Though the COVID-19 emergency is, in the first instance, a physical health crisis, there are already signs that it is also taking a toll on people’s mental health and wellbeing. There are early indications that general uncertainty about the future and specific pressures, like business closures and unemployment, concerns about keeping accommodation, working from home and fears about contracting the virus, are contributing to increased demand for mental health services. Coupled with significant changes in people’s lifestyles and daily routines, reduced opportunities for exercise and movement outdoors and socialisation, these impacts may lead to serious long-term implications for Canberrans’ mental wellbeing as well as greater rates of substance abuse.
The Commission is aware of a significant increase in the number of mental health-related presentations to Canberra Hospital and a corresponding need for greater information about availability and access to mental health services in easy English. Healthcare workers, older adults, children and young people, and people with disability, including those with pre-existing mental health conditions, may be at particular risk during this time, including where existing supports or information about available assistance are inadequate or where continuity of pre-existing mental healthcare has been interrupted.
Care must be taken to ensure that the implementation of public health restrictions and other precautionary measures do not disproportionately impact on the rights of people with limited capacity to advocate for their interests or to understand and comply with directions. As with other closed settings, restrictions on visitors to closed mental health wards and facilities may be reasonable, given the increased risk of the virus’ spread in such environments, however such restrictions must be strictly temporary and at all times proportionate to public health advice.