The daily pandemic news continues to be a worry for all of us. There are the obvious big picture worries, played out relentlessly on our screens and in our minds. What will open and when? Will cases remain low? How do we get the economy back on track?
Underneath all of those are the individual strains we are experiencing. Of not being able to visit or be visited by loved family and friends, of being isolated and anxious, of struggling financially or having to abandon long-held plans for work, study, travel and a myriad other joys.
This week, the mental health toll to date was quantified. The federal health department advised that since March 16, there has been a national 15 per cent increase in the number of Medicare-subsidised mental health services delivered, with 7.4 million services provided. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are even higher in Victoria - up 31 per cent compared to this time last year.
In addition, the use of Beyond Blue's Support line was 77 per cent higher in Victoria than in the rest of the country, 16 per cent higher for Lifeline and 24 per cent for Kids Helpline. As Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said, this data is of significant concern.
As welcome as these moves are, they also underline another problem - the shortfall of mental health professionals, particularly in regional areas.
Help is available and it is growing, as we saw earlier this month in the federal budget, which logged record investment in mental health of $5.7 billion in 2020-21. We welcome that but we know it still can only go so far - literally and geographically.
One of the important measures in the budget was the decision to double the number, from 10 to 20, of Medicare-subsidised individual psychological therapy sessions available each calendar year.
The budget also included funding for 12 months for 15 "pop-up" mental health clinics, six of which are in regional Victoria.
These "Head to Help" clinics are for anyone experiencing emotional distress, mental ill health and/or addiction along with their families and carers and will temporarily address a critical gap in the system. Remarkably, the clinics were set up in 15 locations in just four weeks, demonstrating what can be achieved when there is strong political will. Of course, the need will last longer than 12 months and we urge the federal government to upgrade them to permanent mental health centres under the much larger and longer-term national program that was announced in the 2019 budget.
But as welcome as these moves are, they also underline another problem - the shortfall of mental health professionals, particularly in regional areas. That's why telehealth is so crucial and why we are urging the federal government to continue its broad availability beyond March 2021. But that won't solve the workforce issue.
The federal government's new university funding model will encourage more students to study mental health nursing, clinical psychology and other relevant degrees and courses - but again, that's not the panacea for rural and regional areas.
State and federal governments must work together to identify where the skill gaps are, but not just by numbers of people in those roles, but by location.
We are also urging enough supported placements and incentives for mental health specialists to work in the regions.
The interim report of the Productivity Commission's inquiry into mental health addressed the issue clearly. It said governments should make working in rural and remote areas more attractive by "reducing professional isolation, increasing opportunities for professional development, and improving the scope to take leave". I suspect one of the silver linings from the pandemic may be that more professionals will want to work in regional Victoria.
The Productivity Commission has now lodged its final report with the federal government. We eagerly await its release, as we do the final report of the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System in February. Combined, they provide the blueprint for reform and investment in mental health for the next 10 years. Increasing numbers of Victorians are now depending on them.
Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria.
- For support, contact the Beyond Blue coronavirus mental wellbeing support service for free advice and counselling on 1800 512 348 or online, Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, or Victoria Head to Help intake, advice and referral line 1800 595 212.