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Community collapse: SA's loneliness epidemic needs urgent treatment


Frayed community bonds have caused an epidemic of social isolation and loneliness across South Australia – and workplaces, government departments and educational institutions need profound cultural change to repair the damage, the Mental Health Commissioner has found.

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In his first major publication, released this month, Mental Health Commissioner Chris Burns describes a wave of community breakdown across the state, leading to widespread loneliness – particularly among younger people, older people and country residents.

He says younger people have better access to high-quality information about mental health, through the internet, than ever – but social media shows them a highly polished, unrealistic picture of their friends that makes them feel alone.

Older people are staying in their homes, and living, longer – but the traditional communities they have relied upon for support are breaking down.

“They don’t have that community structure where people come as visit them as often as they should … peers have died off, families have moved away,” Burns tells InDaily.

“We need to elevate that community spirit … to help these people.”

And pressure to be stoic prevents many country people – particularly men – from reaching out when they need support.

These were among the key findings from the commission’s consultation with more than 2200 South Australians over the past several months.

Concern about rising levels of social isolation are echoed in the SA Chief Public Health Officer’s report on the state of public health in SA. That report says social isolation “carries the same health impact as smoking 15 cigarettes or drinking six standard drinks of alcohol per day and is more predictive of mortality than being physically inactive or obese”.

Burns’ report finds that often the mental health system only responds when a person is already in crisis.

“We heard from many South Australians who felt that the current mental health service system was ‘crisis-driven’ … due to a lack of investment in options for prevention and early intervention,” it reads.

As a result, Burns argues, workplaces, government departments, schools and universities need to institute resilience and “mental health first aid” training for directors, employees and students – and community leaders needed to demonstrate a profound shift in attitude to mental illness to push back the tide.

“The statistics are that 50 per cent of mental illness will onset before the age of 14 [and] 75 per cent before the age of 24,” he says.

“So you’ve got to be looking at it pre-natal: how do you help new mothers – how do you help them from birth all the way through to those early transition periods?

“If we ‘immunise’ the kids then they’re better workers in the future.

“We’ll get greater productivity in the state [and] we’ll get better results at schools and universities.”

Burns says his own attitudes and reactions to mental illness have changed drastically since he underwent a two-day “mental health first aid” course.

It was “the most powerful to days I’ve had [in the job],” he recalls.

“It empowers you.

“How can you, as a non-clinician … help a person who is demonstrating signs of, potentially, mental illness?”

He says  the course gave him the tools to respond appropriately to a colleague or friend revealing that they are struggling with mental ill-health.

“It’s not wrong to ask a person if they were having thoughts of suicide,” Burns says.

“Before I’d done the course I would never had done that – but I felt empowered as a result of the course.

“They may just need to sit down for a coffee to talk it through with you.”

UPDATE: InDaily has received a number of requests for information on the mental health training course to which Burns refers – it was a South Australian Mental Health Training Centre course run by Daryll Branford, who can be contacted on 7087 1901.

He argues that this type of training should be rolled out in schools, universities, workplaces and government departments to provide a “toolbox” to deal with traumatic life events.

“The ultimate proof for me is at Salisbury High School,” says Burns.

“They’ve been doing this resilience and wellbeing [training] for six years.

“That’s what they need, because lot of these young kids have single, unemployed parents, so they’re almost carers for their parents as well [as] carers for their siblings.

“Last year, for the fourth year in a row, they have 100 per cent success on their SACE results.

“Previously their percentages were right down … I think it was around the 60-70 per cent success rate,” he added.

Burns says the commission has “a very powerful steering group, which includes representatives from chief executives of Health, Education, Police, Corrections, Premier’s office, Treasury – we’ve got Commonwealth representation on it and we’ve got lived experience representation on it” to implement change in the state’s public service.

He says the state’s private employers also needed to “accept their responsibility to ensure that their workplace is as mentally healthy as it is physically healthy, because they have the same legal … ethical and moral obligations”.

“In America, they’ve got universities that do resilience as part of their courses,” he says.

“Employers are now going to those universities as a preferred location to get their workforce because they know that their workforce is not just going to be qualified, they’re going to be resilient, and better workers for it.”

Burns says regular community events that promote connectedness would help.

He gives the example of the Mt Gambier library, where “there’s ladies clubs, there’s a caravanning group, there were families there, there was a crèche … it was really a hub where people came together and talked”.

“We’ve got to get that community spirit going.”

Overall, he says, South Australian leaders institutions needed to adopt an approach to mental health that focused on prevention and rejected stigmas associated with mental illness.

“Don’t think that mental illness is a lifelong, debilitating health issue – very rarely it is,” he says.

“Just as if you’re not physically well, you’ll seek advice and assistance, and you’ll talk about it with people.

“Don’t feel that mental health is any different – if you’re not feeling good mentally, don’t be afraid to talk about it with people.

“The more you talk about it with people, the better it will be.”

Burns is due to produce a draft version of the South Australian Mental Health Strategic Plan next month – though his office told InDaily on Wednesday afternoon that the draft will not be released to the public. The final document, due in October, will be released.

Burns intends to produce a series of action plans to implement it thereafter.

If this article has raised issues for you, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14 – or you can call the Mental Health Triage Service / Assessment and Crisis Intervention Service on 13 14 65.


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