1,037 Australians share priority policy issues for mental health

7 June 2022
How voices from the public can help inform policy
University of Sydney researchers surveyed Australians on their mental health experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing insights into what needs to change for an effective mental health system.

A study investigating the effects of COVID-19 on Australians’ mental health has surveyed Australian community members and found the pandemic placed additional pressures on an already over-burdened mental health system, leaving many without timely appropriate support. As COVID deaths continue to climb and Australian’s mental health is compounded by ongoing major events, like extreme weather, this study identifies policy changes required to safeguard Australia’s future mental health.

The Alone Together Study was run by the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre, in collaboration with Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank. The study findings were published in PLOS ONE.

The research found the COVID-19 pandemic ‘pressurised’ existing triggers for poor mental health by amplifying financial stress and reducing social support and connection.

Lead author Dr Marlee Bower said that despite growing evidence on the serious disruption COVID-19 has caused in the daily lives of Australians, the mental health experiences of the general public were largely unknown. In addition, many were seeking mental health support for the first-time in their lives but faced multiple barriers to access.

“In this study we wanted to include the voices of those outside the mental health system – the lived experiences of everyday Australians are invaluable in informing targeted policy planning and to improve Australian mental health care.”

As part of the Alone Together Study, researchers surveyed over 1000 Australians from 18 to 89 years old, during July to December 2020 and a follow up survey between March and June 2021. The study was conducted across all Australian states and territories.

The researchers identified multiple barriers that prevented Australians from accessing high quality mental health care they needed.

The public has shared how flaws in institutional policies designed to support Australians... were a contradiction – instead having a negative effect on their mental health and ability to recover.
Dr Marlee Bower

One of the largest concerns was the disruption to people’s social and financial stability which damaged their mental health. The ability to seek necessary help was prevented by the lack of accessible, robust mental health care.

For many, grappling with new mental health issues was worsened by rhetoric and stigma around mental health on a political and community level.

“The public has shared how flaws in institutional policies designed to support Australians experiencing hardship and ill-health, were a contradiction – instead having a negative effect on their mental health and ability to recover,” said Dr Bower.

“One example of this was the government’s increase in Medicare-rebated psychological sessions per year. While an excellent initiative for those already accessing care, it stretched an already overloaded mental health sector, meaning fewer available spots for new patients and long waitlists.”

“Many respondents said accessing the current mental health support system was expensive and difficult to navigate and, compounded by the community and political stigma about what it means to be unemployed, receive welfare or mental health support.”

Key findings:

  • A fifth of the participants said two major factors that impacted mental health were the increase in financial hardship and changes in their social support system and structures.
  • More than one in five people highlighted COVID-19 increased pressures on an overburdened mental health system.
  • Almost one in 10 participants described the pandemic as fragmenting their social networks, and worsening feelings of isolation and disconnection.
  • Many reported how the break on social contact during the pandemic has had a long-term effect including feelings of discomfort on socialising again.
  • The findings show that mental healthcare is not just about delivering psychological treatment, but also financial support, employment and social support. Whole-of-government policies spanning social services and welfare, finance, housing, education, family and community and workforce are needed to achieve tangible impacts on Australians’ mental health.

“This research provides opportunities for policymakers and health practitioners,” said co-author Scarlett Smout.

“Factoring in the public’s perspectives, including those with or without direct experience of the Australian mental health system, can allow for a more detailed insight on what major factors in Australian social and health systems are barriers to support mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Declaration:  Professor Maree Teesson is Director of Climate Schools Pty Ltd. Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank is funded by the BHP Foundation.

Ivy Shih

Media and PR Adviser (Health)

Related articles