PHAA Australasian COVID-19 Virtual Conference
In December 2020, the PHAA co-convened a special edition virtual conference with the theme: Preventing, detecting, controlling and managing COVID-19 – reflections on 2020 and future challenges.
This article is one of a series on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on the Australian community as presented by experts to the COVID-19 conference in December 2020.
The following is based on a presentation to the COVID-19 Conference by Dr Aziz Rahman, Associate Professor of Public Health, Federation University Australia.
COVID results in dramatic rises in stress levels according to survey
While the numbers of COVID cases in Australia is lower than almost 100 countries around the world, the overall impact has left many people distressed.
Australia made headlines across the world very early in the pandemic when panic buying of toilet paper occurred right across the country. This panic was created by the uncertainty of the pandemic which disrupted peoples’ lives so dramatically.
There were many causes for the increased anxiety: the rapid spread of the virus; risk of deaths; start of lockdown; isolation; quarantine; disruption from social gatherings; and unemployment.
Health care workers in particular, were working under extreme duress.
Dr Rahman said despite plenty of information flowing, there was a lack of evidence and sound data into the true impact of COVID-19 on psychological distress and fear and the coping strategies adopted.
A cross-sectional online survey was conducted of nearly 600 participants aged 18 and over, recruited from Australia’s community and healthcare settings, with the majority of participants from Victoria. Sixty per cent were migrants to Australia. The survey was conducted between two COVID waves in Australia in June 2020.
The survey’s key findings were that 33 per cent of respondents had high to very high levels of psychological distress as a result of the pandemic and 32 per cent had high level fears of COVID.
The highest levels of distress were primarily amongst females and people with pre-existing mental health conditions who were three-times more likely to have high psychological distress compared to people with no pre-existing mental health conditions.
The survey also found the risk of higher psychological distress was nine times higher for those who had increased their smoking during COVID, and it was double for those who had increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Counter to that, the risk of psychological distress was lower, by 70 per cent, amongst people aged 60 and over, and interestingly, those who were on the frontline of essential services providing care and support was 26 per cent less.
When asked about fear of COVID-19, females and people aged 30-59 were twice as high for psychological distress and three times greater for fear of COVID. People who consumed more alcohol and who were facing employment challenges had significantly greater stress levels.
The survey found people born in Australia were at less risk (65%) and those with stable income were also at less risk (49%) of psychological distress.
Coping mechanisms adopted to deal with the stresses of COVID-19 included daily exercise, yoga, meditations, watching movies, spending time with family members, reading books, listening to music, making calls to friends and loved ones, gardening, and even cooking and cleaning the home. It was clear that visits from health care providers were beneficial to support people in need.
In conclusion, Dr Rahman said support was most needed to help people quit or control smoking and alcohol consumption and especially for those who had pre-existing mental health conditions. He said it was also important to recognise the vulnerability of females who are often the primary care-givers for families, and who sometimes ignore their own health needs.