Don't ignore the mental toll of COVID-19, says SJOG CEO

Many people have tried to capture the magnitude of the current situation and its impact on life right now. I will limit my attempt to simply saying these are truly remarkable times.

Our Governments, Federal, State and Territory, are working tirelessly to halt the spread of COVID-19. They are relying on the cooperation of all us in order to be effective and so we are being asked to live our lives very differently. For many of us this dramatic and sudden change is extremely confronting.

Colman O'Driscoll is Chief Executive Officer, St John of God Burwood and Richmond Hospitals. Picture: Supplied

Colman O'Driscoll is Chief Executive Officer, St John of God Burwood and Richmond Hospitals. Picture: Supplied

We cannot escape the fact that controlling this virus is changing how we see our world and how we live our lives. Social distancing goes to heart of what it is to be human, creating a great sense of loss at a time when would usually rely on our connection with others for comfort.

Added to this sense of lost connection are the numerous unanswered, and possibly for now unanswerable, questions about when these measures will end, what the impact will be and when life will return to normal. Now is also a time of great uncertainty.

The necessary response to bring this virus under control brings with it a combination of what I have often thought are the things which have the greatest impact of our emotional wellbeing - great uncertainty and loss of connection with others.

On their own either of these things can have a big impact on a person's mental health and emotional well-being. Now many of us are experiencing them together and to a degree probably never before felt.

So what can we do? One thing I love about people is their ingenuity. We are finding ways to stay connected, using technology to enable us to meet and see each other. More than ever we need to connect and reassure ourselves and one another, that we are not in this alone. How we are feeling, the worry, the fear, the apprehension, is something the whole country, and indeed the whole world, is feeling. Through our connection we can deal better with uncertainty and remind each other that together we will find our way through this crisis.

I, like many people I'm sure, have often wished for life to slow down a little bit. Now we find ourselves wishing it would get back to normal. Perhaps, it is a good time to reflect on whether or not there are parts of 'normal' that were not so helpful in our lives; bits of 'normal' that we might do well to not rush back to so quickly.

We should all welcome the recently announced additional funding for mental health care. It is so important that people who need mental health care are able to access it, even when they are unable to do so in the way they had previously. Beyond the additional funding, how funding is distributed matters. Maybe it is also timely to look at alignment between funding models and service models so that providers will provide care that is more coordinated and less transactional.

We know that we can get control of this virus, even if we don't exactly know when or how many lives will be lost. Would it be too much to hope that, as we experience this crisis together and rely so much upon one another in order for our efforts to be effective, that we come through this with communities that are just a little gentler, a little kinder and value their connection with each other just a little bit more?

Colman O'Driscoll is Chief Executive Officer, St John of God Burwood and Richmond Hospitals providing specialist hospital and community based mental health care in Sydney, NSW. He is a mental health clinician with over 20 years experience across health system in senior leadership roles including as a Chief of Staff in the NSW Government.