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Local practitioner focuses on long term recovery

What started as a flu-like illness in one corner of the world, has changed the lives and futures of people all around the world.

As the tide begins to turn on COVID-19, an Ipswich researcher is thinking about recovery.

Professor Harvey Whiteford was among more than 100 leading Australian researchers who contributed to Roadmap to Recovery, a report by the Group of Eight (Go8) Universities that was presented to the Australian Government to help policymakers plot the best response to novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Prof Whiteford is a Professor of Population Mental Health at The University of Queensland (UQ) and he also leads the Policy and Epidemiology Group at the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (QCMHR) at West Moreton Health.

Professor Harvey Whiteford

He joined a range of experts, from infectious disease consultants to ethicists and business scholars, to consider two alternative strategies to plot Australia’s recovery – elimination or controlled adaptation – and the associated health and economic impacts.

Prof Whiteford co-edited the report’s chapter addressing mental health and wellbeing, which describes the unprecedented scale and speed of the global pandemic as having implications for all.

“Evidence from previous large natural disasters and pandemics shows that in its aftermath there is a significant increase in anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress syndromes as well as substance abuse,” the report states. 

“These symptoms extract a huge individual and family price and a significant economic toll (and) people with psychological vulnerabilities and pre-existing mental illness are at higher risk.”

Prof Whiteford said they had three key recommendations to respond to a greatly increased demand for mental health services:

  • Increased capacity to ensure timely assessment and effective treatment for people with ongoing mental illness and those at risk of suicide.
  • Coordinated and sustained public health messaging on the risks associated with COVID-19 and actions that can be taken to maintain mental health and wellbeing.
  • Rapid scaling of secure evidence-based health and telehealth interventions in addition to strengthened provision of community-based support.

Prof Whiteford said his greatest concern was that a decline in the number of people testing positive to the virus could lead governments, business and society to conclude the problem was behind us.

“The mental health impact will be experienced by many people long after the infection rate has fallen to a low level because of the social and economic impact which drives the mental health impact will take much longer to recover,” Prof Whiteford said.

Outside of the Go8 taskforce, Prof Whiteford is part of a national group that is working on how mental health services can be rapidly scaled up to respond to increased demand for care.

He said he hoped this work – which also feeds into QCMHR’s role to enhance Australia’s National Mental Health Service Planning Framework – could be used to respond not only to COVID-19, but future natural disasters, economic shocks or pandemics.

Read the full report here.

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