‘I never thought this would happen’


Apart from the odd bouts of stress when work is particularly demanding, Jane* has never really struggled with her mental health before.

The 26-year-old from Melbourne works in a busy finance job and lives with her partner and their dog in the city's inner suburbs. Life is good.

But the past several months have taken a heavy toll, with COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and turmoil sparking anxiety and depression.

"I never thought this would happen to me, Jane, who asked her name be changed for privacy reasons, told news.com.au.

"Going to see a psychologist, feeling like this … the intense dark clouds and sense of despair and hopelessness … it's not me. Not usually anyway."

The number of Australians without existing conditions seeking mental health support for the first time has exploded since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, clinicians say.

Julie Sweet, a psychotherapist and managing director of Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy in Bondi Junction, Sydney, said many new clients are struggling to cope in their daily lives.

"They speak of their inner critic and internalised thought process having a negative bias relating to COVID, destabilising them when they previously felt their outlook and demeanour was once more positive and optimistic," Ms Sweet said.

"Routine mundane tasks are seemingly too much and they are noticing their reactivity changing when facing ordinarily easy tasks.

"Responses to getting things completed are now more burdensome. They express feeling flooded, fearful and insecure."

Young women are particularly over-represented, she said, which is a trend many mental health experts have observed.

"What may have started as a mild symptom can develop into complex and generalised anxiety, consequently growing into a chronic mental health concern for young women seeking first-time treatment," Ms Sweet said.

"Young women report that the uncertainty of COVID and the lack of control that's transpiring for them, as they attempt to function in an unknown new environment, has been overwhelming."

Julie Mounter from All Minds Psychology in Melbourne said the surge in people seeking help for the first time is overwhelming the mental health system.

"Demand has just gone through the roof," Ms Mounter said.

"I've had quite a few people say, 'I never thought I'd be talking to a psychologist,' and they can't believe it's them who's struggling."

That can sometimes make treatment complex, she said.

"They might be quite OK with the general concept of someone needing to go talk to someone, but when it's them, it can be a barrier for them seeking help."

The coronavirus crisis is taking a toll on people’s mental health, with many needing support for the first time. Picture: Getty Images
The coronavirus crisis is taking a toll on people’s mental health, with many needing support for the first time. Picture: Getty Images

Jane said it took her some time to accept that she needed help, and then a few weeks more to get an appointment with a therapist.

While she has felt the benefits of speaking with someone and learning some new coping techniques, she feels there's a long way to go.

"The biggest struggle is knowing there's no end in sight (with COVID) and that definitely adds to my anxiety," she said.

Dr Glen Hosking is a clinical psychologist, senior lecturer at Victoria University and director of the VU Psychology Clinic. He said it's understandable that people without existing mental health conditions are struggling.

"The overall experience of the pandemic is very challenging for most people," Dr Hosking said.

"There's anxiety and uncertainty from a health perspective, but also surrounding employment and finances. If you add on top of that the isolation that people are experiencing, it creates almost a perfect storm."

Normal coping strategies to boost wellbeing are difficult, especially in lockdown zones. Picture: Ian Currie/NCA NewsWire
Normal coping strategies to boost wellbeing are difficult, especially in lockdown zones. Picture: Ian Currie/NCA NewsWire

When people's wellbeing is challenged, they typically turn to community and social settings to cope, but the pandemic has limited the ability to do that.

In some places, particularly Melbourne, it's virtually impossible to maintain connections in stage 4 lockdown.

"That adds to the great difficulty that many people are likely to be experiencing," Dr Hosking said.

Regardless of age, gender or background, there would be few Australians who haven't been affected emotionally by COVID-19 in some way, Jill Stark, a mental health advocate and the best-selling author of the books When You're Not OK and Happy Never After, said.

"We're all collectively going through something that none of us have experienced before," Stark said. "We're all trying to find our way through

"It's like we're constantly in fight or flight mode. That's traumatic and unpleasant. It's exhausting.

"I'm not saying that everyone is feeling things that acutely, but I do think everyone has been hit emotionally by coronavirus to some extent."

When COVID-19 is a thing of the past, Stark believes the period of reflection that follows will show any lingering stigma about mental illness will have finally been smashed.

"No one has been left untouched and people are seeking help for the first time. There's a sense of empathy for those who struggle generally.

"If this pandemic had hit 10 years ago, would we have seen governments pouring money into mental health as a critical priority? I don't know. That's a positive thing.

"There's an understanding that this virus doesn't just have a physical impact, but a mental health impact too."

* Name has been changed

Originally published as 'I never thought this would happen'

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