‘Psychological injuries do not abate simply because health restrictions are eased’

18 October 2021 By Lauren Croft
Professor Ian Hickie

“Those who claim to have been unaffected over the last 18 months are living in an alternate universe”, said Professor Ian Hickie. 

The Law Society of NSW’s 2021 Charles Xuereb Oration, Navigating mental health in the COVID era, hosted last week, explored mental health issues that have arisen in the midst of the pandemic. 

The annual oration honours the life and legacy of Charles Richard Xuereb, a sole practitioner in the CBD who served as a councillor of the Law Society and passed away in 2018 after battling cancer. 

This year, co-director, health and policy at The University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, Professor Ian Hickie AM, spoke on mental health in the midst of the global pandemic. 


Whilst 78 per cent of Australians have experienced poor mental health outcomes over the past year, president of the Law Society, Juliana Warner, said that “we are still trying to understand the precise impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of all Australians”.

“In Australia, awareness of the importance of mental health is at an all-time high. Mental health is now the country’s top non-COVID-19 health concern,” she said in her welcome address. 

“I think we will continue to learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on our mental health as time goes on. But two things are already abundantly clear.  

“Firstly, the pandemic is not a singular event. It will affect different people differently. And over the course of its duration, it will affect the same person differently at different times. And secondly, our interventions can make a difference. If mental health is the “shadow pandemic”, we can prepare for it and take concerted action, just like we did with the virus,” Ms Warner added. 

Professor Hickie said that the past two years had been some of the most challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic has caused great disruption in people’s personal, family, and professional lives. 

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“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. 

“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; it was not just one large catastrophic event. Different groups have been impacted in different ways and at different times. It has challenged our society at all levels and has placed great emotional pressure on all of us. Those who claim to have been unaffected over the last 18 months are living in an alternate universe,” Professor Hickie added. 

He added that whilst mental health and wellbeing had declined in recent years, the situation had only worsened in the face of the pandemic, particularly among young people. 

“Globally, we have just seen data released on the large spike in formal mental disorders like anxiety and depression, with related issues like suicidal thoughts and behaviours, increasing pressure on mental health services, alcohol misuse, some forms of illicit substance abuse, and domestic violence all on the rise,” he said. 

“However, we haven’t seen a major spike in deaths in suicide in Australia or internationally. It is important to note that deaths from suicide are highest in males 25-65 years old – and they are the group who have been most supported financially by governments during the pandemic.

“The 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. Ongoing economic, social and health support for those groups should remain a very high priority,” Professor Hickie continued. 

Furthermore, the mental health and wellbeing of Australians needs to remain a priority moving forward, concluded professor Hickie. 

“At times, and perhaps even more so at the moment, governments have again reflected that saving ‘the economy’ is our highest collective and most urgent goal. As if human endeavour, and our social relationships, exist primarily to serve the economy. 

“As demonstrated in the pandemic, most people actually expect the economic strength of Australia to be directed primarily to serving the health and wellbeing of all of those who reside here. Rather perversely, some of those who have pushed the economic argument the hardest have also tried to argue that they are doing it for our collective mental health and wellbeing,” he said. 

“The same challenges now exist for all of our other social organisations, including our workplaces, our local communities, our professions, and our social systems. How do we use the available science, and new modelling tools, to better plan what we do next? At the heart of these considerations, we need to continue to support the development of both personal autonomy and enhanced social connections.”

‘Psychological injuries do not abate simply because health restrictions are eased’
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