The majority of Australians are currently under lockdown as COVID-19 cases rise across the nation. If you’re among them, you may be:
• Worried about catching the virus
• Anxious that your job will be affected by the impact of the pandemic
• Under work pressure, especially if you work in health care or essential services
• Lonely or isolated without your usual social supports
• Struggling to juggle family responsibilities, especially if you have young children at home, with your usual work
• Sad about missing big events or having to cancel travel plans
All of these feelings can take their toll on mental health. That’s why it’s important to prioritise self-care and access support when you need it.
The Federal Government has put some supports in place to help anyone who is struggling with mental health. There are also several things you can do from home to buttress your mood.
Expanded access to subsidised mental health treatment
Since 9 October 2020, you can access up to 20 Medicare-subsidised psychological therapy sessions every calendar year. Previously, the cap was 10 sessions.
To access the sessions under the Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the Medicare Benefits Schedule (Better Access) initiative, you must:
• Get a referral from your reviewing practitioner, who can be a GP, psychiatrist or paediatrician.
• Have a Mental Health treatment plan in place.
• If this is the first time you’ve accessed any sessions, your reviewing practitioner can initiate a treatment plan. Otherwise, they will review your existing plan to check that it’s still suitable.
Your practitioner will decide how many sessions you should receive in your referral plan. If you receive a referral in the 2021 calendar year for up to 10 sessions, and don’t use them all before 31 December, you can use the remainder in the next calendar year without a referral.
There are also a number of digital mental health services available, both online or by telephone. These are particularly useful for those who live in a rural area, or who are in a crisis situation or cannot access face-to-face help.
Information and resources for employers
The Mental Health Commission has created guides for employers and employees to support mental health. There are separate guides for:
• Sole traders
• Small businesses
• Medium to large businesses
The guides offer advice on how to spot the signs that someone may need support, and practical tips on how to assist them. They also help employers understand their obligations under workplace law.
You can access these resources here.
What you can do to take care of your mental health
Having a routine that prioritises self-care is an important part of looking after your mental health. Diet, exercise and social interaction can all help.
Get regular exercise
Regular exercise has a strong positive effect on mental as well as physical health. Exercise stimulates the release of chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, that improve your mood and can sharpen brain function. It can also reduce depression and anxiety.
Even during lockdown, exercise is permitted as one of the reasons to leave home. You may not be able to go to the gym or swimming pool, but you can still:
• Go for a brisk walk or jog. Check your local state restrictions on how far from home you’re allowed to go before planning your route.
• Do virtual fitness classes: there are a huge range available, from yoga to aerobics.
• Lift weights.
• Play sports in the backyard with the family.
• Run laps around the local oval.
Look after your diet
Nobody’s going to begrudge you the occasional bar of chocolate during a lockdown. However, eating well can make a huge difference to your mood. Sugary treats feel good in the moment, but when the blood sugar spike wears off, the resulting ‘crash’ can make you feel worse than ever.
Try and snack on low GI foods such as nuts or legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables and lean proteins. There is some evidence that a healthy gut biome is linked to serotonin, so a diverse diet is preferable. Ultimately, the important thing is that you eat mindfully and make sure you’re getting the nutrition you need.
There are still ways to maintain social connections while socially distancing. It can feel like more effort, but a video chat or phone call can help stave off loneliness. Check in with friends in online groups, and don’t forget a friendly wave to neighbours!
If there are vulnerable people in your life, reach out and see if you can help by delivering groceries to their door or just checking in on them. It’s the right thing to do to help support your community, and helping others can also have a good effect on your mental health.
If you need to talk to someone, please do. A comprehensive list of mental health support services is available at the Department of Health website, and many of them are staffed 24 hours a day.
If things seem tough now, have heart. Australia is a resilient place, and we have come through this before. Be kind to yourself, reach out if you need it, and hopefully we will be on the other side very soon.