That wave has already started with a rush of young people presenting to hospital emergency departments with mental health problems related to the pandemic. Those problems are worrying. They include self-harm, suicidal behaviour and eating disorders.

Experts say eating disorders are among our deadliest mental health conditions, triggered by feeling a loss of control, anxiety and social isolation – which many young people experienced during the lockdown. Widespread fear and uncertainty about the economy and future job and education opportunities will be ongoing.

Decisive action is needed to ensure mental health is not dismissed as a mere side issue to the pandemic. There have been record numbers of calls to crisis lines and waiting lists for rehab clinics. Hospitals are already feeling the pressure of a sharp increase in demand for mental health services and their stretched resources need to be bolstered.

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The process of unwinding social safety nets including the JobKeeper and JobSeeker subsidies also calls for thoughtful consideration. Nationally, more than 960,000 people were unemployed by October, nearly 240,000 more than the same time a year ago. This has forced many young people to move back in with their parents or couch surf. Federal Treasury has reported that for every day Melbourne was locked down in August and September, an average of 1200 people lost their jobs and $100 million in economic activity was forgone.

Policymakers should consider the impact that any sudden withdrawal of the subsidies may have on the mental health of the community.

While experts explain that acute disasters, including bushfires and floods, create a transitory wave of distress, COVID-19 is fundamentally different in that it is not a single shock but an expanding disaster with no clear end in sight.

Earlier recessions and prolonged periods of economic uncertainty have already demonstrated that ongoing financial stress, unemployment and educational failure can fuel social dislocation, mental ill health and suicide risk.

While mental health experts aren’t arguing that the coronavirus lockdown was the wrong approach, they say its broader impact now needs to be considered to restore some balance.

Professor Ian Hickie, from the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, says that while the lockdown approach was successful in eliminating the virus, it was at the expense of other public health risks.

The year 12 class of 2020 has made it through their exams but just as many challenges for this cohort lie ahead. School provides structure, life after school presents more risk as young people face an uncertain job market.

What is certain is that mental health will need to be treated as seriously as the virus to help us avoid a different kind of health crisis.

Note from the Editor

The Age’s editor, Gay Alcorn, writes an exclusive newsletter for subscribers on the week’s most important stories and issues. Sign up here to receive it every Friday.

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