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Innovation needed in mental health treatment

By Andrew Robb and Tania de Jong - posted Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Struggling with your mental health confronts you. Depression, for its part, can overwhelm with false anxieties and meaningless, torturous agitation. It can suck the joy from life and sap your energy. When you're in that black hole, it can seem as though there's no way out.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, one in five Australian adults was already experiencing a chronic mental health condition. One in eight – and one in four older adults – were using antidepressants and, on average, eight Australians took their own lives each day.

These are terrible statistics ­– stark realities that saw Australia experience the highest prevalence of depression in the world, tied with Estonia, according to the World Health Organisation. But even these numbers fail to capture everything: the untold personal and family suffering, the enormous costs to our economy. They will never do justice to the heartache, suffering and community damage.


Now, in the wake of Covid-19, mental health experts are warning the trauma caused by the lockdown, the employment loss and anxiety associated with the pandemic could be far higher than the physical health impacts of the virus itself, with younger people particularly vulnerable.

As Professor Patrick McGorry recently said: "Societies that experience a crisis tend to see a roughly 20 per cent increase in new cases of mental illness. A massive economic downturn will cause society to fracture and even disintegrate. The consequences of an economic collapse will be much more severe and long-lasting".

The fallout from this crisis will have a long tail – one likely to stretch out for months and years after it is lifted. In the absence of affirmative action, many Australians will suffer.

For some, domestic confinement can mean a living hell; for many, it will exacerbate stressors that have long been issues in our lives, and mental health. Policymakers don't always understand that not everyone is lucky enough to have a house with a yard, or a happy relationship. At the same time, the more than two million Australians living in single-person households now face greater isolation and loneliness.

Drawing insights from previous health quarantines, a research review published in The Lancet found that "the psychological impact of quarantine is wide-ranging, substantial, and can be long lasting". None of the quarantines cited were on the scale of our present lockdown. "This is," as Dr Elke Van Hoof, professor of health psychology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel recently described it, "arguably the largest psychological experiment ever conducted."

The key challenge faced by our mental health system in dealing with this crisis is the absence of effective treatments for many Australians – and the absence of scale-able treatment innovation for nearly five decades. Instead, we continue to mostly see variations on the same themes, which help some people but don't aid many others.


In the wake of Covid-19, and the recent bushfire tragedy, the government should move to form a Mental Health Innovation Taskforce – a body that can guide the government in planning new and innovative ways of managing the mental health epidemic triggered by these events.

Such a taskforce would be made up of frontline organisations and key stakeholder groups, such as psychiatrists, general practitioners, psychologists, addiction specialists and other mental health experts, as well as representation from key patient groups.

The development of a government strategy to tackle the burgeoning mental health crisis also needs to include the evaluation and possible introduction of innovative treatment options.

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This article was first published in the Saturday Paper.

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About the Authors

Andrew Robb AO was Australia's Minister for Trade, Investment and Tourism. He has suffered with depression for 43 years and is a director of Mind Medicine Australia.

Tania de Jong is a social entrepreneur and co-Founder of Mind Medicine Australia, Founder of Creative Innovation Global, Creative , The Song Room and Creativity Australia. and

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Andrew Robb
All articles by Tania de Jong

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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