Open Access
Psychological medicine

Improving mental health and reducing suicide risk: how GPs can help during the COVID-19 pandemic

WEI-MAY SU, LOUISE STONE, GRANT BLASHKI

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© JPC-PROD/stock.adobe.com models used for illustrative purposes only
© JPC-PROD/stock.adobe.com models used for illustrative purposes only
Dr Su is Academic Lead (GP) at the Health Education and Training Institute Higher Education, Sydney; and Adjunct Clinical Senior Lecturer in the School of Medicine, The University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney, NSW. Associate Professor Stone is Clinical Associate Professor, Academic Unit of General Practice, ANU Medical School, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT. Associate Professor Blashki is Associate Professor at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Vic.

This has an added layer of complexity during COVID-19 as hospitals may be seen as risky during the pandemic. Section 203 of the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures–Miscellaneous) Bill 2020 was passed recently, amending the Mental Health Act 2007, permitting audio-visual assessment, and is intended to continue for the duration of the pandemic.

Conclusion

Suicide remains a significant and tragic cost and burden to individuals and the community. The unprecedented events of the mega-bushfires followed by the COVID-19 pandemic are predicted by some authorities to increase the risk of suicide, potentially causing more deaths in Australia than the virus itself. Disaster research shows that mental illness and suicide in the context of the pandemic may have a staged approach with an initial ‘honeymoon’ period, during the period of community cohesion and increased supports, followed by increased risk potentiated by disillusionment, particularly in vulnerable groups. Groups already at risk for suicide before the COVID-19 pandemic are further vulnerable to the health impact of COVID-19 and the psychological effects of isolation, bereavement and economic uncertainties. Health professionals are also particularly vulnerable given the nature and burdens due to the pandemic.

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GPs play a pivotal role clinically in supporting mental health and undertaking suicide risk assessment and prevention. A suicide prevention plan such as the Beyond Now app can be helpful. Part of the plan can include strategies for when increasing supports are required. Telehealth is a mixed blessing providing more access for some and creating barriers for others. The rapidly changing nature of the pandemic has created additional stressors, although some health professionals and practices have used the opportunity for organisational restructure that will be beneficial into the future. GPs have also demonstrated strong leadership in advocating for appropriate health policy and the profession continues to play an important public health leadership role.

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The impact of COVID-19 on health professionals is significant. Being adaptive to change, reflective of our own vulnerabilities and seeking support when needed can help to improve mental wellbeing.     MT

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COMPETING INTERESTS: Dr Su: None. Associate Professor Stone: None. Dr Blashki is Lead Adviser of Beyond Blue, which is one of the developers of the Beyond Now app.