REACHING OUT: National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
REACHING OUT: National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Government ramps up mental health help for seniors

THE intrusion of COVID-19 into every fabric of our lives has a potentially devastating impact on our mental wellbeing now and well into the future unless we get help.

Anxiety, depression, loneliness, dealing with the pace and types of changes around us and being physically isolated from our support networks are all issues that contribute to the state of a person's mental wellbeing. When one or more of these situations are already an issue for a senior, the unexpected onslaught of this life-threatening pandemic can exacerbate them or cause their appearance in our lives.

As we start to move out of social isolation and re-engage with our community there is no harm or shame in reaching out for support, the experts say.

National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan said her organisation had noticed people were genuinely anxious.

"We don't know where this is going," she said. "Go back seven to eight weeks, we really didn't understand what impact it was going to have on us. We still don't."

The Federal Government recently announced almost $75 million for its National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan, which has a range of funding initiatives to support the community, including for seniors.

But for the plan to benefit seniors it is critical we learn that it's OK not to be OK, and to reach out for support. When we are physically unwell, we reach out for help, so why not when we are mentally unwell?

Ms Morgan said there was awareness and conversations were occurring around mental health but when it came to connecting those conversations with our self and consequently seeking help, there were many barriers.

"There are high levels of stigma," she said. "People feel as though they can't do it for themselves."

The challenge with that (attitude) is mental health issues don't manifest themselves like lumps and bumps, like physical symptoms," Ms Morgan said.

"We need to reach out and engage in conversations with somebody to start talking about what it is that is making you feel anxious, depressed, concerned.

"There is no stigma attached to mental health. It's just as normal as our physical health."

Black Dog Institute's senior clinical adviser and director of EastCoast Psychology and Psychiatry, Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar, says that before helping others, which many seniors tend to do, looking after ourselves firstly will go a long way to preparing us to help other people.

Where to find help

The National Health Plan encompasses a range of initiatives around online and phone support.

The Community Visitors Scheme is to be expanded to include more staff and volunteers, who will work with seniors, helping them connect online and by phone while its one-on-one home visits aren't possible. This service is available for seniors on government-subsidised residential aged care or home care packages and those who are socially isolated.

Within local communities, additional funding will be allocated from July 1 to the Primary Health Network for community-based care and applied to three key areas.

"This is about how can we connect with older Australians to make sure nobody is sitting out there completely isolated. We would hate that," Ms Morgan said.

"Secondly, how can we ensure that they are encouraged to maintain their social connections themselves, like how can we help them to get on the internet or how do we make sure they are all OK.

"Thirdly and most importantly, if they do need additional support for mental health and wellbeing, how can we direct them to the services that are available."

Beyond Blue's lead clinical adviser and GP Dr Grant Blashki warns there will be a lot more illness and death from "boring things" as people choose not to have their regular health checks with their GPs.

"I think people feel this is an urgent time and they shouldn't really bother their doctor," he said. "We are pretty worried in health care as we have seen a big drop in people going to casualty and to the doctor, which I understand because they are scared, but that's why the deputy chief medical officer put together very quickly telehealth."

Dr Blashki said electronic prescriptions for seniors could be accessed through local pharmacies. Many were now offering home delivery.

Through telehealth phone and video connections, seniors can also talk to their GP about setting up a mental health plan, which will facilitate 10 Medicare-rebated sessions with a psychologist.

"The PHNs understand that with community-based services we really want them to engage with mental health nurses because we believe they have that really lovely relational component in reaching out, particularly with older Australians," Ms Morgan said.

"It is certainly a softer way of starting help-seeking behaviour before possibly progressing to talking to a psychologist.''

Several online support services are also available where talking anonymously with a professional can help start the help-seeking process. One is the Federal Government's Head to Health website, which has links to apps, online programs, forums and phone service information for a range of mental health services.

There is also a government-funded COVID-19 Helpline offering practical advice and help on a range of pandemic-related issues for seniors, their families and carers, which is free to call on 1800 171866.

Beyond Blue is receiving some of the National Health Plan funding for its free 24/7 service.

Beyond Blue's Dr Blashki estimates that already between 10 and 15 per cent of older people experience depression, and about 10 per cent experience anxiety.

"The rates of depression among people living in residential aged care is thought to be much higher at about 35 per cent," he added.

From age 60 to well over 80, Dr Blashki said, there was "a whole lot of information about older people looking after their mental health" on the Beyond Blue website.

The support group also has a COVID-19-specific support service for seniors, which includes a phone number - 1800 512 348 - a website and an online forum.

"It has heaps of information: how to manage isolation, how to manage relationships, what to do if you have coronavirus and lots of practical tips," Dr Blashki said.

Another new program for Beyond Blue is its Not Alone podcasts, which cover a range of isolation issues. They are being presented by ordinary Australians who are on the mental health journey to better wellbeing.

Phoning Beyond Blue counsellors to talk about any concern you have is OK with them. They have at hand a database of referrals for when a person is seeking support for something outside the counsellors' remit.

"You don't have to have depression to phone us," Dr Blashki said. "They can ring if they feel a bit stressed and just want to get some tips on what they can do during this time."

There are more than a million people already chatting on its 24/7 online forum. Imagine a subject and pretty much you are guaranteed there is someone sharing their thoughts in the moderated space. It is free, anonymous and safe.

"You can chat to people who are going through similar issues," Dr Blashki said. "It's pretty good for people who are lonely."

Another support group, the Black Dog Institute, has developed myCompass, which offers a personalised self-help online learning tool to help identify your mental health issues, offering activities to assist you and track how you are progressing with managing your problems.

Where a person is thinking about suicide and needs urgent assistance, Lifeline can be contacted 24/7 by phoning 131 114 or by sending a text to 0477 131 114.

The free national Friend Line (1800 424287) phone support service for older Australians is also receiving National Health Plan funds to significantly expand its operational hours and call capacity to improve its offering of a casual and anonymous chat with a volunteer where anything and everything can be discussed.

The service will be available weekdays and weekends, from 10am to 8pm.

As seniors are being forced to seek support through digital connections, the Government sees access to suitable equipment as a significant barrier. As a result, local community organisations are sharing in a $1 million Be Connected program grant, which will help them procure mobile phones, tablets and data plans for provision to at-risk seniors.

Professor Manicavasagar suggested one of the best tips to reduce your anxiety around technology is to find someone who can teach you some of the basic online activities so that you can "negotiate the new technology-driven world".

Coping tips

Dr Blashki's tips for a better day include setting up a routine that includes pleasurable and achievement activities, and letting people know that you want to connect with them either in person, by phone or online.

"This whole thing has reminded us how important social connection is to our wellbeing," he said.

Professor Manicavasagar said she could not agree more. She reiterated that achievement and pleasure were the best ways to plan your structured day.

Making a daily to-do list is a good place to start.

"Doing this gives you a sense of wellbeing and a sense of moving forward," she added.

Looking forward was one of the hardest things seniors faced, said Professor Manicavasagar, as we come out of the isolation bubble and deal with the everyday activities in a changed community.

We are social animals, she reminds us.

"For most people, you lose some skills in terms of interacting with people face-to-face and reading social cues, and even things like driving become a little bit more challenging," she said.

"There is a sense of unfamiliarity. So, for anyone with a tendency towards anxiety and who prefers the familiar, this is a challenging time because there are going to be some things that are going to be different."

Remember that while you have probably changed through this experience, so too have those around you.

"In this period of social distancing, people may be more likely to either realise how well they can cope on their own and not rely so much on their social relationships, and that can have a ripple effect," Professor Manicavasagar said.

"If you are in a social group and some of them are not making a connection or they are not responding, you may have a tendency to wonder what is going on, which might heighten anxiety.

"Be mindful that relationships can change.

"That might not be for the worse. It could be a recalibration.

"Maybe what we need to do is sit down with the people we are close to and ask them how has this affected them and how do they feel about you contacting them, and how you can go forward. Have an open conversation rather than relying on the ways things have been done in the past."

Professor Manicavasagar also said seniors shouldn't expect to be getting back to what was their normal lives immediately, but instead easing into it.

Reach out anytime

There is no time limit on when the new Federal Government funding needs to be spent.

"The aim is to get it out as quickly as they can," Ms Morgan said.

While seniors can talk to their GP at any time about mental health concerns, Ms Morgan said the changes to telehealth were scheduled to continue through to September 30 so that consultations could be done remotely.

"Most of us working in this field really hope that by taking advantage of the access to mental health support and services, we can be encouraging our older Australians that it is really quite easy to connect for help," she said.

"The online digital services are going to be there for some time.

"It doesn't mean they (seniors) are weak. It doesn't mean there is something terribly wrong with them; it means they are quite normal and they are just having some challenges with their mental health. That's a normal thing to have happen.''