Liz Bosveld has long faced a daily challenge to stay on top of her anxiety, depression and recovery from trauma, but she’s particularly proud of the way she’s handled her mental health in the time of coronavirus.
While the health concerns, social isolation and uncertainty of recent months have knocked around her around, the 61-year-old said she had found herself in a better place than she expected.
Her love for art and craft has helped to pass the long hours at home in Shoalwater, south of Perth, while joining some Facebook groups — including one for the adult children of dysfunctional families — has given her new friends and supporters around the world.
“I’ve coped with it fairly well because I used to have very bad phobias,” she said.
“I’m actually surprised with myself that I didn’t end up with a really bad phobia about the virus this time.
“I think that’s because I practise a lot of self-help and trying to live in the moment.”
Ms Bosveld also credited the support of grassroots mental health groups, like Helping Minds and Ruah Community Services, who have ramped up their services to keep their clients safe and out of hospital during the coronavirus shutdown.
These organisations have had to dramatically change how they operate, not only because social distancing requirements meant they had to reduce their physical contact with clients.
This new environment put their vulnerable clients at risk and they needed to respond quickly to their needs.
Taryn Harvey, who runs the peak body for community mental health in WA, said she had been impressed by how these groups had responded.
“All the CEOs I’ve spoken to have spoken about the pride in their workforces and just how willing people have been to get on with it.”
Alarming drop in people seeking help
The coronavirus pandemic has created higher levels of stress and anxiety in the community, with crisis support and suicide prevention phone service Lifeline having its busiest month ever in March, with sometimes more than 3,000 calls a day.
But a concerning trend has developed in Perth hospital emergency departments, with mental health professionals questioning why there has been a drop in the number of people seeking mental health help.
Shayla Strapps, the deputy chief executive of Ruah Community Services, said she feared acutely ill people who urgently required treatment were staying at home because they were scared of exposing themselves to coronavirus.
“What that potentially can mean is that their situation gets so bad that the police and ambulance need to be called,” she said.
Ms Harvey said she was also worried about a significantly increased risk of self-harm if people were not seeking help.
“If they’re not showing up to EDs, are they getting support somewhere else or are they still at home with their distress continuing?” she said
“If they’re being supported by families, how are their families going?”
Mobile phones and welfare checks
The choice by some clients to self-isolate and not seek help, even at a dangerous time, is one of the issues these organisations have grappled with.
They have found the coronavirus pandemic and strict social isolation rules have forced them to innovate and turn conventional wisdom upside down to best support their clients.
For example Ruah, which looks after people with severe mental health problems, has begun to send workers on proactive welfare checks for clients who they suspect might be acutely ill and need to seek emergency help.
It has also bought some mobile phones for clients, some of whom were wary of technology, so they could keep in touch with them.
Ms Strapps said their new ways of delivering support amid coronavirus restrictions could change their approach in the future.
“I think it gives us a really interesting opportunity be able to review the way we provide services and rethink in a way we’ve never done before,” she said.
Meals on wheels and online counselling
It’s a similar experience for other mental health organisations.
For example, the Mental Illness Fellowship of WA had to close its community hub last month.
It was used by up to 50 people a day for social connections, support services and a cheap, nutritious lunch.
The organisation is now delivering meals to those who aren’t confident in preparing their own food to make sure they stay healthy.
Chief executive Monique Williamson said they had also been supporting people during the stressful time of waiting for COVID-19 test results.
“On these occasions as they self-isolate, we have increased phone support and practical support like dropping off food and medicines,” she said.
But probably the biggest challenge for a sector built on relationships has been the shift from traditional face-to-face counselling to remote services via videoconferencing or telephone.
Some particularly vulnerable clients are still receiving face-to-face counselling, but many organisations said they planned to incorporate more remotely delivered services after the pandemic was over.
It really suits some people, like Ms Bosveld, who said she now preferred her regular phone chats with her counsellor and psychosocial support worker to face-to-face meetings.
Over the phone, her support worker has taught her how “to stay peaceful through myself when chaos is happening”.
New services help isolation
Like Ms Bosveld, Broome woman Jane* receives counselling from Helping Minds, a service for people and families affected by mental health issues.
She needs support for her recovery from a meth addiction, as well as trauma from domestic violence and sexual assault — but is also managing social isolation with two young children and travel plans to Perth, including two stints of quarantine, for medical appointments for suspected thyroid cancer.
Without a car and stuck in the suburbs of a country town, she said the sudden withdrawal of services when social distancing regulations came into place “put a spanner in the works” and made her really anxious.
“It’s very hard to focus on your recovery from deeper things when you’re worried about your basic needs, like food,” she said.
But her support workers have rallied around her with regular calls, helping her to troubleshoot problems like navigating the shops with two small children, no car and social distancing requirements.
Jane said their adaptability and responsiveness had kept her afloat at a difficult time.
“It just stops the four walls from being so small,” she said.
“It can really topple over quickly if you don’t have that contact and support.”
*Jane’s real name is not used to preserve her anonymity