“We're in a mental health crisis. But that really peaked during the pandemic. There's no doubt that for people who were already experiencing mental health difficulties, the pandemic only exacerbated them.”—Dr Kate Lycett, School of Psychology, Deakin University.
- In 2021, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index found that our satisfaction with our health fell below the average range for the first time on record.
- Scores on all three measures of mental distress—anxiety, stress and depression—were about 10 points higher (i.e. worse) during the pandemic compared to 2013.
- The impact of COVID has not been limited to direct infections; it has also had far-reaching implications for our physical and mental health.
It’s hard to even begin to quantify the effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on Australia. From our relationships to the way we work, few areas of life were left untouched. Yet ultimately what we were—and indeed still are—grappling with is a highly infectious disease. Whatever other repercussions continue to rattle through the nation, COVID remains first and foremost a health issue.
“The pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” says Dr Nancy Huang, Australian Unity’s Chief Medical Adviser . “For many of us it’s the most significant health event we have ever experienced.” She points out that, at the time of writing, 7.8 million people in Australia have been infected with COVID and, tragically, almost 9,500 have died. “Those are phenomenal numbers of people for a country with a population of around 25 million.”
Consequently, it’s no surprise that the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index —a 20-year study into the wellbeing of Australians, created in partnership with Deakin University—found that Australians’ satisfaction with their health in 2021 suddenly dropped from above the average range to below it . It was the first time in history that such a result had occurred.
“We don't normally see a huge shift like that,” says lead researcher Dr Kate Lycett from Deakin University’s School of Psychology . “The results might go up a couple points or down a couple points. But this year we saw this a massive shift and it really indicates that something big was happening.”
The inevitable reality
Nancy believes this plummeting satisfaction with our health was grimly inevitable. Not only have a vast number of Australians been directly infected with COVID but, as she points out, “as of July 2022, we are still experiencing around 40,000 new cases per day”.
The severity of symptoms may vary from person to person, but the impact of the disease has been incredibly pervasive: if you haven’t contracted it yourself, then you’re bound to know others who have. But the consequences of the pandemic are by no means limited to these direct infections, insists Nancy. “That's just the acute illness—there are other widespread ramifications that are affecting our community.”
In fact, COVID has had a profound effect on Australians’ health, partly due to the unintended effects of the public health measures designed to curb the rate of transmission. Faced with a raging crisis, the health system was forced to prioritise. Elective surgery was put on hold for months on end, and people suddenly had limited access to their GPs, hospitals or health services. These actions made it complicated and sometimes impossible for people to treat their existing health conditions or take preventative measures to stop them from getting more severe.
“Whatever condition you were trying to manage or work through, your treatment is likely to have been delayed or pushed backwards from a physical health point of view,” says Nancy.
The unseen fallout from COVID
Unfortunately, the impact of COVID was by no means limited to physical health, with the pandemic also exacting a heavy toll on the nation’s psyche. Scores on all three measures of mental distress—anxiety, stress and depression—were about 10 points higher (i.e. worse) during the second year of the pandemic compared to our 2013 survey. People suffering from mental distress also recorded markedly lower wellbeing scores.
“The pandemic had a traumatic effect on people's mental health,” notes Dr Grant Blashki, lead adviser at Beyond Blue and a practicing GP.
Social isolation and loneliness were aggravated by a series of lockdowns and the limited face-to-face contact that eventuated from remote working. Indeed, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index found that social connectedness scores were markedly lower during the pandemic years compared to 2019.
“When your connection to the community has basically been cut off that's a huge factor in a person's perception of their emotional wellbeing and that can contribute to anxiety and stress,” Nancy says.
Grant agrees: “We are social beings and the pandemic has really stretched those supports. It undermined the scaffolding of people’s lives.”
Australians who lived alone—a figure that Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data puts at well over 20% of the population —were particularly affected, recording lower wellbeing scores compared to people living with a partner.
Kate also points to the challenges faced by younger Australians: “For young people, social connections are often things like going to a gig, a sports event, a party, or a pub. So I think they just did it so hard.”
Yet no-one was left entirely unscathed. Whatever your living circumstances, many of life’s milestones—from birthdays to funerals—were no longer able to be publicly commemorated. “You had to do them alone,” says Nancy. “And when you don't have the ability to mark those events with the people who are most important to you, then it leaves a kind of gap.”
The mental health epidemic
Nancy also credits a host of other COVID-related factors for contributing to rising levels of mental distress. Public anxiety was fuelled by the uncertainty over the vaccine rollout, rapidly changing guidelines and the shrill politicisation of the issue. The strain of lockdowns caused damage to many relationships and led to an increase in domestic violence. In addition, many parents suddenly faced the mounting stress of trying to juggle homeschooling with work commitments and domestic responsibilities.
“It was triple whammy on people’s lives,” says Grant. “It affected their home life, there was a lot of strain on relationships. It affected their work life. And there was for many people a sense of loneliness and disconnection.”
In essence, COVID created a multi-car pile-up of destructive conditions when it came to mental health. Having analysed the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index’s data in detail, Kate is clear-eyed about the extent of the damage.
“We're in a mental health crisis,” she says matter-of-factly. “But that really peaked during the pandemic. There's no doubt that for people who were already experiencing mental health difficulties, the pandemic only exacerbated them.”
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.