The extension of the coronavirus lockdown announced last Thursday by the state government has raised serious mental health concerns for the people of Port Stephens.
According to an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released early this month, initial impacts of the pandemic in Australia appeared to have increased levels of psychological distress, particularly for adults aged 18-45.
And while the number of deaths by suicide in NSW has remained at similar levels, official statistics from the institute show that the Port Stephens suicide rate is tragically higher than both the state and national average.
Port Stephens youth have been fortunate to have the services of the Jupiter program, which offers free counselling for those aged 15-24, but accessing support outside that age group can be a difficult and prolonged process, according to State MP Kate Washington.
Ms Washington said that the stress and anxieties flowing from the impacts of lockdown had resulted in many people struggling with mental health issues.
"The COVID crisis has put enormous pressure on people and highlighted the glaring gaps in our health systems, especially mental health," she said.
"But our community has struggled for years without adequate access to mental health services. Thankfully, in the absence of any local services at all, COPSY stepped up and established Jupiter so our youth have somewhere to turn.
"But if you're older, if your needs are complex, there's literally nowhere local to turn."
Ms Washington said that she met with the NSW Minister for Mental Health, Bronwyn Taylor, months ago to discuss the dire need for more mental health services in Port Stephens.
"Since then, nothing has changed. There's still limited access to local services whilst more and more people desperately need help."
In other Port Stephens news
The federal government told the Examiner that it committed to ensure all Australians could access mental health support when and where they need it, regardless of where they live.
"Last month we announced a $17.7 million funding package to rapidly establish 10 Head to Health pop up mental health support sites for areas currently facing extended COVID-19 restrictions in and around greater Sydney," a Department of Health spokesperson said.
"These clinics opened on September 6 and provide free mental health support delivered by multidisciplinary teams. The nearest clinic to Port Stephens is located in Tuggerah.
"As part of the funding, a state-wide intake and assessment phone service, providing a therapeutic service that assesses individual needs and directs people to the most appropriate care.
"People in Port Stephens seeking help can call 1800 595 21 to talk to a mental health professional and be directed to the most appropriate care in their region."
In July, the $17.35 million joint Commonwealth and NSW government package announced to support people in lockdown and isolation in NSW included measures that would boost services available to the Port Stephens community.
"It included additional funding to the Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network to increase mental health services. People in Port Stephens are able to access PHN-funded mental health services, which can be accessed by a referral from a GP, this then gives 10 free psychological interventions. Hunter Primary Care also offers alcohol and other drug services for Raymond Terrace and Tomaree once per week," the health spokesperson said.
"The PHN also funds a psychosocial support service for adults suffering severe mental illness affecting their social functioning in Port Stephens.
"The government continues to make mental health a national priority, investing a record $2.3 billion in the 2021-22 Budget for the National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan to lead landmark reform of the mental health system."
Through its Jupiter program, COPSY (Caring for Our Port Stephens Youth) has been offering free youth mental health counselling at Salamander Bay and Tanilba Bay for the past two years and has plans to expand to Raymond Terrace and Medowie in the new year.
"Now more than ever the need for Jupiter's services is most crucial," said COPSY president Brooke Vitnell.
"The official national statistics from the AIHW show that the Port Stephens' suicide rate is tragically higher than both the state and national average.
"Every death by suicide is a tragedy but each is preventable. That's why organisations like COPSY are at the frontline of suicide prevention, striving to improve mental health of our most precious resource, our young people."
The support group's vice-president Geoffrey Basser said that COPSY was set up as a registered charity to advocate, facilitate and support an effective, sustainable and free counselling service for youth in Port Stephens.
"Widespread and punitive lockdowns may slow the spread of COVID-19 but they also exact an increased mental health risk of so many of our young people," Mr Basser said.
"Increasing the number of services we can offer and making a real difference in young lives is needed now more than ever. Every person we help is one more young Australian who can prosper in our community. It's why we do what we do."
As a community-based organisation, Jupiter counsellors are currently offering online appointment services, which remain free and strictly confidential.
To get in touch phone 0490 716 265 or email email@example.com.
The Raymond Terrace-based Port Stephens Family & Neighbourhood Service provides counselling and support to parents and their children.
"We also offer parenting groups and playgroups, HiPPY for children from four years of age, and Women's Domestic Violence Support," said Ann Fletcher, team leader for Early Intervention and Homelessness Program.
"Also, any person can talk with their GP and the GP can complete a Mental Health Care Plan and refer to a psychologist for support."
- ALSO READ: New space for Tilligerry youth to talk
Other services provided by PSFANS include Financial Counsellors Financial Counselling Hunter Valley Project (fchv.org.au); Hunter Women's Centre Hunter Women's Centre (hwc.org.au); Headspace Extra (psfans.org.au); and Hunter Primary Care (hunterprimarycare.com.au).
"Everything we provide is free and we would be mindful of referring people to an outside service that was free also," Ms Fletcher said.
Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Taylor Martin said that the outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19 has meant big changes to the way we all live.
"We have had to be isolated from family, friends and workplaces. It has meant some businesses have been unable to open and this obviously causes financial stress for employers and employees," Mr Martin said.
"It's completely natural to be anxious while isolating, or concerned about impact employment changes have had on our lives. For some people this might affect their ability to cope with daily challenges.
"There is never a wrong time to seek help."
The NSW Government has set up a Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service on 1800 512 348 or they can access the website nsw.gov.au/covid-19, or the government's digital mental health gateway, Head to Health (headtohealth.gov.au).
Port Stephens residents looking for support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic can also access the Beyond Blue Coronavirus Wellbeing Support Service anytime via telephone at 1800 512 348 or online at coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au.
If you are concerned about suicide, living with someone who is considering suicide, or bereaved by suicide, the Suicide Call Back Service is available at 1300 659 467 or suicidecallbackservice.org.au.
- If you require urgent help call Lifeline on 13 11 14; Lifeline Text on 0477 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (24 hour services).