By -

On the day Sydneysiders rejoiced over haircuts and “freedom frothies” signalling the end of a 106-day lockdown due to COVID-19, a leading mental health researcher has warned lawyers that psychological injuries sustained during the pandemic will endure.

Professor Ian Hickie AM, who is Co-Director of Health and Policy at the University of Sydney Brain and Mind Centre and an internationally renowned researcher in clinical psychiatry, has worked on modelling the impacts of the pandemic to assist governments and communities. He told a virtual audience of the annual Charles Xuereb Oration on mental health in the legal profession, broadcast digitally by the Law Society of NSW on Monday evening, that his research revealed “mental health impacts are ongoing”.

“The psychological injuries caused do not abate simply because the public health restrictions are eased. Those who have been most affected, notably young people and women in casual employment with fewer financial assets, are likely to continue to be most affected,” he said.

“Ongoing economic, social and health supports for those groups should remain a very high priority.”

Professor Hickie acknowledged 2020 and 2021 had been “some of the most challenging years many of us will have ever faced in our personal, family and professional lives”. He said the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted personal and collective mental health by disrupting two major pillars that people relied on in times of stress: personal autonomy and social connection.

“Concurrently, it threatened our personal autonomy – via direct threats to personal health, capacity to work, earn income, freedom to exercise choices – while preventing us from responding collectively. In fact, it actively distanced us from those we would normally turn to,” he said.

Professor Ian Hickie AM Professor Ian Hickie AM

The psychological injuries caused do not abate simply because the public health restrictions are eased.

On the day lockdown ended for NSW residents after months under stay-at-home public health orders, he warned it was impossible to expect individuals and society to simply “snap back” to pre-COVID times.

“It is ongoing and as so eloquently displayed since late June 2021, it cares little for political rhetoric, delayed actions, simplistic reassurances, or government by press release. The stress is chronic, widespread and recurring.”

Data on mental health through the pandemic revealed increases in formal mental disorders like anxiety and depression, with related issues like a rise in reported suicidal thoughts and behaviours, increasing pressure on mental health services, alcohol or illicit substance abuse and domestic violence. However, there hasn’t been a major spike in suicide in Australia or internationally. Professor Hickie noted on this point that deaths from suicide are generally highest in males 25-65 years old – and they are the group most supported financially by governments during the pandemic.

He finished with a challenge for the legal profession: to emerge as one of the key social areas willing to reconstruct Australia in a way that is more inclusive, resilient, cohesive and better prepared to respond to future challenges.

“How do we use the available science, and new modelling tools, to better plan what we do next?” he asked.

“At the heart of these considerations we need to continue to support the development of both personal autonomy (health, education, economic opportunity) – but for all, and not just those who were previously most advantaged – and enhanced social connections. It is in that social domain that I believe we cannot simply outsource that responsibility to our elected representatives.”