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ANU study says money stress ‘worse than virus’ for mental health

A new study is warning of national anxiety and a spike in depression amid impending changes to JobSeeker rates.

As the nation struggles with recession, researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) say that anxiety and depression due to financial stress is more prevalent than the fear of contracting the COVID-19 virus itself.

With Mental Health Week (10-16 October) taking place for the first time within the context of the new normal, Australians are being encouraged to prioritise wellbeing as the pandemic continues to effect life as we know it.

During Australia’s initial lockdown in March 2020, researchers found that rates of people with clinical-level anxiety and depression were double those of the ‘normal’ population and that the spike was related to pandemic-induced financial and social problems.

The researchers now warn that Australia could see another spike in anxiety and depression with the impending change to JobSeeker rates.

“We took a snapshot of Australia’s mental health and it is worrying,” lead ANU researcher Dr Amy Dawel said. “Financial, social and work disruptions caused by the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic have significantly impaired our nation’s mental health – doubling rates of anxiety and depression.

“These findings provide clear evidence that minimising social and financial disruption during the pandemic should be a central goal of public health policy.”

The researchers suggest continued targeted financial support for those experiencing financial strain.

“We know from this study the changes to JobKeeper and JobSeeker could have a big impact on the nation’s mental health,” Dr Dawel said.

The study surveyed a nationally representative sample of almost 1,300 Australian adults between 28-31 March 2020, when international borders had just closed and there were fresh restrictions on restaurants, bars and social gatherings.

“Looking at people’s mental health during the acute phase is important because fear about potential exposure to infection, loss of employment, and financial strain are all likely to increase psychological distress in the broader population,” Dr Dawel said.

“This distress may be further exacerbated in vulnerable individuals, including those who have experienced prior traumatic events, such as the bushfires.”

The study said: “Our results suggest that, at a population level, disruption to social and work functioning due to COVID-19 were more strongly associated with decrements in mental health than amount of disease contact.”

Researchers say the results highlight that epidemics may cause widespread problems for community mental health, which extend well beyond those affected directly by disease.

“We found that it was financial distress caused by job loss, rather than job loss itself, that impacted people’s mental health,” Dr Dawel said.

“This finding implies governments can help support community mental health by providing quick and adequate financial support in times like these, to see people through periods of unemployment.”

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