An Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry, has backed claims by Ballarat health professionals that young people's mental health was suffering during COVID-19 lockdowns, but there was not enough help available.
"With COVID, (the government) turns things upside down quickly because lives are at stake, but lives are stake here too," Professor McGorry said.
"The wheels move very slowly; there's not enough sense of urgency about getting this workforce identified, trained, and in place, especially in regional areas; it is much more difficult to recruit staff and have services set up."
The pioneer of youth mental health said students were under pressure.
"They keep having to switch back and forth between online learning and not. They can't see their friends; the normal things that help you enjoy life, like sport and recreation, keep getting disrupted. Also, the future is so uncertain; there's lots of instability about their lives in general before the pandemic and this has just made things a lot worse."
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Clinical psychologist Ms Jody Jones said her practice, which specialised in treating young people, was flat out, even before the extended lockdown was announced.
"We've got everybody working to capacity and have only been able to accept a small percentage of referrals over the past twelve months and it has been very difficult to get service," she said.
Ms Jones believed the inability of young people to get the help they needed was a growing problem.
"There are many people in the community, many young people, who are isolated. I am saddened that there are far more young people out in the community that would benefit from help, that can't access help."
Ballarat GP Dr Matthew Nigro said the system wasn't coping, especially with COVID-19 impacts.
"The access to services is very poor. It's become a saturation in this town. The issue is getting into a psychologist. (There is a) four to six week waiting list. A lot of psychologists have closed their books."
Dr Nigro said GPs were being forced to change how they worked.
"GPs are initiating treatment earlier out of the fear that a patient may deteriorate; people might be prescribing anti-depressants earlier in treatment because of the fear people may go unchecked or unseen for a period of time."
The access to services is very poor. It's become a saturation in this town.Dr Matthew Nigro
Professor McGorry said the system was broken.
"We allowed the (public mental health) system to fall into ruin in Victoria; it takes a while to rebuild it," he said.
"We've got to build it quickly; we've got to actually have some quick wins here. The longer we wait, the more people will die or, at least, their lives will be sold short."
Dr Nigro said lockdowns fundamentally changed the way young people coped with stress.
"The issue at the moment is hobbies, enjoyments, and social networks that provided support, (we) possibly didn't recognise the significance they had," he said.
"What was a coping strategy is now being taken away from them."
Ms Jones said the lack of normality drove anxiety.
"Children, adolescents, most people in general really thrive on routine, consistency, and knowing future plans," she said.
"With isolation, those things are removed; isolation exacerbates many mental health issues and it can even trigger conditions with people who have a predisposition," she said.
Schools were also seeing the impacts of the pandemic on young lives. St Patrick's College counsellor Ms Michelle Norton said the number of young people needing assistance was increasing.
"There has definitely been an influx of students requiring wellbeing support since COVID-19 restrictions commenced in 2020," she said.
"Due to the unknowns and uncertainties of this pandemic, the collective stress in the world, the country, state, community, and schools is heightened. Our individual young people also carry the concerns of the current changes and worries of their future options."
Experts warned that pressure could rise when the search for help led nowhere because services were stretched, especially in regional areas.
Dr Jones said it took a lot to ask for help only to miss out.
"It's a very sad indictment that you'll have a young person who clearly needs help, and is accepting and asking for help, they'll go right through that process of getting that referral and not necessarily being accepted for a service, being told by practices that they need to go back to their GP to try to find a service for them which has been increasingly challenging," she said.
Professor McGorry warned about the ongoing rise in youth mental health problems with COVID-19 making things worse for many young people.
"They have been steadily rising for the last 10 or 15 years and the pandemic has put it on steroids with rises in deliberate self-harm and eating disorders and OCD and a whole range of other things and the services haven't grown yet," Professor McGorry said.
"We have had a royal commission which is going to deliver more resources, but then we've got to find the workforce. It's starting to get addressed, but it's in catch-up mode."
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