SOME of the Hunter's leading mental health experts are concerned vulnerable people may be falling through the cracks as they stop seeking support during this "prolonged period of uncertainty".
Associate Professor Carmel Loughland - the acting director of Everymind - said there was a "desperate need" for those feeling anxious and distressed to reach out and seek help during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This has been a tough time. It has. There will be people struggling," Associate Professor Loughland said.
"I do think there are people falling through the cracks a bit. Some people who might have normally sought help through the hospital system, or through other services, aren't doing that now.
"They feel like they don't want to go into those places at the moment. Many things may be closed to them as well. But there are helplines and resources, such as Lifeline and other mental health services - as well as Life In Mind on the Everymind website - that offer a whole range of help and information for individuals, small businesses, and carers, 24/7.
"This time will pass."
Those working within the sector were particularly concerned about people with pre-existing mental health conditions, people with disabilities, the elderly and their carers, women and children, and those experiencing financial hardship.
"Domestic violence and concerns around abuse and sexual abuse are quite high at the moment, because many of these women and children aren't able to find safe places away from an abuser at this time," she said.
"During this time, some of their needs are going to be suppressed."
It had been a prolonged period of anxiety and fear.
"A lot of the initial messaging around COVID-19 was very frightening - there wasn't a lot of positive messaging for people to say, 'This time will pass and we will cope with this'," she said. "The most sensible thing to do whenever you are in crisis or experiencing difficulty is to reach out. There is a big increase in resources being put in place by the government and other agencies, and some services have flourished during this time."
Self care was also "vital".
"It's really important for people to be proactive in making some time for themselves - book some in every day," she said. "Keeping to a daily routine makes us feel in control and reduces our anxiety. Setting waking and sleeping times, and setting meal times and activities, are all really important at this time, because if we feel like we are out of routine, it can produce more anxiety.
"Exercise can help reduce our stress and anxiety. Reducing social media and allocating times to read or watch the news is also useful."
Dara Sampson, speaking on behalf of the Centre for Brain and Mental Health Priority Research Centre at the University of Newcastle, said they were seeing early indicators of a rise in anxiety and depression, as well as increased rates of domestic violence during this "uncertain" time.
"This uncertainty extends to employment, accommodation, procurement of basic necessities, and financial stress generally," she said.
"Historically we know these worries and burdens place pressure on our social and community frameworks.
"The understandable worry can make us fearful of the future. Particularly with the current social distancing provisions, we can feel isolated and become insular which is, I think, one of the greatest risks to our mental well-being."
It comes as the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a report which found two-in-five Australians - or 42 per cent - felt "restless or fidgety" during the COVID-19 pandemic, compared with 24 per cent in the similar 2017-18 National Health Survey. One-in-three Australians - 35 per cent - felt nervous at least some of the time, compared with 20 per cent in the 2017-18; and one-in-four Australians - 26 per cent - felt everything was an effort at least some of the time, compared with 22 per cent.
"It is quite reasonable to be stressed and anxious - these are normal feelings," Ms Sampson said. "It is important, particularly for people with existing mental health concerns, to seek support.
"This may be through current networks, telehealth centres which are being set-up, or online support programs. It may also be through staying connected with friends and families, exercising when we can, and doing something we enjoy."
Ms Sampson said while some people may be feeling lonely and isolated, others could be feeling overwhelmed with trying to juggle the responsibilities of work and family commitments in a confined space.
"It's really important we all try, in this circumstance, to carve out even half an hour a day for ourselves," she said.
"Structure and routine can help, particularly for children; as can trying to separate 'work' time and space from family or self-care time."
Mental health issues could also be complicated by substance use.
"As alcohol and some substances can make us feel less anxious they can provide a seeming short-term 'fix'.
"However they can also increase feelings of depression and make us feel more overwhelmed, longer term."
Those experiencing difficulties with mental health and substance use could visit eclipse.org.au - a site that facilitates free 24/7 access to evidence-based screening and eHealth treatments.
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