Normalising an open approach to mental health issues is a crucial step in early intervention.
Before the pandemic, mental health was already considered one of the nation’s most pressing social and economic issues.
Everything that has happened in the months since has exacerbated the problem, and led to a significant increase in the number of people requiring mental health services.
In March, for example, when Australia went into lockdown, Beyond Blue and Lifeline reported a 30 per cent surge in demand.
Longer term, according to PwC Australia’s ‘Mental Health in the Age of COVID-19’ report from July of this year, death from suicides are predicted to increase between 23 per cent and 53 per cent by 2025.
Over the same period, mental health-related emergency department presentations could increase between 15 per cent and 34 per cent, with women and young people disproportionately affected.
The growing crisis has led to the emergence of a number of innovative strategies, both tech-based and more traditional, to address mental health issues.
Innovating Mental Health
Leading up to this year’s World Mental Health Day on October 10, which preceded Mental Health Week in Australia, Facebook announced the launch of a new ‘emotional health resource centre’.
The online hub connects users with expert guides as well as live resources, such as WhatsApp chatbots and crisis support over Facebook Messenger.
In August, Fitbit and Amazon announced wearables designed to help wearers track their mental health. Fitbit’s Sense tracks a wearer’s stress level through their electrodermal activity and the amount of sweat produced.
Amazon’s Halo, on the other hand, tracks a wearer’s emotion through AI-powered voice analysis throughout the day.
Mental health first aid
A more analogue (and less personally invasive) mental health innovation is to approach and normalise mental illness the same way we do physical illness, especially through first responder training.
In line with this thinking is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training, which was introduced in Australia in 2000 and has since spread globally.
Grounded in evidence-based best practice, the program teaches people how to support those experiencing a mental health crisis.
Ben Broadbridge runs Perth-based Beyond All Bounds and is a master MHFA trainer who, in response to the mental health impact of COVID-19, has seen a massive uptake of the course, both from individuals and the corporate sector.
“[MHFA training] empowers people to lead conversations with a non-judgemental attitude, it helps lower stigma and increases the chances that people are likely to open up and actually seek the help,” Mr Broadbridge told Business News.
“Holding the space correctly with someone and just listening empathetically, before you offer advice and professional services; the key is in building trust and rapport so that person is more likely to take you up on that offer.”
Mental health paramedics
A recent episode of the 99% Invisible podcast detailed the introduction of paramedics and ambulances by the African American-run Freedom House in the US.
Before the 1960s, the role of taking critically injured patients often fell to the police or even the local undertaker, which seems quite shocking to us today. Yet even now the police are often the ones who respond to mental health emergencies. This can lead to less-than-ideal outcomes, because police are trained primarily to deal with criminal behaviour, not physical or mental health issues.
So, what if we had mental health paramedics?
Mr Broadbridge thinks this approach to mental health emergencies would be a game-changer.
“I really believe having paramedics specifically trained in mental health would be brilliant in de-escalating people who might be threatened or resistant to, say, police arriving to their home,” he said.
“I believe it would be a massive step forward in creating a more empathetic and compassionate handling of assisting people in mental distress. This is the principal that underpins the MHFA program.”
The most innovative thing we can do is normalise discussions about mental health and make it something we value and take seriously. Thankfully, this seems to already be one of the positive outcomes of the journey 2020 has taken us on.
Author’s note: I recently completed MHFA accreditation through Beyond All Bounds and feel much more confident in being able to effectively support someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie is a multi award-winning designer, researcher, futurist and certified facilitator of LEGO Serious Play. She is also the co-host of the New Future podcast.