New deputy chief medical officer Ruth Vine warns of long road ahead, as experts fear dire mental health risks



There will be “rolling phases” of mental health despair for Australians during the recovery phase of the coronavirus pandemic, with the nation’s newly appointed deputy chief medical officer warning the impacts from COVID-19 will be long-lasting.

Ruth Vine, a leading psychiatrist elevated to oversee the mental health response to the pandemic, said the virus had come at a time when many Australians were struggling in the wake of the summer bushfire season.

While initial concerns were around isolation and loneliness, Dr Vine said widespread apprehension was “turning towards employment and other financial impacts”.

“The mental health response to that is very varied,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.

“Many people will get through this and they’ll use their local contacts, they’ll use their families. But for some they’ll need more expert help.

“The impact is not going to be short-lived.”

‘Too soon to say’ if suicide rate has increased

The Australian Medical Association and leading advocates have argued clinical leadership will be crucial in tackling the mental health response to the pandemic.

Professor Patrick McGorry described Dr Vine’s task as “enormous”, with the mental health system already overloaded before mass lockdowns began.

Other modelling from the Brain and Mind Centre suggested that, in a worst-case scenario, deaths by suicide could increase from 3,000 a year to 4,500.

Dr Vine said it was “probably too soon to say” if there had been additional suicide cases because of the pandemic, but stressed “we need to really make sure we’ve got the best data available”.

Dr Vine, whose previous roles included being Victoria’s chief psychiatrist and director of health in Victoria, said the pandemic served as an opportunity to improve the coordination between state and national services.

“I feel very strongly about getting a better integrated mental health system.

“We do have a lot of duplication that sits between the privately funded and the publicly funded.”

Experts at odds over mental health roadmap

Dr Vine said she had been pleased to see an increase in telehealth services, and was encouraged by the Federal Government’s release of its Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan.

The plan has three main goals: to monitor data and predict mental health scenarios from the pandemic, ensure services are available to the community, and to connect those services.

Former national mental health commissioner Ian Hickie said the $48 million plan did not go far enough, and said Australia was facing a mental health “disaster”.

“It [the plan] doesn’t yet seem to reach the scale or the immediacy really required now to be ready for the really significant mental health problems that we will face over the next two years,” he said.



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