week, up from 4.6 hours the year before.

These longer hours are often associated with job insecurity. In a labour market like Australia’s, where insecure work is widespread, there are strong incentives to “stay sweet” with the boss and work longer, harder and sometimes for nothing.

Health implications

So, work is now untethered from a workplace or a workday, and our workplace regulation lags well behind. This has serious implications for our mental health, work-life stress, productivity and a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

Of course, flexibility is not all bad. As a researcher collecting evidence for decades about the case for greater flexibility for employees, I see silver linings in a pandemic that achieved almost overnight what decades of data-gathering could not: new ways of working that can suit workers (especially women) and their households.




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Forget work-life balance – it’s all about integration in the age of COVID-19


However, this change has a dark side. Digital work and work-from-home have shown themselves to drive long hours of work, and to pollute rest and family time. Poor sleep, stress, burnout, degraded relationships and distracted carers are part of the collateral damage.

Disconnecting in Australia and internationally

A growing international response attests to the importance of disconnection. And it has now reached our shores.

Last month, Victoria Police’s new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) included the “right to disconnect” from work. It directs managers to respect leave and rest days and avoid contacting police officers outside work hours, unless in an emergency or to check on their welfare. The goal is to ensure that police, whose jobs are often stressful, can switch off from work when they knock off and get decent rest and recovery time.

Swimmers at Bondi Beach pool.
There is a growing push to protect employees’ time outside work hours.
Bianca De Marchi/AAP

The “right to disconnect” has taken several forms internationally in recent decades. At individual firm level, some large companies such as Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler now simply stop out-of-hours or holiday emails or calls.

Goldman Sachs has also recently re-stated its far from radical “Saturday rule”, under which junior bankers are not expected to be in the office from 9pm Friday to 9am Sunday.

The French example

Some countries now regulate the right nationally.

Since 2017, French companies employing more than 50 people have been required to engage in an annual negotiation with employee representatives to regulate digital devices to ensure respect for rest, personal life and family leave. If they can’t reach agreement, the employer must draw up a charter to define how employees can disconnect and must train and inform their workers about these strategies.

While enforcement of the French law has attracted criticism (as penalties are weak), it has fostered a national conversation —now reaching other countries like Greece, Spain and Ireland. In early 2021, the European Parliament voted to grant workers the right to refrain from email and calls outside working hours, including when on holidays or leave, as well as protection from adverse actions against those who disconnect.

What’s next for Australia?

The Victoria Police EBA has encouraged a new level of discussion in Australia. The ACTU has backed a right to disconnect, especially for workers in stressful jobs.

Individual businesses will now be examining their obligations to ensure maximum hours of work are adhered to and “reasonable” overtime and on-call work is managed to avoid possible claims for unpaid work.




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This week, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that supermarket giant Coles is trying to prevent out-of-hours work.

The consequences for companies can be expensive when digital work is not well managed. In 2018, the French arm of Rentokil was ordered to pay an ex-employee the equivalent of $A92,000 because it required him to leave his phone on to talk to customers and staff.

Beyond fair remuneration, a duty of care to provide a safe and healthy workplace is also implicated in digital work that leaks beyond working hours.

What needs to happen now

Large public sector workplaces are likely to follow Victoria Police’s example. However, EBAs now cover just 15% of workers, so this pathway won’t help most workers, many of whom are instead covered by one of the 100 or so industry or occupational modern awards.

These awards could be amended to include a right to disconnect. But more simply and comprehensively, the National Employment Standards (which apply to all workers regardless of whether covered by an award or an EBA) could be amended to provide an enforceable right to disconnect with consequences for its breach, alongside existing standards of maximum hours of work, flexibility and other minimum rights.

Given many women, low paid, private sector, un-unionised and relatively powerless workers in smaller workplaces have little chance of negotiating or enforcing a right to disconnect, it is vital the right to disconnect applies across the whole workforce.The Conversation

Barbara Pocock, Emeritus Professor University of South Australia, University of South Australia

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

Depression, burnout, insomnia, headaches: how a toxic and sexist workplace culture can affect your health


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Xi Wen (Carys) Chan, Griffith University and Paula Brough, Griffith UniversityAs allegations of rape and sexual assault engulf Australian federal politics, several current and former female staffers and politicians have come forward to share their stories of a culture of toxic masculinity within Australia’s political bubble.

It’s unfortunate that while gender roles are evolving at home, gender inequality and overt sexism remain prevalent in Australian political culture and in many workplaces across the country.

While the effects of a culture of toxic masculinity are most detrimental for the victims, other employees in workplaces and the wider community can also be negatively impacted.

This opens up a broader question: how does a toxic and sexist workplace culture affect the health and well-being of employees and organisations?

What does a toxic and sexist workplace look like?

A culture of toxic masculinity is a hostile work environment that undermines women. It’s also known as “masculinity contest culture”, which is characterised by hyper-competition, heavy workloads, long hours, assertiveness and extreme risk-taking. It’s worth noting this type of culture isn’t good for men, either.

Such workplaces often feature “win or die” organisational cultures that focus on personal gain and advancement at the expense of other employees. Many employees embedded in such a culture adopt a “mine’s bigger than yours” contest for workloads, work hours and work resources.

These masculinity contest cultures are prevalent in a wide range of industries, such as medicine, finance, engineering, law, politics, sports, police, fire, corrections, military services, tech organisations and increasingly within our universities.

Microaggressions are common behaviours in workplaces steeped with a masculinity contest culture. These include getting interrupted by men in meetings or being told to dress “appropriately” in a certain way. There are also overtly dominating behaviours such as sexual harassment and violence.

These behaviours tend to keep men on top and reinforce a toxic leadership style involving abusive behaviours such as bullying or controlling others.

Boss upset with employee
A hyper-masculine work environment might look like huge workloads, long hours, hostility, assertiveness, dominance and an extremely competitive culture.
Shutterstock

At a very basic level, workplaces should afford women safety and justice. But women’s issues are left unaddressed in many workplaces, and many fail to provide women employees with psychological safety or the ability to speak up without being punished or humiliated.

This might be because leaders in the organisation are ill-equipped to deal with these issues, feel uncomfortable bringing them up or, in some cases, are sadly not interested at all.




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How does a toxic culture affect our health?

Evidence suggests a toxic workplace culture can negatively affect employees’ psychological, emotional and physical health.

Emotional effects include a higher likelihood of negative emotions such as anger, disappointment, disgust, fear, frustration and humiliation.

As these negative emotions build, they can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, burnout, cynicism, a lack of motivation and feelings of self-doubt.

Research also points to increased chances of physical symptoms, such as hair loss, insomnia, weight loss or gain, headaches and migraines.

Employees in toxic workplaces tend to have poorer overall well-being, and are more likely to be withdrawn and isolated at work and in their personal lives. Over time, this leads to absenteeism, and if problems aren’t addressed, victims may eventually leave the organisation.

For some victims who may not have advanced coping skills, a toxic culture can lead to a downward mental and physical health spiral and contribute to severe long-term mental illness. They may also engage in displaced aggression, in which they bring home their negative emotions and experiences and take out their frustrations on family members.

Woman stressed and isolated at work
Employees in toxic work environments are more likely to be withdrawn and isolated, both in the office and outside of work.
Shutterstock

How can workplaces change?

Workplaces aiming to make a real change should start by promoting an open culture where issues can be discussed via multiple formal and informal feedback channels.

One option is formal survey mechanisms that are anonymous, so employees can be open about their concerns and feel less intimidated by the process.

A good first step is having leaders trained to address these issues.

Traditionally, workplace interventions have focused on victims themselves, putting the onus on them to do the work and come forward. However, a healthy workplace culture should see leaders actively seeking feedback to make sure any forms of toxic masculinity are stamped out.

It’s a shared responsibility, and the onus shouldn’t be solely on employees, but leaders, too.




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Bad times call for bold measures: 3 ways to fix the appalling treatment of women in our national parliament


The Conversation


Xi Wen (Carys) Chan, Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, Griffith University and Paula Brough, Professor of Organisational Psychology, Griffith University

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

Youth anxiety and depression are at record levels. Mental health hubs could be the answer


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Christine Grové, Monash UniversityThe COVID pandemic has shone a light on the ongoing decline in young people’s mental health. Psychologists have warned if we don’t start to address the mental health emergency of young people’s anxiety and depression, it may become a “trans-generational disaster”.

Paediatricians have said they are seeing growing numbers of young people coming to the emergency room because of a lack of other treatment options.

In an effort to address the rising rates of anxiety and depression in children, Victoria trialled mental well-being coordinators in ten schools last year. The initiative is now expanding to 26 primary schools in 2021.

Meanwhile, the royal commission into Victoria’s mental health system has recommended youth mental health hubs, some of which will soon be rolled out in priority areas across the state.

Developing specialist youth mental health hubs is one of several strategies also suggested by the Australian Psychological Society to the federal government in a recent budget submission.

So, what are youth mental health hubs, and will they work to stem the tide of mental health issues young people are experiencing?

Everything in one place

Australia’s National Strategy for Young Australians defines youth as young people between 12-24 years of age. Evidence shows half of mental disorders first emerge by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24.

Left untreated, these mental health problems have high rates of recurrence and cause negative outcomes for the individual, including reduced economic productivity, as well as social costs.




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Youth mental health hubs provide mental health and social services in one location. This is partly because a range of risk behaviours come with mental health difficulties including tobacco, drug and alcohol use, sexual risk taking, reduced levels of physical activity and poor nutrition. Evidence also suggests young people prefer to have their needs met in one place, rather than across a number of locations and will then be more likely to seek help when they need it.

Youth hubs should therefore have a range of specialists on site, such as trained mental health clinicians, sexual health support counsellors and psychiatrists.

Young people also want and need access to mental health information and resources. So a youth hub should be a safe place for young people to get the information they need.

Youth hubs would be connected physically and/or in partnership with schools, community organisations (such as homelessness services) and with medical specialists.

They are ideally co-designed by experts and youth with lived experience, on equal grounds. Ideally, the hubs are a youth friendly, one-stop-shop for support ranging from referrals, assessment, therapies and intervention.

Don’t we already have youth hubs?

Traditionally, mental health services, including some youth services, have not been accessible to a range of youth needs, instead targeting children or adults. Others are geared towards specific certain types of conditions.

In Australia there are two youth-specific hubs: Orygen and Headspace.

Orygen is co-designed with young people. But it specialises in youth who have had an episode of psychosis, mood disorders, emerging borderline personality disorder, and youth at high risk for a psychotic disorder.

Headspace centres provide early intervention mental health services to 12-25 year olds. The service was created to provide youth with holistic mental health support. But there are shortcomings with the model. It has been described by some experts as not being able to support some youth with complex presentations such as those with personality disorders, schizophrenia and/or substance abuse issues.




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Many other services restrict youth access to support depending on age, diagnosis or additional illness.

Youth engagement in non-youth focused specific services is low, and transitioning youth between and across services is often unsuccessful.

Young people also prefer services that include young people as staff members, which is not common in traditional mental health support. Youth participation as staff was found in only just over half of the mental health services available in Australia.

A young woman talking to a young psychologist.
Young people prefer mental health support that is youth led.
Shutterstock

So, what is the ideal youth hub?

There are youth hubs available across the world, including in Ireland, New Zealand, UK, Canada, France and Australia. All of these provide different services and care. However none provide a single example of best practice yet.

Key elements of youth mental health hubs identified in the World Health Organisation framework include:

  • a co-designed youth-focused approach that is flexible and adapted to youth’s changing mental health needs
  • an accessible, central location (close to shops or transport), with extended spread of opening hours as well as opportunity for self-referral and drop-in services
  • a place that responds to all young people quickly
  • youth working in the hub
  • services and support types personalised as needed by the context.

Research also suggests the hubs should be an informal space, as opposed to clinical looking, such as a shop front or café design. They should also:

  • provide recreational or arts activities, as well as a hang-out space
  • be included and known by the community
  • keep ongoing evaluation of the services provided and provide feedback back to young people.

Keeping all services in one location works well, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a coordinated, collaborative approach to care is provided. Some hubs may house a range of services in one spot but continue to work in a separated way. This defeats the purpose of coordinated care.




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Stressed out, dropping out: COVID has taken its toll on uni students


We need better investment to improve current hubs or co-design new ones to enact the WHO guidelines of best practice. This is critical to ensuring more young people access the care they need, for the success of current and future generations.The Conversation

Christine Grové, Senior Lecturer and Educational and Developmental Psychologist, Monash University

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

Floods leave a legacy of mental health problems — and disadvantaged people are often hardest hit


Sabrina Pit, Western Sydney UniversityYet again, large swathes of New South Wales are underwater. A week of solid rain has led to floods in the Mid-North Coast, Sydney and the Central Coast, with several areas being evacuated as I write.

As a resident of the NSW Far North Coast, which has had its share of devastating floods, many of the tense scenes on the news are sadly familiar.

Unless you have lived through it, it is hard to understand just how stressful a catastrophic flood can be in the moment of crisis. As research evidence shows, the long term impact on mental health can also be profound. And often it is the most disadvantaged populations that are hardest hit.

Disaster risk and disadvantage

In many places, socio-economic disadvantage and flood risk go hand in hand.

In a study published last year, led by the University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore in close collaboration with the local community, colleagues and I looked at population data following Cyclone Debbie in 2017. We found people living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint experienced significantly higher levels of social vulnerability (when compared to the already highly vulnerable regional population). This study would not have been possible without the support of the Northern Rivers community who responded to the Community Recovery
after Flood survey, nor without the active support, enthusiasm and commitment of the Community Advisory Groups in Lismore and Murwillumbah and community organisations.

Notably, over 80% of people in the 2017 Lismore town centre flood-affected area were living in the lowest socio-economic neighbourhoods. The flood-affected areas of Murwillumbah and Lismore regions included 47% and 60% of residents in the most disadvantaged quintile neighbourhoods.

By examining data from the 45 and Up study, we also showed that participants living in the Lismore town centre flood footprint had significantly higher rates of smoking and alcohol consumption. They were also more likely to have pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as poorer general health.

Research from Germany and the US has shown flood risk is often a significant predictor of lower rental and sale prices.

So even before disaster strikes, residents in flood-prone areas may be more likely to battle with financial and health issues. Our study showed disaster affected people also had the fewest resources to recover effectively. When floods arrive, the impact on mental health, in particular, can be acute.




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Underinsurance is entrenching poverty as the vulnerable are hit hardest by disasters


Floods and mental health

A flood can be extremely stressful in the moment, as one rushes to protect people, property, pets and animals and worries about the damage that may follow. Can you imagine clinging to a rooftop in the rain in the middle of the night and waiting to be rescued?

The damage caused by floods causes enormous financial pain, and can lead to housing vulnerabilities and homelessness, especially for those without insurance — and research reveals a pattern of underinsurance in disadvantaged populations across Australia.

Even if you are lucky enough to have insurance, waiting to have your claim assessed and approved, then dealing with a shortage of tradies can take a real toll on your mental health. The waiting and the uncertainty can be especially hard.

Other flood research by colleagues and I, led by the University Centre for Rural Health, showed business owners whose homes and businesses had flooded were almost 6.5 times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Business owners with insurance disputes were four times more likely to report probable depression.

Flood affected business owners whose income didn’t return to normal within six months were also almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Lack of income can clearly cause stress for the individual, their family and their larger network. Small businesses play an important role in rural communities and employ a large number of people so the sustainability of local businesses is crucial.

We also found the higher the floodwater was in a person’s business, the more likely the person was to experience depressive symptoms.

People whose business had water above head height in their entire business were four times more likely to report depressive symptoms. Those who had water between knee and head height in their business were almost three times more likely to report probable depression. All this adds up to an increase in mental health issues that often follows a flood.

Six months after the flooding, business owners felt most supported by their local community such as volunteers and neighbours. However, those that felt their needs were not met by the state government and insurance companies were almost three times more likely to report symptoms of depression.

Preparedness and awareness

So, what can be done?

Firstly, we can boost preparedness. Risk and preparedness education may be especially needed for people who have recently moved to flood-prone regions. Many who have moved to regional areas recently may not be aware they live in a flood zone, or understand how fast waters can move and how high they can reach. Education is needed to raise awareness about the dangers. People may need help to prepare a flood plan and know when to leave.

Secondly, supporting people and local businesses after a disaster and assisting the local economy in its recovery could help reduce the mental health burden on people and the business community.

Thirdly, mental health services must be provided. A chaplaincy program was implemented in Lismore by the local government to assist business owners with emotional and psychological support after Cyclone Debbie and ensuing floods. This program was largely well received by business owners for having provided psychological support and raising mental health awareness.

However, the ongoing lack of mental health support remains an issue, especially in rural areas, and is exacerbated by disasters.

Fourthly, insurance disputes and rejection of insurance claims were among the strongest associations with likely depression in our research. We must find ways to improve the insurance process including making it more affordable, improving communication, by making claims easier and faster and boosting people’s understanding of what’s included and excluded from their policy.

No single organisation, government or department can solve these complex problems on their own. Strong partnerships between organisations are crucial and have been shown to work, as is direct and real-time support for flood-affected people.




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This story was updated to add more detail about the author’s research funding, collaborative partners and affiliation. It is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. You can read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Sabrina Pit, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, Honorary Adjunct Research Fellow, Western Sydney University

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

COVID’s mental health fallout will last a long time. Here’s how we’re targeting pandemic depression and anxiety



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Richard Bryant, UNSW

Although Australia is now largely COVID-free, the repercussions of the pandemic are ongoing.

As the pandemic enters its second year, many people will be continuing to suffer with poor mental health, or facing new mental health challenges.

The effects of recurrent lockdowns, fears about the effectiveness of the vaccines, restricted movement within and beyond Australia, and the bleak economic outlook are taking their toll on psychological well-being.

Now is the time to think about sustainable, evidence-based mental health programs that will serve Australians as we confront the mental fallout of the pandemic in 2021 and beyond.

The evidence is in

We now have incontrovertible evidence mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic. Large studies that assessed people’s mental health before and during COVID-19 have reported marked increases in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress since the pandemic began.

Although many experts predicted people with pre-existing mental disorders would be most vulnerable, we’ve seen even greater increases in psychological distress among those without a history of mental illness.

Unemployment and financial stress have exacerbated psychological problems during the pandemic. The major concern is that the increase in mental health problems will persist for years because of the economic downturn facing most nations.

Importantly, suicide rates increase during economic downturns. One study showed each 1% increase in unemployment was associated with a 1% increase in suicides.

The impact of unemployment and financial hardship on mental health is relevant for many Australians, as fears of reduced support from the JobSeeker and JobKeeper schemes loom. Although the government this week announced the JobSeeker payment will go up, welfare groups have warned it’s still not enough.




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


So what can we do?

The question now facing many nations is how to manage the unprecedented number of people who may need mental health assistance. There are several challenges.

First, lockdowns, social isolation, and fear of infection impede the traditional form of receiving mental health care in clinics. These obstacles might now be greater in other countries with higher infection rates, but we’ve certainly seen these challenges in Australia over the past year.

Second, many people who have developed mental health conditions during the pandemic would never have had reason to seek help before, which can impede their motivation and ability to access care.

Third, many people experiencing distress will not have a clinical mental disorder, and in this sense, don’t require therapy. Instead, they need new skills to help them cope.




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Since the pandemic began, there’s been widespread promotion of smartphone mental health apps as a remedy for our growing mental health problems.

While these programs often work well in controlled trials, in reality most people don’t download health apps, and even fewer continue using them. Further, most people who do use health apps are richer, younger, and often in very good health.

Evidence does suggest apps can play a role in delivering mental health programs, but they don’t represent the panacea to the current mental health crisis. We need to develop more effective programs that can be scaled up and delivered in an affordable manner.

One approach

A few years ago, the World Health Organization and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) jointly developed a mental health treatment program.

The program consisted of face-to-face group sessions teaching people affected by adversity new skills to manage stress more effectively. It has been shown to reduce anxiety and mood problems in multiple trials.

A young woman is on her laptop at home.
We’ve tailored a program to address the mental health challenges of the COVID pandemic.
Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

My team at UNSW has adapted this program during COVID-19 to specifically address the mental health needs of people affected by the pandemic. A clinical psychologist leads weekly sessions via video-conferencing over six weeks, with four participants in each group. The sessions cover skills to manage low mood, stress and worries resulting from the pandemic.

Typically, mental health programs have attempted to reduce negative mood and stress by using strategies that target problem areas. A newer approach, which we use in this program, focuses on boosting positive mood, and giving people strategies to optimally experience positive events and pleasure when faced with difficulties.

In controlled trials this strategy has effectively improved mental health outcomes, even more than a traditional program.

Trialling this tailored program around Australia in recent months, we’ve found it effectively improves mood and reduces stress. Although we haven’t yet published our results in a peer-reviewed journal, our preliminary data suggest the program results in a 20% greater reduction in depression than a control treatment (where we give participants resources with strategies to manage stress and mood).

This raises the possibility agencies could provide simple but effective programs like these to people anywhere in Australia. Delivering a program by video-conferencing means it can reach people in remote areas, and those not wishing to attend clinics.




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One of the common patterns we’ve seen in previous disasters and pandemics is that once the immediate threat has passed, governments and agencies often neglect the longer-term mental health toll.

Now is the time to plan for the delivery of sustainable, evidence-based mental health programs.


Australians experiencing distress related to the pandemic can express interest in participating in the trial program here.

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

Richard Bryant, Professor & Director of Traumatic Stress Clinic, UNSW

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

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.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s science newsletter.]The Conversation

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.




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‘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



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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.




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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.




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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.




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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.




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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:
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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.




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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.




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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.