Inner city facing unprecedented mental health crisis

Inner city facing unprecedented mental health crisis
Katie Johnson

Psychologists in Carlton, Parkville and East Melbourne are overwhelmed with demand as locals grapple with the mental health impacts of sustained lockdowns.

Many clinics are having to turn new clients away as waiting lists have grown out of control.

Centre for Clinical Psychology (CCP) director Dr Emma Symes said that during her 20 years as a psychologist and her three years at the Carlton clinic, she had never seen such high levels of demand.

“We’re turning people away all the time, we had a waiting list for a time but it was just so clogged up,” Dr Symes said.

“No psychologist wants to turn patients away – it’s quite heartbreaking – but sometimes we simply can’t meet the demand.”

For many, the isolation and anxiety of the six lockdowns has exacerbated existing mental health issues.

Dr Symes said that many people were feeling “constrained, shut off and controlled”, which puts pressure on their mental health and their relationships.

“People are feeling really weary, and the normal issues people might be coming to see a psychologist for are intensified,” Dr Symes said.


You might have been feeling anxious for a long time, or there’s extra pressure on your relationship, but at the core of this is loss and an intense sense of not being in control.


As a specialist in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and perinatal issues, Dr Symes said many of her patients were new parents who were experiencing “profound isolation”.

“There’s no new mothers’ groups, there’s no way to interact with other families, play grounds have been shut, and kids haven’t been able to interact with each other at school,” Dr Symes said.

“The babies and children are also anxious.”

Although psychology and therapy sessions are usually face-to-face, lockdown has forced tele-health appointments to become the norm.

CCP was able to adapt quite quickly to delivering their services online, but still offers in-person services for vulnerable patients.

“Online is good for the majority of patients, but for children and those who are more vulnerable, it’s more complicated,” Dr Symes said.


Not everybody has a computer and not everybody is comfortable taking through that medium.


With many psychologists taking on higher caseloads while dealing with the lockdowns themselves, Dr Symes said her priority was to look out for her staff.

“They’re never under pressure to take on more and it’s about recognising the limitations of what you can and can’t do,” Dr Symes said.

“The issue for many psychologists is that we’re going through the same things our patients are going through, so while its helpful to know where people are coming from, we have to be aware of our reactions.”

“For me, taking regular breaks, exercising, meditating and connecting with the people I can connect with is very important.”

For Dynamic Psychotherapy director Julie Cochrane, long waiting lists have forced her psychologists to prioritise patients who have a significant risk to their emotional wellbeing.

Dr Cochrane said that the seemingly never-ending nature of the lockdowns had pushed many people to the brink.

“In addition to the uncertainty, not having a time frame of how long they need to cope with this is creating significant stress,” Dr Cochrane said.

“People can’t go to the gym, can’t catch up with family, and are suffering because they don’t have access to their usual coping mechanisms.”

Dr Cochrane said that for her patients and for her staff, she was always encouraging them not to “leave themselves alone” with their suffering.

“The biggest issue with emotional suffering is whether you see yourself as being able to reach out and get help, socially or professionally,” Dr Cochrane said.

“Some people see a stigma around the fact they are emotionally suffering and are concerned that they’ll be judged and that it devalues them, but it’s the human condition.”

To deal with the overwhelming demand, the state government has invested millions into mental health services.

The latest $13.3 million investment was to create 20 pop-up COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing services to be delivered by Cohealth and other community organisations.

Cohealth chief executive Nicole Bartholomeusz said that one of the clinics would be based at 53 Victoria St and would help to fast-track specialist care.

“These pop-up services will have a tremendous impact on people who are struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic. A pandemic is not just a physical health phenomenon; it affects individuals and the broader community creating anxiety, stress, stigma, and fear,” she said.


Loss of income, isolation from friends and family and disrupted education can exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions, and trigger episodes in people with no history of mental ill-health.


Since the pandemic began, the federal government has also allocated more than $500 million to deliver 10 additional Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions for those with a Mental Health Treatment Plan.

But despite the added funding, demand is still outweighing supply.

Life Resolutions CEO Jodie Brenton said that there were only around 40,000 registered psychologists in Australia while nearly five million Australians were experiencing high levels of psychological distress.

“In the financial year 2017-2018, GPs wrote 2.5 million healthcare plan referrals to see a psychologist, but in March to October 2020, they wrote 11.5 million of them,” Ms Brenton said.

“This demand is extraordinary, overwhelming and really unprecedented in our industry.”

Ms Brenton said that despite the government’s generous funding, many people were still falling through the gaps.

“People are feeling very frustrated and very angry because they can be waiting up to six months to see someone,” Ms Brenton said.

“Many psychologists have triple their usual clients, and a lot of them will be high-risk clients which makes a real impact.”

The psychological trauma caused by almost a year of lockdowns has been profound and far reaching.

However, when it comes to society’s attitudes around mental health, Ms Brenton said there was a clear silver lining.

“I believe COVID has broken down the stigma of accessing therapy and psychologist by 10 years within 10 months,” Ms Brenton said.

“Never in our society have you been able to walk out the front, ask someone in the street ‘Are you okay?’ and get a genuine answer.”

“It’s allowed us to reconnect with our community and has made us more caring and more concerned about one another’s wellbeing.”

Caption: Emma Symes and Dr Jon Finch haven’t seen demand this high since they opened their Carlton clinic three years ago.

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