Mental health threatened as COVID-19 pushes Australia to the brink of crisis, experts say

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Growing up, Australian singer-songwriter Georgia Sallybanks – known by her stage name Odette – always felt she was “different.”

“It was difficult for me to make friends,” she said.

“I had been exhibiting a lot of really disturbing behavior, outbursts, [and]not really understanding how to regulate emotions. I just knew. I sensed something was wrong.”

At 14, she saw her first psychologist, but it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

That diagnosis ushered in a particularly difficult time for the now 23-year-old, who sought help last year from a telephone support service run by the charity SANE Australia.

“To be honest, [if]an organization like this had existed when I was a teenager, things would have been very different for me.”

For Sydney-based singer, the service has been able to fill a gap in Australia’s network of support for the mentally ill. Now, thanks to SANE, she also has a new therapist, a solid mental health plan and a set of strategies to help her through the more difficult times.

This is working so well that she will soon be embarking on a national music tour.

Odette, a singer-songwriter, against a solid blue background.
The strategies offered by SANE helped Odette through the more difficult times. (Included)
SANE’s lifeline – the service that helped her turn her life around – is now in jeopardy.

The executive director of SANE Australia, Rachel Green, said the telephone counseling service, which relies on philanthropic donations, will be phased out next month.

“We’re in a difficult situation here,” she said.

“We’re facing a funding crisis as to whether we can keep these phone lines open.

Unlike other mental health services, SANE provides peer and professional counseling support and works with the person’s primary care physician to help people with complex mental health issues recover.

“For many people, their primary care physician is the cornerstone of their support,” she said.

“In the pilot program we ran, we worked with people’s treating physicians to help them manage transitions from one service to another, and that’s something we want to expand.”

Dov Degen, a general practitioner and nephrologist (kidney specialist), is in a unique position to assess the state of Australia’s metal health services.

Dr. Degen lives with bipolar disorder.

Dov Degen
Dr. Degen spent a month in an acute psychiatric unit. He said he had virtually no community care.(Supplied)
“Speaking from a physician’s perspective, it’s really difficult for patients to access hospitals,” Dr. Degen said.

He described the situation in Australia as a “crisis.”

“There are very limited beds, and you have to be extremely mentally ill to even get admission to psychiatry. So most patients are discharged into the community, and the follow-up in the community is very poor.”

He previously spent a month in an acute psychiatric unit and had virtually no follow-up care in the community after his discharge – which he described as a potentially dangerous situation.

He said services like SANE are critical.

“Having more readily available resources that are free and easily accessible [like SANE]will be an absolute game changer for all those patients who fall through the cracks.”

The ‘missing out’ middle
SANE targets the group known as the “missing middle” of the mentally ill: the people who aren’t sick enough to be hospitalized for psychiatric treatment, but who need more support than a few visits to a psychologist or psychiatrist.

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