President’s commentary: Let’s keep the spotlight on mental health once the pandemic lifts

Long-held stigmas around mental health and emotional wellbeing are finally, and genuinely, starting to evaporate. And it has taken a virus to make this happen. 

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 physical health crisis, a spotlight very quickly turned to the fast-emerging mental health crisis. 

In Australia, hardworking mental health support services such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue saw demand surge phenomenally from an anxious post-bushfire populace, who once they could finally breathe clear air again were directed to head back inside, away from support networks and routine.

Going into lockdown was a massive adjustment. We worried about our family (near and far), our jobs, and the world generally as it seemed to spiral under the weight of the pandemic.

But then many of us started talking openly about how people were doing physically — and mentally.

Communities checked in on neighbours, we supported struggling local businesses as they tried to adjust to increasingly strict distancing requirements, and councils came up with creative ways to keep their services flowing, such as home delivery library books. In my own community in Tasmania (as I’m sure you have seen in your own around Australia). I saw spontaneous acts of generosity and community-minded people offering what support they could to let those struggling know that others cared and were willing to do what they could to help.

We saw many workplaces, anxious about their business health in a rapidly contracting economy, remember to reach out to their employees and encourage them to access confidential, free counselling services. Managers were encouraged to check in on their team and ensure not all talk was about work tasks. Virtual Friday night drinks, trivia evenings and online fitness challenges were quickly organised and regular team ‘touch bases’ were booked in calendars a bid to retain some cohesiveness between colleagues while they worked away from each other physically.

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Did it work? From personal experience, I know it’s helped many. Has it been enough? Well, that’s still to be seen in the wash-up and as we return — slowly, cautiously, but surely — to the workplace. But it was the effort and the open discussions that were important. The open conversations helped shed so much of the lingering, unhelpful stigma around mental health.

And did all workplaces step up and really focus on their employees’ emotional wellbeing? This will also come under great scrutiny in the months ahead.

But as the physical health crisis shows some signs of dissipating, it is clear that the mental health crisis is not. 

Recently released statistics published in the Medical Journal of Australia showed 25 per cent of people nationally were experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of depression during the first month of COVID-19 restrictions.

This will only be the tip of the mental health iceberg and while our economy recovers, we need to keep the focus — and open conversations — about emotional wellbeing going strong and as a governance community, let’s keep an eye and ear open to support each other and the people in the organisations and communities we serve. 

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636 

Click the link for a full list of Governance Institute Board and State Council members. 

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