THE surprise announcement on Monday that Victoria’s regional areas were to be lifted out of lockdown from 11.59pm sent a wave of joy, relief and anger through regional communities.
While it was great news for businesses able to expand their services again, the lockdown came just two weeks after restrictions were eased, and has tested the patience and mental strength of Gippslanders already fatigued by isolation.
Local mental health experts say the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and constantly changing restrictions went well beyond physical and mental health and incorporate wider wellbeing impacts.
Many Gippslanders have suffered in silence, but there has been building resentment regional areas were treated the same as Melbourne, despite no cases outside of Melbourne for several days after the lockdown was announced.
It is a balancing act for governments and health authorities, but the Australian Psychological Society says the restrictions for people living and working in areas where the number of COVID cases are higher have caused psychological, physical, and emotional effects, including physical and mental exhaustion.
However, that fatigue was also being experienced by people in regions where there are no or few positive cases of COVID, and where the long-term restrictions, such as closures, have had a significant impact on personal and work-related freedoms.
Sale psychologist and family therapist Laraine Beattie said some of the most obvious effects of the lockdown were home isolation, loss of face-to-face learning, separation from friends, peers, work colleagues and extended family, travel restrictions, cancellations of sports and businesses struggling.
“But the one that has sadly affected me as a mental health practitioner has been the severe restrictions on funeral attendance,” she said.
“Weddings, 21sts, etcetera, can be rescheduled, sport and social life will resume, however, inability for family and friends to attend a funeral — to be denied the opportunity to farewell their loved one and participate in the funeral ritual — is extremely damaging to the healing and grief process.
“Not to mention the guilt attached to not paying those ‘last respects’.”
Ms Beattie said funerals and gathering to pay respect for a loved one initiated the journey of the “total grief process”.
“What they [loved ones] do not need at this sad time is the added pressure and stress of the tension attached to choosing which 10 family members may attend and those to be excluded,” she said.
“Does the ever-present best friend’s inclusion take precedence over a family member who has had limited contact or conflict with the deceased?
“Who makes that choice?
“Family members already in a state of sadness are at this time ill-equipped to manage this elimination process in a rational manner.”
Heyfield youth mentor and yoga teacher Fin Vickers said young people were also struggling
with the restrictions, and she had seen a clear link between social isolation and anxiety in her clients.
She said many were fearful about the future and about loved ones such as elderly grandparents falling seriously ill, but were not getting the face-to-face contact they needed from friends and support networks.
“They have expressed it quite freely to me that social distancing restrictions are difficult for them and that it makes them anxious,” she said.
“There’s also the fact that it divides the community, with those who have one set of beliefs being up against others who think differently.”
Ms Vickers said she believed governments should consider alternatives to lockdown that would have less serious implications for communities, particularly in regional areas.
“I think the government needs to look at how to handle things in a different way,” she said.
Her concerns are backed by an Australian study published after the first lockdown last year that found clinically-significant depressive and generalised anxiety symptoms, thoughts of
self-harm, and irritability were at least double those in COVID-affected populations.
However, those most likely to have lost a job because of COVID-19 restrictions were living in rural or regional areas, aged 18 to 29 years and students, while the most vulnerable people lived alone or in poorly-resourced areas, were providing care to dependent family members, were members of marginalised minorities, women or young.
A similar Victorian study revealed a sharp rise in the number of teenagers seeking emergency care during stage four restrictions.
The 2020 report by the Victorian Agency for Health Information showed a 72 per cent increase compared with 2019 in the number of serious self-harm presentations in emergency departments for those aged under 18 during the final six weeks of lockdown.
Melbourne’s lockdown, which was due to end last night, has been extended for a week.
At the time the Gippsland Times went to print, more than 9300 primary close contacts were isolating across Victoria, and 171 exposure sites were listed at coronavirus.vic.gov.au/exposure-sites.
Need some support?
Anyone who needs support can phone Lifeline on 131 114, or Beyond Blue’s coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.
The federal government also has a support page for anyone feeling affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in anyway, providing 24/7 information, tips and resources. The information has been produced in collaboration with the MindSpot Clinic, and can be found at headtohealth.gov.au/covid-19-support/