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Managing “pandemic fatigue” will take structural change

New data shows that the impact of the pandemic on mental health has disproportionately burdened young people.

Attendees of Wednesday’s Sydney Ideas event on “pandemic fatigue” heard from a panel of mental health experts and leaders about how the ongoing pandemic has impacted young people.

This comes as a report by Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank highlighted the “shadow pandemic” of deteriorating mental health, while more than half of Australia remains in lockdown alongside a slow vaccine rollout.

SRC President Swapnik Sanagavarapu spoke at length about the connection between negative mental health and the need for structural change.

“Young people in casualised industries like hospitality are the first casualties … They’re the first ones that are losing income. … Of course there’s a social need for these lockdowns, but the problem is that there isn’t adequate support for people if and when they lose their work,” Sanagavarapu said.

Dr Pranita Shrestha, a Research Associate in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, said that the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing economic issues.

“The pandemic has added another layer of health vulnerability onto the commodification of housing and labour … The meaning of home has become so important now with the pandemic, you’re supposed to be safe and secure in your home,” Dr Shrestha said.

SRC launch “$750 for everyone”

This comes as the USyd Welfare Action Group launched its “$750 for everyone” campaign, declaring an online day of action for Friday.

“Many young, precariously employed and casualised workers are forced to choose between rent, medication or food, which has disastrous impacts on their mental health,” SRC Co-Welfare Officer Lia Perkins told Honi.

The Welfare Action Group’s demands include weekly crisis payments for everyone, raising social security payments to $80 per day, a moratorium on rent increases and evictions, and ending racist targeted policing of migrants and minority groups in Western and Southwestern Sydney.

Currently, workers in NSW who are impacted by the lockdown are ineligible for the COVID-19 Disaster Payment if they are already receiving an income support payment such as JobSeeker, Youth Allowance or the Disability Support Pension.

The Group has published an open letter that can be found here.

Research continues

The panel agreed that worsening mental health among young people is likely the result of disruption occurring at such a formative time, creating a loss of “culturally ingrained, formative experiences” and “incidental contact that is so important to young people’s development.”

Dr Marlee Bower, a Research Fellow at the University’s Matilda Centre, discussed the findings of the “Alone Together Study”, an ongoing longitudinal study of over 2000 Australian adults.

“Generally, people who were going through a transition point in their lives when COVID hit were much further worse off … Things like moving out of home, having relationships, making friends, these are so important for our mental health,” Dr Bower said.

The study also identified that, while participants expressed higher rates of anxiety, fear and depression associated with COVID-related health risks, social and economic concerns were of equal importance.

“We know that [the welfare payment system] was already strained before COVID, now it is under even more crisis and stress,” Dr Bower said.

Sanagavarapu spoke about the need to rebuild “a much more just and wide-ranging set of supports for people that are being disadvantaged by the lockdown” as part of reconsidering existing economic and social policy.

Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank was established in late 2020 in collaboration with the Matilda Centre and the Sydney Policy Lab, and is supported by a $1.09m contribution from the BHP Foundation.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed that the use of crisis and support organisations such as Lifeline in 2021 was 19.9% greater than in 2019.