Rebecca Gredley and Finbar O’Mallon
(Australian Associated Press)
Australia has a new mental health official to help prevent a spike in suicides related to the coronavirus.
Former chief psychiatrist of Victoria Ruth Vine has been appointed as the country’s first deputy chief medical officer for mental health.
Professor Vine will listen to community concerns and provide advice to the federal government, with a focus on anxiety linked to social distancing and economic stress.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the appointment on Wednesday, saying the COVID-19 pandemic, bushfires and drought had affected Australians’ mental health.
“These impacts will be felt by people of all ages and across all our communities,” he told parliament.
Mr Hunt said the government was monitoring the use of mental health services so it can respond to demand.
Australia’s political leaders will discuss a national mental health pandemic response plan on Friday.
The minister also intends to make expanded access to telehealth services a permanent fixture.
Last week, nearly half of mental health consultations were performed over the phone, Mr Hunt said.
Labor has suggested the number of Medicare subsidised mental health sessions should be lifted from 10 to 20, but Mr Hunt said the success of telehealth showed improvements didn’t have to rely on more sessions alone.
Government modelling has forecast a 50 per cent increase in suicide cases directly related to the economic shutdown and the associated distress.
The modelling also points to the possibility of suicides outstripping direct deaths from coronavirus.
“One of the things we are aware of is that whilst we’re practising physical distancing we should also be engaging in the social contact over the phone, in whatever way we can, to tell people that we’re there, we understand,” Mr Hunt said.
“They may be isolated but they’re not alone.”
Professor Vine will sit alongside Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, who recommended mental health be treated as a priority.
Suicide Prevention Australia and the National Mental Health Commission both welcomed her appointment, saying it recognised the importance of mental health.
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