Professor Patrick McGorry calls for urgent overhaul of mental health system to cope with pandemic aftermath

Patrick McGorry
Patrick McGorry

The mental health fallout from the coronavirus pandemic had the potential to resemble the psychological impact of the Great Depression, one of Australia's leading adolescent psychiatrists has warned.

Patrick McGorry, an architect of the youth mental health service Headspace, has called for an urgent overhaul of the mental health system so it can cope with the aftermath of the immediate crisis.

"An Italian health worker said it's like having a tattoo, it will be with me for the rest of my life. Whether your whole body is covered with tattoos or just one is the issue," Professor McGorry, a former Australian of the Year, said of the possible mental health scars that the pandemic may leave.

And the longer the crisis continues, the deeper the potential impacts, particularly for young people.

"If there was an economic depression, that would have more damaging effects than the disaster itself," he said.

"The people who lived through the Great Depression had reduced life expectancy; if you develop a mental illness your life expectancy is reduced. It may be that the vocational pathways for a generation of young people are constrained for the next few years and that is going to lead to huge mental health problems and suicide rates as well."

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In the wider community, the stress of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to result in the reemergence of existing mental health issues.

"A lot of people think it's going to be related to the actual event but it's often the recurrence of a pre-existing mental health problem like depression or psychosis," Professor McGorry said.

"The anxiety and stresses and the losses they have suffered actually tip people over the edge again so it's not necessarily disaster related."

The federal government announced on Sunday that it was allocating an additional $74 million to support mental health services that are coming under strain during the coronavirus pandemic.

About $10million will allow Beyond Blue to provide a dedicated coronavirus wellbeing helpline. Another $14 million will go to existing mental health services, including Lifeline and Kids Helpline.

"The government deserves a pat on the back. They were the first government in the world to identify mental health as an acute priority in the context of COVD-19," Professor McGorry said.

He said more innovative approaches were needed for the delivery of mental health services both during and after the crisis.

Telehealth and online platforms, such as MOST, hosted by youth mental health organisation Orygen, had the ability to provide moderated social therapy to individuals living with illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression.

But in acute or complex cases where direct interaction was still required, extra protective resources needed to be provided to mental health workers.

"Instead of bringing people into mental health centres, workers need to go out to people in their homes. The positive thing is that reduces the risk to everybody because you are not getting the crowding of professionals and the crowding of waiting rooms. But some thought needs to be given to providing the protective gear for the people who are involved in that type of work," Professor McGorry said.

For help go to:

  • Lifeline: 131114
  • Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
  • Headspace.org.au:
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
This story 'It's like having a tattoo': Psychiatrist warns of potential mental health impacts from COVID-19 first appeared on The Canberra Times.