How you can ‘flatten the curve’ of mental ill-health during the pandemic

By Lachlan Kent and Dr Luke Martin, Prevention United

There are worrying signs that the health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are contributing to an increase in mental health conditions in the community.

If we are serious about promoting mental wellbeing and preventing mental health conditions in the wake of COVID-19, then a focus on the things an individual can do by themselves is not enough. We also need to create mentally healthy physical and social environments via community action, organisational practices and government policies.

Flatten Curve

As part of its response, Prevention United is hosting a series of expert discussions on how Australia can “flatten the curve” of mental ill-health in the wake of COVID-19.

These sessions provide a range of expert views on the mental health and wellbeing impacts of coronavirus and discuss ways that these impacts can be reduced through evidence-based promotion and prevention programs in the months and years ahead.

The science of mental health and wellbeing

Just as social distancing and hand-washing helped to flatten the coronavirus infection curve, there is a range of initiatives that will help flatten the curve of mental ill-health. These include encouraging healthy habits such as exercising regularly, eating healthily, sleeping well and reducing alcohol consumption, as well as learning new skills to help us regulate our emotions and enhance our social connections.

Prevention Team
(L-R) Dr Luke Martin and Dr Lachlan Kent say they are practical steps that organisations can take to improve the mental health in their workplace and the community as a whole.

Okay, but how do we ‘do’ prevention in the community?

While each of us has a role in “flattening the curve” of mental ill-health, organisational and community leaders – particularly those in education, work and local government settings – have an important role.

First and foremost, they can make real changes that protect the wellbeing of their staff and volunteers by creating mentally healthy workplaces.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is both worthwhile and achievable.

Five steps to a mentally healthy workplace

The first thing to know is that you don’t have to do everything all at once. Start small and build on it.

Although there is a real sense of urgency in responding to COVID-19, we recommend not rushing into action, but following the change process outlined in this report by the National Mental Health Commission and the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance.

Gain leadership support

  • Create a business case including a detailed cost/benefit analysis of improving mental health and wellbeing
  • Establish a mental health and wellbeing steering committee with representatives from all levels of the organisation.

Identify needs

  • List and prioritise the unique risk and protective factors that promote or challenge mental health and wellbeing in your setting
  • Review staff survey results, conduct interviews, or hold focus groups
  • Conduct an audit of leadership and management training in mental health and wellbeing.

Develop a plan

  • Implement appropriate workplace intervention strategies, ensuring that these strategies cover the entire spectrum of mental health and wellbeing from promotion and prevention through to early intervention and recovery support.
  • See the report’s suggestion for key areas to be addressed in any mental health and wellbeing plan (See Table 4, page 59).

Implement strategies

  • Set up a taskforce and outline key roles and responsibilities. Don’t just leave it all to middle managers and team leaders.
  • You don’t have to do everything at once. Start small and build on it.

Monitor, review and improve

  • The COVID-19 pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation, so be sure to keep an eye on how the interventions are working (or not working). Best intentions don’t always turn out as intended! Don’t be afraid to ask your staff what they think, too.
  • If you review the situation and things aren’t going according to plan, don’t hesitate to call in the experts. Prevention United is one of many expert consultancies out there who can help guide your organisation through the COVID-19 era.

Dr Luke Martin is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience designing large-scale mental health promotion.

Dr Lachlan Kent is a mental health professional and researcher with expertise in depression, hopelessness, and suicide prevention.

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