Health | Ageing

Collective purpose, clear communication, a sense of self-control, and reform, essential for the mental health of Australians: Julia Gillard

Collective purpose, clear communication, a sense of self-control, and reform, will be essential for the mental health of Australians as we come through the COVID-19 crisis, former Prime Minister and BeyondBlue Chair, the Hon. Julia Gillard shared at a CEDA livestream.

“As human beings we are hard wired to create stability. We like to feel in control. The pandemic rocked our sense of certainty and no one has been left untouched,” she said.

“It’s important to remember that while it’s tough right now, and it is, we will come through to the other side.

“As we work to reopen and recover, the key challenge is to sustain a sense of collective purpose once the immediate crisis has eased. How can we remain united and responsive to the larger public policy issues, in the absence of the singular and overriding effort to flatten the curve and protect lives, and sustain a binding sense that we are in this together?

“What happens when other curves that impact participation and productivity – unemployment, underemployment, emerging mental health issues – need to be flattened too?

“We need to keep the dialogue as open as possible and we’ve got to do that even when we’re not as close to the approximate cause as we are now. That’s one of the things that I really worry about.

“At the moment we can all say ‘we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we’re at home, things aren’t normal’ – we can understand the stress. We can understand why that might be exacerbating mental health issues. 

“But as things get ‘more normal’ for some sections of the community, but are still nowhere near normal for others – people who have lost their jobs, or whose businesses have had to close - in six or 12 months’ time will we still have that sense of ‘I get why you are in these circumstances. I still understand that it is a manifestation of the crisis that we were experiencing, six, 12 months ago.’ 

“We’ve got to keep holding that understanding with us.

“One question I would pose to the audience today is what contribution can you make to helping the community stick together during the next phase? And a second question, what have you learned in this period that you will take with you into the future?”

Speaking on building a mentally healthy workplace and creating certainty for the workforce, Ms Gillard said while clarity is in short supply, clear communication, creating a sense of self-control and consultation is key.

“As bits of what your business is going to do become clearer and clearer, the more you can communicate that so people can have that sense of greater certainty, greater understanding of the future path, the better,” she said.

“As we get that clarity, people’s sense of self control is also important. If they feel like…they’ve got no say in the future direction, that can be very undermining.

“Whilst this isn’t an easy age for consultation given the physical distancing, if you can build as much of that in as you plan your reopening and restart, it will pay dividends. 

“I’m certainly hoping that employers will take from this crisis a new appreciation of the possibilities for flexible and virtual work which are both better for work and family life balance and can be better for family’s mental health.

“I also hope as employers plan for the new normal at work that mental health is prioritised. Many Chief Operating Officers, office managers, business owners, would already be thinking about how to restart offices or other places of work – what physical distancing arrangements, will be necessary, how to source supplies of hand sanitizer and the like.

“At the same time this vital work is done, it is possible to plan how businesses can support the mental health of workers who are re-emerging after this stressful and isolated period. Tips on mentally healthy workplaces and how to build them are on Beyond Blue’s website.

“I do hope out of this, one of the things we take with us is what can be done in workplaces learning from this experience, that alleviates people’s stress and gives them a better sense of balance in their lives.

“If employers and employees can harness that, then maybe we will be looking back at this time as still a very difficult time in the history of our world and a time that caused a lot of loss and grief, but also a time that changed working cultures in a way that we remember as a very significant growth spurt and set of achievements.”

Discussing mental health reform, Ms Gillard said this mental health crisis has been put on top of a system that needed reform, however there are opportunities, but Commonwealth state collaboration is needed.

“We actually think that this means we can speed up some of the reform directions that have been advocated for, for a long time now,” she said.

“Any blueprint for mental health reform requires Commonwealth state collaboration and one of the things I’m hopeful about in this era, is that we have worked that Commonwealth state collaboration muscle pretty hard to deal with the pandemic, so I hope it is strengthened for the challenges ahead.

“While we are not always going to keep national cabinet, I hope we don’t just go back to the incremental world of COAG, that we do keep this pace of Commonwealth state collaboration more accelerated. That would be good for mental health reform.

“A key priority from the point of view of Beyond Blue is working the system out so there aren’t gaps, holes, duplications…genuinely making it a stepped care system with a key focus on prevention and early intervention. We think all of that is vital.

“We think this is an opportunity to build in some low-intensity models of care. We talk about stepped care, people being able to get the right support they need at the right time. With the level of intensity stepping up depending on how people’s acute needs are.

“I think that sort of staircase model is a good mental image, but if we look at today’s care system, a number of steps are missing.

“We do believe there will need to be additional resourcing for mental health, but we also think there is potential that can be unlocked if we can get the system to be more efficient and effective.”

Ms Gillard discussed the work that Beyond Blue is doing to support the community and trends in support requirements as the crisis has evolved.

“As coronavirus hit our shores at Beyond Blue we expected call volume to our telephone support service to increase. We were expecting an increase of around 30 per cent by June,” she said.

“What we actually saw was by March, a 42 per cent increase. In one week, our Coping with Coronavirus thread in our online peer support forums, increased seven times above the volume of traffic of the bushfire thread.

“Initially people were telling us they were anxious about their health, about their loved ones getting sick, and about whether we had seen similar scenes to those in countries with devastating death tolls.

“As physical distancing continued week after week, increasingly people reached out to us because of their struggle with loneliness and then since Easter we have seen a new trend, a new thread in the discussion, a sense of being overwhelmed and exhausted, being at home, home schooling, all taking its toll and of course there are those in financial distress.

“What has been heartening though has been the spirit of collaboration and common purpose we’ve seen across the mental health sector, across industry and across all levels of government to rapidly scale up mental health services to rapidly meet demand.

“The national cabinet is certainly one welcome initiative. Funding from the federal government and Medibank has allowed Beyond Blue to rapidly build a dedicated coronavirus wellbeing support service, which is free to all Australians 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

“But it’s not set and forget. As a community we have never been in this situation before, so we will continually be adding content and new support channels.

“We know the needs of the community will evolve just as the pandemic will. On the road to recovery we expect some groups will require more support than others, because whilst the virus does not discriminate, the long-term impacts do.”