COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on our society and the way we go about our day to day lives. In the wake of the pandemic, freedoms and liberties we previously took for granted are now perceived in a new light: a trip to the supermarket may now take hours, gloves and hand sanitiser are now characterised as travel kit essentials. Leaving your house for prolonged periods of time could compromise your health and that of your friends and family.
The pandemic required us to change the way we interact with others and obtain certain goods and services. Some businesses were forced to adapt and work through more creative means, and essential services were able to operate only under strict conditions. Consequently, major flaws in our systems have been magnified through the lens of the pandemic. The deficiencies of traditional in-clinic services have become apparent and the resulting limitations on access to mental health support, a pre-existing problem that was magnified when communities were placed into lockdown. This in turn led to an appreciation on the part of medical professionals and patients alike, of the potential of digital tools to offer health advice and support in times of need. With the service being dubbed ‘Telehealth’.
A study undertaken by the Australia National University’s Department of Global Health in October 2020 found that Australians reported experiencing higher levels of depression, anxiety and a decreased sense of well-being during the pandemic. Yet Australian’s are ill-equipped with the means to properly support themselves during isolation periods when experiencing psychological distress. Now that the problems of the few, who previously struggled to access and receive mental health support has become the problem of the masses, businesses and institutions are stepping up and looking at alternative means of providing mental health support and services.
COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to equalise access to mental health support in the digital sphere, whether you are senior citizen living in a small, isolated town, or an apartment dwelling corporate professional, the development of Telehealth means people will be able to access the support they need wherever they are. However, it is important that these tools and systems are developed with the most vulnerable members of the population in mind. Part of ensuring equitable access to internet based services means adhering to the web content accessibility guidelines, some of which may be discounted in favour of speedy development or improving site aesthetics. In shifting the mental health support systems into the digital sphere, it is essential that the most vulnerable members of the population are able to access the same tools and services as everyone else.
But what of the 2.5 million Australians who are not online, or otherwise lack the confidence to effectively use the digital tools given to them? Having a well designed, user friendly site or app is only part of the accessibility problem in the mental health sphere. COVID-19 has diminished the ability of vulnerable or isolated citizens to be able to reach out or receive support from their community when it comes to actively utilising aspects of the health system. If a person does not have access to wifi, they are completely prevented from accessing this support and (as COVID-19 has demonstrated) they will not necessarily always be able to rely on other members of the community to help them in this regard.
If Telehealth and the use of digital technology becomes a more prominent part of our everyday lives, it is essential that the government and communities ensure all citizens are properly equipped and informed so that they can thrive in a digital world. Programs such as the Be Connected program, are excellent examples of this as they provide the elder community with the confidence to use digital tools.
From university students to retirees, everyone needs support and reassurance from time to time. Traditional forms of health services such as your local doctor, counsellor or therapist aren’t always available or easily accessible when you need them most. COVID-19 has demonstrated an increasing demand for mental health support and the need to innovate and adapt so that all members of the community can properly thrive.