As fresh COVID-19 outbreaks force Australians back into lockdown, mental health organisations are again noticing an uptick in people accessing their services.
Lifeline last week reported a 25 per cent increase in the volume of calls it was receiving Australia-wide since the beginning of the current COVID-19 surge.
Beyond Blue has seen a 15 per cent jump in New South Wales residents making contact with the organisation over the past three weeks. Victorian demand has similarly risen by 12 per cent.
Beyond Blue’s lead clinical adviser Grant Blashki says such spikes are typical during lockdowns.
“People are understandably beside themselves,” he told SBS News.
“They’ve got the triple whammy of worrying about money and small businesses and jobs, pressure in family situations, and they’re also worried about the actual COVID-19 infection … so there’s a bit of pressure on people at the moment.”
But while lockdowns can bring a mixture of emotions, there are some simple things you can do to take care of your mental health.
Stick to a routine
It can help to keep a sense of routine, even in lockdown.
“Without needing to go into work, it’s very easy to sleep in and not have much pattern to the day,” Dr Blashki says.
“But we’re really encouraging people to schedule up the day: when you’re going to get up, get dressed and do some exercise.”
The federal health department offers similar advice, saying that structuring the days will help provide stability and a new normal.
“Think about the parts of your usual routine you value the most and find ways to make these part of your day – such as having lunch with colleagues via video chat, or finding an online gym class,” its website says.
Take care of your relationships
Lockdowns can be isolating, and it’s important – particularly for people who live alone – to keep in touch with others and maintain relationships.
Dr Blashki encourages booking in regular catch-ups allowed under health orders with family, friends or neighbours.
He also recommends making an effort to nurture relationships at home, where the sudden move to remote working or learning arrangements can help create “pressure cooker” situations.
“We’ve really got to try to be our best selves and cut people a bit of slack, give people a bit of privacy, because you know, we’re suddenly on top of each other all day,” he says.
“It’s pretty easy to get into arguments or conflict with people that you’re with all the time, especially when everyone’s stress levels are quite high.”
Turn off the news
While it’s tempting to constantly check for coronavirus updates, Lifeline chairman John Brogden warns against getting absorbed by bad news.
“If there’s too much bad news, switch it off or turn on another program,” he told SBS News.
Similarly, Dr Blashki says it’s important to know when to tap out of COVID-19 discussions.
He recommends people “curate” their virus news by taking practical steps to limit how much of a feature it is during the day.
“It is important to know what’s going on, but at the same time getting obsessed with every twist and turn and every latest number is probably not healthy for your mind,” Dr Blashki says.
Practical steps can include setting a particular time to check for daily updates, turning off some phone notifications, or removing some phone apps.
Look after your physical health
Exercising regularly and eating well has flow-on effects for mental wellbeing.
“It’s really important to get out from behind the computer screen and get out, go for a walk around the block, go for a walk around the block twice – whatever it means for you. To get a bit of sun on your face and get out and about makes a real difference,” Mr Brogden says.
Dr Blashki tells his patients to try to get their pulse rate up for a minimum of half an hour each day, at least three times a week.
“There’s definitely something to be said about getting out in nature, and we know that getting sun on the face during the day is really good for your sleep-wake cycle,” he says.
Seek help when you need it
Mr Brogden says there’s always someone available to talk if you’re struggling – whether it’s a friend, family member or someone at a mental health service.
“Please stay in touch with people. Don’t think nobody wants to hear from you. We’re all here to help, we’re all here to talk. Whether it’s Lifeline … or a friend or somebody you work with, please reach out,” he says.
“Nobody should suffer in silence, and it’s okay not to be okay.”
“Some people are more comfortable typing than talking, and you get some good advice from other people, and it also reminds you that other people are going through similar things to you,” Dr Blashki says of the forum.
Beyond Blue’s online mental health information is translated into multiple languages, and people calling the phone line can ask for translation services.
“You don’t have to have completely fallen apart to give us a call. We’re encouraging people to ring early if they’re just getting the wobbles, just thinking ‘how do I manage this time?’,” Dr Blashki says.
Have a little hope
Finally, Dr Blashki recommends keeping up “the hope budget” amid all the debate and discussion around lockdowns and vaccines.
“Things are slower than we thought, but they are going in the right direction, and I think that’s important …. this is not forever,” he says.
“Who would have thought we’d have these extraordinary vaccines, you know, a bit over a year later?
“We will look back in future years and go, that was a bumpy time, that was hard, but I think people should have a sense of hope that eventually we will come out the other side.”
Readers seeking support can contact Lifeline for 24-7 crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.