As the rise in COVID-19 cases has plunged much of the country into prolonged lockdowns, thousands of Australians are suffering from poor mental health and are struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table.
Anonymous data from digital platforms like Ask Izzy, which helps vulnerable Australians access support services, gives us unprecedented insight into how demand for these services has changed during the pandemic. The data makes a compelling case for increasing financial support to people in need and the social services sector that is struggling to keep up with record levels of demand.
Ask Izzy was originally designed to support those at risk of or experiencing homelessness, but over the past five years, the mobile website has evolved to support a much broader audience. During the pandemic, Ask Izzy has been responding to more than 200,000 requests per month for people experiencing food insecurity, financial hardship, mental health and family violence. Many of these community members have never asked for help before.
Analysis of the data found the number of people searching for food services has increased significantly during recent lockdowns. The increase seen following the May lockdown in Victoria was particularly sharp.
Foodbank Australia saw similar increases in demand on the ground with an enormous backlog of almost 10,000 food relief requests in July across NSW and the ACT. Victorian branches have seen similar levels of need across the state.
Searches for financial assistance increased by almost 50 per cent in Victoria during lockdowns in May and June, and by over 100 per cent since restrictions began in Greater Sydney at the end of June.
There was also a significant increase in NSW job and employment related searches in July, almost certainly linked to the restrictions that were rolled out across the state from the end of June.
The difficulties faced by those in financial hardship during this time have had significant flow on effects to mental health, alcohol and drug use, and family violence.
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) report that pre-pandemic, 40 per cent of Australians were using alcohol to cope with stress. The ADF is concerned that COVID-19 will see more Australians drinking increased amounts of alcohol to manage heightened levels of anxiety.
This concern is warranted, given that searches for alcohol and other drug support (AOD) across Ask Izzy have been increasing significantly in 2021 and peaked in July with the number of searches reaching levels never seen previously.
There has also been a major increase in searches for family violence and mental health support during the lockdowns, particularly in Victoria, with demand in other states already at record levels.
Financial hardship, mental illness, substance abuse and family violence are often linked. As witnessed over the past 18 months, these issues have been amplified by COVID-19.
Ongoing funding commitments from all levels of government, coupled with continued awareness campaigns, will play a key role in ensuring all Australians have access to the support, safety and health services they need during the most vulnerable periods of their life throughout the pandemic and beyond.