Some of the more disingenuous right-wing social media commentators have started using the line that the Covid-19 lockdown has led to increased suicides and mental health crisis callouts.
While it’s a revelation to see how right-wingers have suddenly become not only attuned to mental health problems in the community, but actuallyconcerned about them, their angst can be revealed as crocodile tears designed to sway doubtful lockdown supporters against Level 4 and Level 3 restrictions.
Mental health authorities and, more importantly and more independently, police have stated that there has “been no significant spike” in calls related to mental health.
Social media rumours that there has been a spike in suicide rates during the lockdown have been described by the Mental Health Foundation as “irresponsible and untrue”.
This includes claims made to me by a bunch of Tauranga National supporters that there had been an upsurge in farmer suicides because of the lockdown. Interestingly, I saw a comment by a sheep and beef farmer who is Mayor of Mackenzie District, attacking Mt Cook’s Hermitage Hotel for closing, accusing it of creating unnecessary unemployment and stating that “most farmers have resilience” and that tourism businesses should follow their example.
Having said all that, there is no doubt that the lockdown has thrown up unique mental health challenges for many Kiwis, just as it has thrown up new examples of individual and community resilience. More than ever people have needed contact with their friends and whanau, but there are hundreds of thousands of social media-carried examples where this contact and ‘checking in’ has increased, and where people have been more inclined to say how they are feeling electronically than they had in person a couple of months ago.
A major concern is the ability of mental health and community support services to cope with a new crisis, on top of the previously existing mental health crisis. There is a looming large increase in unemployment and financial hardship, and the link between economic wellbeing and mental wellbeing is clearly established. In the Canterbury microcosm, the Christchurch earthquakes have shown this country some of the long-term effects of major crises, but the big question is – has the Government learnt from this and prepared for this.
While not yet true, the right-wingers’ scare stories of dramatically increased mental health problems and suicides might yet be realised if the Government does not have a plan beyond business handouts and big infrastructure builds in the next stage of the crisis.
I am unconvinced that their agencies, the Ministry of Health and it’s attendant DHB Mental Health Services, have the foresight, ability or organisation to cope with the mental health fallout from the coming large increases in unemployment and economic hardship.
I fear for the independent community support sector, the NGOs who always end up picking up the pieces in crises like this, but who don’t have the capacity to handle what is coming their way. The foodbanks, nightshelters, community centres and community-based health services will be the frontline of the Covid-19 crisis in the near future.
I fear also for families, who bear the initial brunt, and often the whole load, of caring for loved ones who the system is incapable of caring for, and who get close to zero support from mental health authorities who generally regard family members of mentally unwell people as interfering privacy invaders. This problem is not new, it has continued slightly under the radar over the last 2 months, but it will be exacerbated if there is an upsurge in calls for mental health support.
In the last two weeks, my partner and I have been contacted for help by four families of people with severe mental health issues, that have to date been failed by official support organisations. These are not Covid-19 related cases, but show us clearly that the failing mental health system has not taken the opportunity of the last two month’s reduced scrutiny to improve anything, let alone to crack on with the reforms that the Government has funded it to undertake.
The combination of the Covid-19 crisis and a lame duck Minister of Health seems to have allowed the much-heralded community mental health support improvements from the 2019 Budget to be put to one side.
What this country needs are hard-driving advocates of change in the metal health system to actually be put in charge of seeing through that change. People with strong community links and a good vision of the needed end result.
Unfortunately, what we’ve currently got are the current leaders of the mental health profession being asked to manage changes to the system they devised – akin to turkeys being told to campaign for an early Xmas.
As the Covid-19 crisis restrictions ease, I’ve no doubt the focus on the poor state of our mental health system will once again come to the forefront.
Dave Macpherson – TDB mental health blogger & Former Waikato DHB Elected Member whose son was killed by public health incompetence.