September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, a day that aims to raise awareness around the globe that suicide can be prevented. In these difficult days of extended COVID-19 restrictions and the subsequent loss of jobs and housing security, the devastating impact of isolation and loneliness, more than ever the spotlight has been shone on mental health, reinforcing the importance of keeping this issue at the forefront of our concerns, and our advocacy work.
Assisting in this work, the Australian Catholic bishops recently released the 2020/20 social justice statement on mental health – To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health In Australia Today. The statement challenges everyone – individuals, schools, parishes, communities, policy-makers, governments – to take an interest in the issue of mental ill-health and to taking action where possible to support those impacted.
Navigating this space, however, and knowing which support services are available for those suffering mental illness, loss, trauma or grief, can be difficult, particularly when immediate action is needed. Who can you call? What is the best course of action? What resources are available? How can we best help?
In an attempt to address these questions and more, Catholic Social Services Victoria hosted an online gathering on 9th September titled Counselling and Therapy in a Time of COVID, which saw more than 50 participants take part. It provided an opportunity for participants to understand the mental health services on offer within the Catholic Social Service Victoria member network, and how to practically reach out for assistance.
In opening, Joshua Lourensz, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria (CSSV) provided the broader context of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the community and the subsequent need to address how we can best support those impacted by mental ill health, grief, loss and trauma.
“Nearly 30,000 people in Victoria have been forced onto unemployment welfare payments since the end of June, with a total of 400,000 currently on JobSeeker,” he said. “Almost one million Victorians are on JobKeeper. With some 28,000 extra people going onto unemployment payments since June 26, that is a jump of more than 7 per cent.”
“Unemployment alone is associated with a two- to threefold increased relative-risk of death by suicide, compared with being employed, and sudden spikes in unemployment are associated with corresponding surges in the population rates of suicide.”
While current numbers indicate that suicide has not increased in Australia since the onset of COVID-19, both the Federal and Victorian governments have injected funds into mental health services, including $59.4 million from the State government, recognising the continued risk, and the importance of prevention and support.”
Indeed, the increasing number of people dealing with loss and grief associated with those who have died due to COVID-19 is of great concern. “With 683 deaths to date in Victoria due to COVID-19, that is a lot of loved ones that have been lost,” said Lourensz. “That’s another reason why we need to be really alert to mental health and grief in this time.”
“We have a network of 45 members that are committed to the common good, which means tending to the good of all of us, with special attention on those who are most overlooked and side-lined.”
“I hope this gathering builds toward a commitment to thinking cross-organisationally and also thinking across what might be fostered at a local parish level and how that might be complimented and supported by social services.”
Representatives from six member organisations of CSSV provided short presentations on the services they provide to people needing support with mental illness, or from grief, loss and trauma, and the best ways of accessing the services. They included CatholicCare Greater Melbourne, Geelong & Gippsland, Griefline Community Services, Jesuit Social Services, Cabrini Outreach, Joseph’s Corner and Corazon.
For a summary of the six presenters, the services and some discussion, scroll down.
The robust discussion revealed that there is no doubt that COVID-19 has further compounded and impacted some of our most vulnerable community members, as well creating new cohorts of people who are experiencing job and housing stress, and mental ill health, for the first time. It is also evident that the shift to accessing counselling and therapy online has not been beneficial for all, particularly for those who continue to experience homelessness, and who have no means or limited ability to access the technology.
Together with our member organisations, the broader Church and sector community, and inspired by the Catholic bishops’ social justice statement, CSSV will continue to work and advocate for those impacted by mental illness, and to provide resources where possible, to assist in this task. This is the first of many conversations that will strengthen our collective knowledge and expertise, and our ability to act and respond appropriately.
CatholicCare Greater Melbourne, Geelong and Gippsland
CatholicCare Greater Melbourne, Geelong and Gippsland provide family and relationship counselling services across Melbourne, and the Geelong and Gippsland areas. According to Anne Vranisan, manager of Family and Relationship services, “mental health is often tied up in the quality of relationships” so CatholicCare provides couples counselling, support for parents and children, and for people post-separation. “We do quite a lot of work with young people around school refusal and reluctance, helping parents to get their children back into schooling after all of this remote learning. Parents are also concerned with online gaming, so we’re supporting and assisting parents with boundaries, too,” said Anne.
“During COVID we’ve had to adapt, and for existing clients, keeping the services going via telephone or engaging via Zoom, has been very effective.” People are encouraged to visit the website to find out the specific locations and number to call. At the moment counselling sessions are free with CatholicCare and there is a 1-2 week waiting list.
Griefline Community Services
Griefline Community Services is a national service. People can ring a number between 6am to 2am and speak to a trained volunteer counsellor in regard to their grief of loss. This is a once-off, free service. Another of their programs is in partnership with Victoria Police. If someone is dealing with an accidental sudden death, the Police will refer the person to Griefline, which can provide 6 to 8 sessions to help the person deal with the shock of what’s happened.
“We’re using a strengths-based, capacity-building approach to trauma, and really working with the individual person and what they present with,” said CEO Kaya Latage. She said, “As a result of COVID-19, there has been a surge in calls and a significant increase in referrals from the police”. Griefline is available to anyone over 18 years and there is no waiting period for the telephone counselling.
In further response to the impacts of COVID-19, Griefline is working on a number of programs to extend its services, particularly for First Responders, and they are introducing SMS counselling. “Sometimes people find it too stressful or difficult to have counselling, so they start with SMS,” said Kaya. “People are responding positively to the SMS counselling. We’re really trying to cater to where everyone’s at, and working very gently with everyone’s capacity, and giving them lots of options in terms of what that looks like.”
Jesuit Social Services’ Life After Suicide
Jesuit Social Services’ Life After Suicide program provides support for anyone who is bereaved by the loss of a friend or family member by suicide. A team of psychologists, social workers and counsellors who have training in loss and grief, trauma and suicide, are available to assist. “Many of our referrals come from Victoria Police, which means we can connect with people soon after their much-loved person has died,” said program manager, Louise Flynn. “We work quite hard to ensure people can be seen very soon after getting in touch with us.”
Since the onset of COVID in March, all of the counselling services have been provided via phone and Zoom. Louise said this has worked better for most people, and “better than we thought it would”. “While there are some people who aren’t comfortable or confident with the technology, it’s opened the counselling and groups up to some people. For instance, someone who lives far away, say in Mildura, or in an outer suburb, who can’t travel at night, has been able to come along to the groups. That’s been an interesting learning to take into the future.”
Joseph’s Corner was founded 20 years ago by Sr Jeanne Dwyer rsj. Her vision was to support the family members of people with drug and/or alcohol addiction. “Being a family member of someone with a drug addiction is complex, unknown and unknowable,” said senior counsellor Heather Bunting. “It’s very distressing for family members, it’s chaotic, and can lead to mental health conditions for family members.”
Heather explained that Joseph’s Corner receives no government funding so “Sr Jeanne works tirelessly” to get funding to provide their counselling services available from Tuesday to Thursday. Their future is tenuous given JobKeeper payments will reduce in coming months, and their main fundraisers have been cancelled due to COVID-19. Since the lockdown period in Victoria, Joseph’s Corner has provided Zoom, FaceTime and phone counselling services, however, not all clients have adapted to this change. As a result, they have ceased counselling for the time being.
“We’ve adapted as well as we can to the COVID environment,” said Heather, “but we’ll be glad when it’s over. We see people in Yarraville, Hoppers Crossing, Laverton and we’ve also attracted people into our courses from Brisbane and Sydney. So that’s been an unintended good point!”
Cabrini Outreach is part of Cabrini Health Australia and offers a number of programs to assist in this area. The first is the Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub in Brunswick, which is a free, primary health care service for refugees, asylum seekers and people on temporary visas. Speaking of the impact of COVID-19, Tracey said, “In general, it’s been quite tough. We assist many families with children … we’ve had lots of people who’ve become homeless. They’ve gone from having a small bit of income to having no income and not being eligible for government support. There is a lot of rental distress and housing distress.”
Cabrini Outreach also offers the Regional Specialist Mental Health Service for refugees and asylum seekers living outside of Melbourne, and the Hume-Whittlesea Pharmacy Waiver Program, where people can access free pharmaceuticals in the Epping catchment area. Access a detailed brochure, with further information, here.
Corazon is a ministry of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart based in Melbourne’s western suburbs and provides psychology and counselling services. Coordinator, Jenny Sheehan said, “The range of issues we have extend right across the board, including sexual abuse, trauma, family violence, personality disorders and complex traumas. It’s a difficult space to work in because of the limited sessions and fragmented nature of it,” she said.
“This period of COVID has been quite difficult for us because a lot of our clients have low socio-economic status so they don’t have all of the equipment you need such as smart phones and data plans, and the issues that confront them are trauma and family violence, which is quite difficult, people tell me, to talk about over the phone.” During stage 4 of the restrictions, they ceased all face-to-face sessions, which means 25% of their clients are in a “holding pattern”.
She said, “For those people where the 10-12 subsidised sessions are not enough, we try to fund further sessions ourselves by grants. No-one is turned away because their mental healthcare plan has ceased. We’re open to anybody who wants to get a session here.” Jenny added that a further “big drawcard” to the centre was their therapy dog, Finn. “He is the most amazing animal. He provides connection at the front door and has a remarkable ability to decrease people’s stress in a matter of minutes.”
The following video of the conversation goes for 1.5 hours.