COVID's impact on mental health workers

New data from Victoria’s frontline family and mental health workers confirms an increase in both family violence rates among their clients, and in their own mental health concerns, during COVID-19 restrictions.

Researchers from the Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University conducted a survey of health workers to assist with response planning and sector support.

The study is the first to examine the mental health and well-being of practitioners who support some of the state’s most vulnerable families while working under extraordinary pressures.

Researcher and family violence specialist, Professor Jennifer McIntosh AM, said “Pandemic restrictions have meant rapid changes to practice, including loss of in-person contact with vulnerable clients, leading to an increase in anxiety, lost sleep and stress for these mental health workers”.

“Crime statistics have revealed escalating rates of family violence during COVID-19 restrictions. It’s vital for the safety of those affected by that violence, that we ‘help the frontline helpers’.  Our survey aimed to improve our understanding of what these practitioners and their managers are experiencing and how we can best support them.”

The survey asked 446 workers from Maternal and Child Health, Child Adolescent and Youth, Adult Mental Health and specialist Family Violence services to count the number of family violence incidents they had seen in all cases they’d worked with in May, and to report on their own well-being in June

Key findings, not yet peer reviewed, include:

  • Respondents reported on 10,014 cases seen in May
  • 54% of all practitioners reported an increase in family violence rates in this month
  • 58% of practitioners reported rising client family violence had caused significant increase in their workplace stress
  • The highest reports of increased family violence related work stress came from the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Workforce, where 79% reported frequent stress and 72% reported a decline in their own mental health during this time
  • 68% of participants reported their own emotional well-being/mental health had worsened during April-June 2020
  • 32% identified drinking alcohol or using non-prescription drugs more than they meant to
  • 52.5% reported their own physical health had worsened during April-June 2020.
  • Practitioners experiencing high Covid-19 related stress had significantly more sleep problems, more headaches, and more gastrointestinal symptoms than practitioners experiencing lower Covid-19 related stress.

“We all want the families of Victoria to emerge from COVID in the best shape possible, and that means making sure this sector of our health workforce is in good shape too,” Professor McIntosh said.

Bouverie Centre Director Professor Jeff Young said during a crisis ‘helping the helpers’ - whether that be usually robust family members or members of the helping professions - becomes an important part of supporting community resilience and well-being.

“Any major personal difficulty typically affects the whole family, putting stress on relationships. When these difficulties occur in a broader context of challenge, such as those created by the COVID-19 pandemic, usual family resources can be exhausted resulting in these difficulties escalating,” Professor Young said.

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