Bottleneck in demand for mental health services

people in a therapy group
“Long waitlists in the wake of the pandemic mean many are not able to access help as needed.” Photo: Psychologist Frankston, Flickr CC0.

The Western Australian mental health sector is being overwhelmed post-lockdown as new and returning clients rush to access face-to-face services.

Curtin University senior psychology lecturer and clinical psychologist Rebecca Anderson said this extreme increase in demand has led to a bottleneck.

“Many clinicians working in private practices have lengthy waitlists at the moment, which is a concern – people aren’t able to access services very rapidly.”

Pandemic linked to myriad of mental health issues

The Black Dog Institute reports significant psychological impacts from the pandemic, such as anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and exacerbation of pre-existing mental illnesses.

“We’re seeing an increase in referrals across the board for anxiety disorders. I run an OCD treatment service. We’ve had a huge influx of referrals in recent times,” Dr Anderson said.

“If we think about other disorders like depression, which are linked with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, it’s not really surprising that we’re going to see rates of those problems increase.”

Concern for the vulnerable in the wake of COVID-19

University of Western Australia senior psychology lecturer and clinical psychologist Lisa Saulsman said this demand increase was understandable.

“Many people are facing very real hardship … loss of job, their career or their business … financial stress or housing stress, people may have lost their loved ones … having to spend more time in unsafe or negative domestic situations.

“People really like certainty and predictability … but the pandemic has just sort of thrown that stuff out the window, which can be very hard for a lot of us to come to terms with.”

Dr Saulsman said there was particular concern for those directly in the firing line.

“Those that are actively in quarantine, frontline workers, those that have health vulnerabilities … they are facing some very direct and confronting impacts from this situation, so they might be particularly vulnerable as well.”

Moving forward with mental health in mind

Dr Anderson said psychologists were evolving their practice with a particular focus on telehealth.

“We’ve had to work really rapidly to improve our telehealth procedures, and also how we train our up-and-coming clinicians in using telehealth.

“I think we’ll see a lot more refining of telehealth procedures and we’ll be looking for more and more applications of telehealth as we move on.”

The WA Government officially opened the Western Australian Recovery College earlier this month, offering statewide community-centred courses for managing mental health, drug and alcohol issues via satellite connection.

This occurs alongside other support efforts, such as the $159 million Lotterywest COVID-19 community relief fund, and suicide prevention initiatives totalling $45 million.

Dr Saulsman said “behavioural anti-depressants” such as pleasurable, purposeful and rewarding activities, as well as connecting with people, are other things people can do to improve their mental health.

“The biggest way to curb these impacts is to find ways to connect and re-engage with life … in whatever way we can for our circumstances, whether that be whilst we’re in lockdown, whether that be post lockdown.”