Canberra has done well so far to avoid the worst impacts of coronavirus. For 19 days, each daily update has brought the welcome news that no new cases have been recorded in the ACT. But though the number of cases has been kept low, this period will leave a lasting impression on the health of the city.
With thousands of Canberrans out of work and many jobs unlikely to return after an extended period of isolation and economic deep-freeze, the impact of coronavirus, beyond primary infections, will be the toll it takes on the city's collective mental health. And that impact will not be felt evenly in the community.
Of course, the need to stay home has revealed the power of technology in keeping us together. Families not used to being separated have been able to keep seeing each other through the eyes of webcams. The natural human hunger for social interaction has been sated in a kind of virtual reality.
The past months have shown clearly how the internet is a powerful tool in addressing mental health. Staples of social life have been transported online. Everything, from book clubs to art classes, has found a way to adapt in a world where it has been unsafe to come together. More doctors' appointments have taken place over the phone and internet after telehealth became covered by Medicare. Most people have not had to forsake connection in the pursuit of safety.
In a country where 4.3 million people were administered a mental health-related prescription in 2018-19, the internet can't be the answer it should be to providing mental health services when there are still issues of access.
Even yoga has found a new home on the internet, as the Sunday Canberra Times reports today. New research shows the more yoga a person practices, the more their mental health can benefit. An international team found systems of depression could be improved. Extending these benefits online is a welcome addition to the tools we have to limit the virus's effect, but even the researchers note vulnerable people have limited opportunity to access yoga.
Shifting more services online in the current environment must not be seen as a permanent solution for extending mental health support.
Researchers have also identified people with poorer mental health are less likely to have access to the internet, because it is not affordable. People suffering from severe mental health conditions are even less likely to have access.
In a country where 4.3 million people were administered a mental health-related prescription in 2018-19, the internet can't be the only answer to providing mental health services when there are ongoing access issues.
Ensuring access to the internet is affordable for the greatest number of people must be part of any strategy to provide quality mental health assistance during the coronavirus recovery, which will continue far longer than the initial shutdowns.