Health messaging in Australia throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has not just been focused on physical health, but the equally important mental health.
Being asked to isolate for long periods of time, constantly changing restrictions, job losses or cutbacks, financial worry and debt strain, dramatic shifts in work, home and family life and the fear, anxiety and stress about the coronavirus itself has placed a strain on the mental health of many individuals.
This fact is acknowledged by the Australian Government, which is channeling an additional $500 million into mental health services this year, Lifeline, the Black Dog Institute, which has released a report on the Mental Health Ramifications of COVID-19, and also Port Stephens support services.
Port Stephens Family and Neighbourhood Services (PFANS) and Caring For Our Port Stephens Youth (COPSY) have each seen a spike in individuals reaching out to their services for mental health support during the pandemic.
"We've definitely noticed an uptake not only in the mental health services we offer but all programs. The demand for support in our area is huge," said Andrew Norris, the senior practitioner with PFANS' child youth and family team.
"I think everyone is feeling the impact of the current COVID situation. Families that we support in Port Stephens are definitely feeling it. We've seen an increase in demand and referrals to our child youth and family team, the staying home, leaving violence program, homelessness program and emergency relief."
Mr Norris said that the four recent COVID-19 cases on the Tomaree Peninsula, all being announced within days of each other and sparking a fear of a further outbreak in the community, had created "lots of anxiety" in clients that access the Raymond Terrace-based support service.
He encouraged any person in the community who needed assistance, whether it be counselling, financial, food or housing help or youth support to contact the service.
"We've got lots of people in situations that perhaps might not have been in any challenging situation before, who might be thinking of reaching out for help for the first time. And that's okay. You can reach out if you need a hand. We are out here to help."
PFANS further supports youths through The Deck in Raymond Terrace which is open on Mondays 10am-4pm and Wednesdays 3.30pm-6.30pm.
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The recent Tomaree COVID-19 outbreak has placed the Jupiter counselling team on notice for an anticipated rise in referrals. Jupiter was set up in 2019 by COPSY as a 'Space to Talk' for young people struggling with mental health and well-being issues. Face to face meetings are held at the Tomaree Library and Community Centre in Salamander Bay.
Jupiter operations manager and counsellor Paul Pearton said that the service had seen record numbers in June after a quiet period during the coronavirus pandemic school shutdown.
"We re-opened our office for face to face appointments to coincide with the easing of restrictions on June 1 and saw a record number of referrals for that month. The appointments dried up during the July school holidays but we are now seeing another increase in numbers. We will continue our face to face appointments while the schools remain open," he said.
Mr Pearton said that there were three ways young people could access the Jupiter program for counselling and social work - face to face, via video and by phone.
"We understand these are unique and challenging times and we are now offering alternative methods of counselling (psychology services) via Teleport [similar to Telehealth] for those who prefer to communicate electronically."
Jupiter accepts young people 12 to 18 years through self-referral or GPs with a current Mental Health Care Plan. Mr Pearton said they are averaging around 40 appointments a month. The team is made up of two psychologists (one as an intern), a mental health social worker and five counsellors. They are accessible five days a week, 2pm-6pm.
"Jupiter is committed to continue delivering the highest quality counselling, especially in these times where emotions and stressors may be magnified."
Mr Pearton said that the program was also in need of donations as many funding streams had been cut off due to COVID-19.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lifeline has received the most calls it has seen since the inception of the service. Hunter and Central Coast Lifeline has seen its calls increase by 25 per cent, said regional general manager Julie Wicks, while COVID-related calls have been tracked at a rate of 40 per cent.
"Forty per cent of callers mention coronavirus and its impact on them or people around them," Ms Wicks said. "Job loss, financial worry, added pressure on family dynamics, feeling 'trapped' at home are mentioned - plus the feeling of uncertainty is also a very common concern. Isolation is a major concern."
Hunter and Central Coast Lifeline offer face to face counselling, Skills for Life training and telephone crisis support (13 11 14). Adapting to COVID-19, the service now provides video and phone counselling.
When asked what signs people should look out for in declining mental health, Ms Wicks suggested: lack of concentration, struggling with normal tasks at work, feeling sad and not knowing why, feeling anxious and not having felt this way before, someone not feeling their normal self or others seeing that someone is not their normal self.
"We wish to encourage people to not be afraid to ask the question of someone 'are you okay?' or 'I've noticed you don't seem yourself', 'I am happy to listen if you would like to someone to talk to' and be confident to have the discussion," Ms Wicks said.
"Many people may not ask the question because they are not sure how to deal with the answer, however a good listener can be all that somebody needs. One of the most powerful things you can do is simply show you care and connect."
Ms Wicks encouraged anyone experiencing distress or a decline in their mental health to speak with a friend or family member, their GP or visit the Hunter and Central Coast Lifeline or Lifeline Australia website.
They can also phone the Hunter and Central Coast Lifeline centre for a face to face appointment on (02) 4940 2000.
Assistance is also available through Lifeline's 24-hour telephone helpline 13 11 14, text service 0477 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; Beyond Blue (1800 512 348); the government's digital mental health gateway Head to Health and; headspace (for youths 12-25 years old) eheadspace.org.au or phone 1800 650 890.