An increase in demand for mental health services is expected as people grapple with unemployment and the pressures of the post-novel coronavirus lockdown environment.
According to a recent Hospital Advisory Committee paper, Counties Manukau District Health Board's residential mental health inpatient unit, Tiaho Mai, noted a marked increase in the length of stay of patients in May during the lockdown.
"The service struggled to discharge people mainly due to anxiety about breaking a 'bubble'," the paper said.
"There was also a marked increase in referrals to intake and assessment following the end of lockdown, with increased referrals from both internal and external referrers. Of note the largest increase came from [the emergency department].
"Referrals increased across both genders, with the majority being females."
The number of patients has not dropped off post-lockdown and the Division of Mental Health and Addictions expects the trend to continue as people "begin to grapple with their new reality post-Covid-19", the paper said.
"Our CAMHS (Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services) service has also seen a sharp increase in referrals attributed to schools/GPs reopening again."
Reasons for the increase included greater financial strain due to unemployment, limited ability to cope with new norms and the fall-out from family violence.
The findings are in keeping with a report released in June by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures. The think tank and research centre predicted a mental health tsunami in the wake of Covid-19, with the number needing support tipped to double.
"The effects on our collective mental wellbeing are just beginning to be truly appreciated," it said.
"Not only could Covid-19 have a devastating effect on already vulnerable sectors of society, but also we anticipate a second, and potentially large cohort of newly at-risk people as a result of the economic downturn, both globally and nationally, and expected ongoing rise in unemployment."
Otago University psychology professor Richie Poulton, who co-authored the report, said that new at-risk group "has no playbook for this scenario and could respond in unpredictable or even catastrophic ways".
But the report also said the pandemic could provide the government with an opportunity to move away from existing outdated services and to adopt more innovative approaches to mental health.
It also called for the key recommendations from the 2018 He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction report to be implemented faster, and for an increased focus on promoting wellbeing at a community level.
Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said as the country emerged from the lockdown more people had been able to visit their GPs and access other services, so the bump in demand may simply be from people who were hesitant to go in over lockdown.
"It's too early to tell what's driving the increase and it's unlikely to be due to a single cause, but unemployment and socio-economic stressors are certainly drivers of poor mental health," he said.
"We have challenging times ahead of us and this will cause distress for many. Some people will need professional help and it's great to know services are gearing up to meet increase demand.
"It's imperative that social services are available to ensure that mental wellbeing is not adversely affected by any socio-economic stress."
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