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Rachel Bowes of Lifeline Australia Talks About How the Pandemic is Shaping Mental Health

Rachel Bowes of Lifeline Australia Talks About How the Pandemic is Shaping Mental Health

Stephanie Hepburn is a writer in New Orleans. She is the editor in chief of #CrisisTalk. You can reach her at .​

Rachel Bowes is the head of crisis services and quality at Lifeline Australia (Call: 13 11 14, Chat, Text: 0477 13 11 14​), which provides 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. She says Australia’s COVID-19 numbers were comparatively low, but recently there has been a resurgence in the nation’s most populated state, Victoria. On August 3, it declared a state of disaster and increased lockdown mandates. So far, Australia has identified roughly 23,773 cases of the virus and 438 deaths, far fewer than those in other nations. That doesn’t mean, says Bowes, that the pandemic and physical distancing measures haven’t had a significant impact. Borders between states are closed, which has limited mobility. For example, to travel from Melbourne to Sydney, people need a permit and must illustrate they haven’t been to any coronavirus hotspots. “The government takes the virus seriously. It implemented strict lockdowns initially and again during the second wave.” Bowes notes that unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, where she’s from, people are compliant with mask orders in Australia. 

The pandemic is affecting people’s day-to-day lives, with roughly 20 percent of Lifeline’s call volume referencing coronavirus. It might not be the primary reason for a person’s call but is often mentioned. For many, the pandemic has compounded existing challenges because it arrived on the heels of bushfires that ravaged the nation in December and January. Calls to Lifeline spiked to an average of 2,750 per day during the fires. There was a delay of a couple weeks, says Bowes, between when the devastation occurred in a community and when people would call. “There was a pattern where people first had to deal with the immediate, practical challenges—the loss of a home, farm, livelihood, and documents—before contacting Lifeline to try and process what happened, and what the disaster meant for them individually, for their communities, and Australia.” During the pandemic, calls have also increased, rising to roughly 3,000 each day.

The Impact of Bushfires and the Pandemic on Australian Youth

Throughout the bushfires and pandemic, there’s a common thread of concern among young Lifeline callers. People aged 30 and below express fears around not knowing how long the pandemic will go on, have a general sense of lack of control, and wonder what normal will one day look like. They are distressed, says Bowes, about the state of the world. Young callers have reached out to Lifeline to work through anxiety, uncertainty, dependency, and disempowerment they’ve felt during the fires and COVID-19. Climate catastrophes and global pandemics, says Bowes, are tangible examples of what youth will inherit in adulthood. In environmental movements, young people are often at the helm. “Yet, they are unable to profoundly influence Australian policy and decision making. They wonder if life will ever be the same again and if this is what the future holds: bushfires and pandemics.”

Climate concerns and fears of what’s to come and what the future holds are not new sentiments among Australian youth, but the psychological impact is often underestimated. Bowes points out that oil and gas industries are so interwoven with the nation’s economy that no political party is prepared to take on developing environmentally sound climate policies. “Young people are frustrated and feel powerless. They might be able to participate in movements and campaigns but feel there needs to be a bigger response, nationally and globally.” Responses, says Bowes, that young people feel “they can’t rely on their government to fulfill.”

Improved Government Disaster Response 

More than a decade ago, Australia was shaken by Black Saturday and related bushfires in Victoria. A total of 173 people lost their lives in a matter of days, and 78 communities were affected. For the most part, says Bowes, local and federal responses fell short of what people needed. In the aftermath, the University of Melbourne did a longitudinal study, looking at psychological impact, short and long-term. The results of the Beyond Bushfires study, followed by the 10 Years Beyond Bushfires study, led the researchers to develop precise disaster recommendations such as early mental health intervention, psychological first aid, and rapid resources to help people manage their practical and mental health needs. Federal and state agencies incorporated the recommendations into their disaster relief and emergency response, and consequently, were able to quickly mobilize during the bushfire and coronavirus disasters. These efforts were supported by Lifeline. “We’ve deployed our staff, who are trained in psychological first aid, to work with communities hard hit by the disasters.”

Some places in regional Victoria where many of the fires were clustered are now the epicenter of coronavirus cases. Bowes is concerned about these communities. Many are still reeling from the loss of their homes and businesses, which are currently under threat by the pandemic. “Australia had just begun a tourism campaign to draw people back to the bushfire affected areas to encourage travel and support the local economies. That’s had to stop because of the virus, further crippling these communities.”

Bowes says what’s weighing heavily on callers’ minds is the economic harm of COVID-19. The pandemic has created a worrisome national financial burden for Australia, says Bowes, resulting in “the biggest budget deficit since the end of the Second World War.” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann estimate a deficit of A$184.5 billion ($132 billion in U.S. dollars) in 2020-21 due to economic support, “large declines in taxation receipts, and increases in payments.” Individually, Australians are also struggling. The unemployment rate has jumped to 7.5%, the highest since November 1998, and underemployment is 11.2%. The nation relies heavily on tourism, and Bowes points out that “now no one can go anywhere.” “People can’t come here, and we can’t go anywhere else. Not even across state borders.” 


Bowes says that while there are hardships, Australians have also experienced positives during the pandemic. “We’ve been able to spend more time with friends and family and slow down our lives.” She notes that people are reluctant to express the opportunities that have resulted from the lockdown, and what they’ve enjoyed, partly because of adversities other people are experiencing and because the challenges often go hand-in-hand with the benefits. For example, Lifeline callers commonly stressed the challenges they face balancing full-time employment, parenting, and their children’s online school. “Their experiences have often been dismissed because of the myth that parents are simply helping kids navigate virtual school when the demand is so much more than that. On calls, parents shared how stressful it is to feel like they are in charge of their children’s education.”

Like in the U.S., there have been Black Lives Matter protests during the pandemic in Victoria, Northern Territories, and New South Wales. Bowes says the movement resonates with people because of the inequalities Indigenous Australians face. It hasn’t been without conflict, though. “The government initially said the protests shouldn’t go ahead, and some were canceled, but communities successfully campaigned to have the protests be allowed.” Not everyone supported the shift, though, says Bowes, with some politicians in Victoria blaming the second coronavirus wave on protestors. 

Similar to Dr. Tia Dole’s perspective in the U.S., Bowes says the pandemic has provided people in Australia an opportunity for growth. “It’s been a perfect storm for people to be involved in a way and to a greater degree than they would have perhaps been otherwise.” She says the protests are providing an outlet to speak against injustice and the uncertainty people, particularly vulnerable populations, experience day-to-day. “All Australians are living with uncertainty to some degree. They are frustrated. This has allowed them to engage those feelings in a tangible, positive way.”

It’s not just individuals that are experiencing growth but also mental health crisis services. Unlike the U.S., remote education and healthcare have been the norm in many parts of Australia for decades, so there wasn’t a rapid need to shift to telehealth because those infrastructures were already in place, and face-to-face emergency response has continued throughout the pandemic. There are changes in mental health that have transpired, though. Not-for-profit crisis care groups and helplines that provide similar services, and in many ways are competitors, have started working together. “It’s resulted in more collaboration over the past six months than ever before.” Collectively, they’ve come up with strategies to help people use their services and avoid any sense of inter-organization competition. “It’s been a moving process to be involved in, and we hope to continue matching people to joined services so that they get the best care available during the pandemic and after.”