Demand for mental health care soared during and after lockdowns

Community Visitors have called for a substantial increase in mental health beds for adolescents, particularly in regional Victoria, in the Community Visitors Annual Report 2021 tabled in Parliament today.

Demand for mental health services for young people soared during and after lockdown, with many inpatients at one adolescent unit reluctant to leave, preferring the human contact in hospital to isolation at home, staff told Community Visitors.

During a visit to the 12-bed adolescent unit at Box Hill, Community Visitors were told there had been a 40 per cent increase in demand, with the strain of social isolation and no school impacting on mental health, including more self-harm. This continual high demand meant that admissions to the unit could be for only a brief four-to-five days.

The Public Advocate Colleen Pearce said she was particularly concerned about the shortage of adolescent beds in metropolitan areas and the lack of such beds in rural and regional areas.

“There are only two child and adolescent, acute inpatient beds in Gippsland. Other rural areas such as Bendigo, Barwon and the North East do not have any, so consumers need to access child and adolescent beds in Melbourne,” Dr Pearce said.

The multiple lockdowns in Victoria and the COVID-19 pandemic this year significantly impacted the work of both mental health services and that of Community Visitors.

In addition to many volunteers taking a break from Community Visiting for personal reasons, often related to the pandemic, for most of the year visits were conducted remotely, by phone or video, rather than face-to-face.

This resulted in a significant decrease in the number of visits to mental health units by Community Visitors (834 compared with 1235 visits last year – a decrease of 33 per cent) as well as the number of issues identified (1177 compared with 1927 issues last year – a decrease of 39 per cent). Nonetheless, Community Visitors visited 158 out of the 174 mental health units eligible for visits. Those not visited were nearly all emergency departments and short-term units that many Community Visitors deemed not appropriate to visit in a COVID-19 environment.

Other impacts of the pandemic included:

  • staff shortages and bed closures due to exposure to COVID-19
  • restrictions on visitors and external providers, including peer support workers and specialists, during some lockdowns
  • boredom due to programs and activities being cancelled
  • a lack of access to sunlight, fresh air, and exercise in the community
  • delays in admissions and discharge
  • increased demand, particularly from young people and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, due to underlying mental health issues exacerbated by a lack of community support due to the stressors of COVID-19.

Community Visitors called on the State Government to review the experience of mental health consumers during the COVID-19 lockdowns and recommend practices for future lockdowns that will support their ability to develop daily living skills, as well as improved quality of life.

The pandemic also exacerbated challenges in securing suitable accommodation for mental health consumers after discharge, particularly in regional Victoria due to an increase in people moving to the regions to escape lockdowns in metropolitan areas.

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