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Since the pandemic emerged, mental health experts have warned the stressors of uncertainty, isolation, loneliness and fear of infection, combined with prolonged severe lockdowns and loss of employment, would be damaging to mental health. 

To some extent, they were right: Lifeline received a record-high number of calls on Monday from people seeking health advice — 3345 callers, the highest volume in the organisation’s 58-year history.

Mental health has been waning. ABS data shows that between April 2020 and June 2021, there have been huge fluctuations in Australians’ emotional and mental wellbeing. In June 2021, one in five Australians reported experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress in the last four weeks. While the proportion of Australians experiencing these feelings decreased between August 2020 and November 2020, there has been little change since then.

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But there’s another story to tell, and that involves identifying what has helped people to cope with the psychological stressors posed by COVID-19. 

Research by myself and my colleague Sophie Lewis, which is currently under review, has illuminated how Australians who were already living with a diagnosis of mental illness experienced the first national lockdown, which began in March 2020. 

From extensive phone interviews, we built detailed case studies which demonstrated not only how mental health worsened but, perhaps surprisingly, how well some people coped with the anxieties and fears that many Australians felt during this early period of the pandemic. 

People with obsessive compulsive disorder, social anxiety, depression and agoraphobia reported that their mental health deteriorated initially. Messages about hygiene and distancing from other people made them feel uncomfortable in public places. 

But in some cases, these people were able to manage them successfully. Having access to their therapists using telepsychology was an important source of support for these people. It meant that they could continue their treatment with a familiar therapist. Even though the therapy was now offered online, it was still helpful. 

People also mentioned that having already lived with mental health distress in the past meant that they were better equipped to deal with it when COVID-19 erupted. In some cases, they were able to offer support to their friends or family members using the skills they had acquired. This support in turn helped people to feel as if they were building on their social relationships. They gained psychological benefits from helping others.

Many Australians have found that using video-call or messaging apps and social media has helped them maintain social connections with friends and family and alleviate loneliness. This was also the case for our participants, whether or not they were living with a mental health condition. 

While social media sites such as Facebook are often subject to criticism, they were an important way that people were able to keep in touch with others, helping them feel less isolated. 

Companion animals also offered a vital source of comfort and company for people, including those with mental illness. In the absence of being able to touch other people, dogs or cats offered warm-blooded affection. As one of our participants remarked, “I’d be lost without my cat”.

While many people’s mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, those with the tools to cope have fared better than expected, enabling them to help those with less experience in managing their mental wellbeing.

Deborah Lupton is a Professor in the Centre for Social Research in Health and the Social Policy Research Centre and Leader of the Vitalities Lab at UNSW.

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Peter Fray
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