Professor Kathryn Nicholson Perry shares the biggest trends she saw emerge from the year that was 2021 in the field of mental health, and if we respond in the right way – it’s all very good news.
In what has often referred to as the shadow pandemic, we have COVID-19 to thank for bringing our mental health into focus.
Many of the measures brought in to contain the virus’ spread – such as social distancing and lockdowns – had an extremely negative impact on people’s everyday lives – but particularly their mental health.
While the pandemic is sadly far from over, it has sparked several important changes to our mental health that will continue to influence and empower us into 2022, and beyond.
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1. Workplaces finally recognised mental health needs
Remote work during the pandemic helped us to better understand the everyday lives of those we work with. That, along with the mental health costs of living through such a seismic event, has put mental health at work firmly on the agenda.
Most employers are finally taking care of their people by helping with their mental health. They are starting to recognise the need to accommodate mental health issues on a level playing field with physical conditions by ensuring psychologically healthy workplaces.
Through the pandemic we’ve seen some employers making use of non-traditional mental health benefits and perks; including support via free meditation apps, the introduction of ‘doona days’ or extra days off outside of regular annual leave, and employee assistance programs that provide free access to therapists.
2. We got better telehealth services
In December it was announced that telehealth will become a permanent feature of the public mental health care system in Australia, including to support access to services from professionals like psychologists. The Australian government has set aside A$106 million over four years to support telehealth, which will ensure flexibility in healthcare delivery and continuous health consultations via phone or online.
While switching to telehealth services was an unexpected experience of 2020, and many clients and professionals had their misgivings about it, it is now a permanent part of our approach to mental health care and has the potential to address some of the long term issues with equitable access to mental health care among people in regional, rural and remote areas where the availability of mental health services may be poor.
3. We saw the positive in social media
Today, many of us rely on social media platforms to find and connect with each other and during the pandemic we were able to stay in touch and even virtually attend events that we may have otherwise missed with our loved ones in different places.
Although there are suggestions that social media use may have links to anxiety and depression, it is important to note that as it is an emerging technology, so there is still little known about the long term effects social media use has on people’s mental health.
During the pandemic, many of these apps were actually used to positively promote mental health. They were used to share self-care tips, as a motivational tool to achieve healthy lifestyle goals and to encourage more open conversations about mental health. It offered a safe space for people to express themselves and reveal their personal experiences with mental illness without stigma.
According to the New York Times, there will continue to be increased pressure on the biggest platforms like Tik Tok and Instagram to crack down on the type of content that is produced and to change their algorithms to promote recovery content, instead of harmful content that promotes unhealthy behaviour.
4. The renaissance of psychedelics
A number of different psychoactive drugs, such as cannabis, ketamine, MDMA and psilocybin, have received renewed research attention over recent years for the treatment of chronic PTSD and treatment resistant depression among other conditions.
Stigma and regulation regarding illicit drugs have made it difficult for them to be properly investigated and findings translated into practice. Globally there have been huge shifts in the past 12 months, including the Australian government’s $15 million in research funding to boost local research into potentially life-saving therapies and offers hope to all those suffering from mental illness, including our veterans and emergency service personnel dealing with the devastating effects of PTSD.
While this is not likely to result in any rapid changes, it offers hope to those for whom existing treatments have not been successful.
5. We all cared more about the environment
Perhaps previously seen as an individual problem, the pandemic revealed to many for the first time the importance of systemic and environmental factors beyond an individual’s control, like social distancing or financial stress, on mental health. This is increasingly being recognised also in relation to climate change, with reports of eco-anxiety in young people a particular concern.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its much-anticipated progress report on climate change, in short, it’s not looking good. The contributing scientists agreed that we are not reducing emissions fast enough and that without immediate action, the increasing floods, wildfires, droughts, storms, and heat waves are only expected to get worse – which could further impact those who are already marginalised in some way.
Taking a common good perspective on how we respond to these factors will benefit all of us, long term.
Professor Kathryn Nicholson Perry is a psychologist and associate dean (learning & teaching) at the Australian College of Applied Professions.
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