Recommendations for addressing the grief, bereavement and mental health consequences of COVID-19 have been put forward in a new paper launched last week at an online Parliamentary Friends of Palliative Care forum.
Meera Agar, Chris Hall, and Liz Lobb write:
The enduring impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be felt in the Australian community long after the immediate dangers of the pandemic subside. Together with governments and service providers, we will be managing the grief, bereavement and mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for many years to come.
These issues will not resolve themselves without considerable strategic planning and investment followed by effective clinical treatment.
COVID-19 has had negative impacts for people in Australia and around the world with the loss of control, routine, freedom, trust in others and future plans. The loss of physical contact and support between families and friends, the restrictions on gatherings, and the burden of grief and loss when someone is ill or dies under such difficult circumstances will have an ongoing impact on many people for a long time.
As a nation, we must consider what can be done to support the Australian community to cope with the added grief, bereavement and mental health distress that is affecting people now. We must also learn from what has happened to prepare and plan for the future.
Palliative Care Australia (PCA) have recently launched an outcomes paper on Palliative Care and COVID-19: Grief, Bereavement & Mental Health. This paper was developed following two PCA strategic forums held with palliative care, grief, bereavement and mental health experts in May and August 2020.
Recommendations for all
The paper includes recommendations for policy makers at the national and state and territory level and for health and aged care leaders, health professionals, consumers and carers.
Foremost among the recommendations is the development of an overarching National Framework with a Disaster, Grief, Bereavement and Mental Health Strategy in each jurisdiction.
This will support planning for emergency events, support vulnerable groups and include mapping of all available local grief, bereavement and counselling services. This should be further supported by the development of national standards for bereavement service provisions in Australia which will ensure people receive best practice bereavement interventions.
It is essential that health and aged care workers are supported to manage grief, distress and secondary trauma in the aftermath of the pandemic. Employers must provide a safe workplace where staff can be supported through counselling, professional development and training pathways in grief, bereavement and mental health distress.
For many people, General Practitioners (GPs) will be the first port of call to talk about their grief, bereavement or mental health concerns. We should ensure all GPs are provided with the skills and resources to deliver the mental health, grief and bereavement support and care to patients presenting with issues relating to COVID-19.
Further, there will need to be a significant increase in the number of qualified practitioners with the skills to meet the grief, bereavement and mental health needs of people during and following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Plan for the future
To meet physical distancing requirements, many grief, bereavement and mental health services have been offered through telehealth arrangements. Planning for future pandemic events should ensure that services have appropriate telehealth capacity with the required technology and upskill the workforce to use telehealth where appropriate.
Death, dying and bereavement during the COVID-19 pandemic, whether attributable to the virus or not, presents additional significant risk factors for poor mental health due to public health measures.
The pandemic has bought into sharp focus the need for literacy about death and dying to support people when they are facing death or caring for and supporting someone who is dying. More broadly Australians would benefit from improved understanding of grief and bereavement through increased education and resources.
Little is known about the mental health effects and support needs of people bereaved during and following global crises, such as COVID-19, and the effects of this unprecedented situation are likely to continue ricocheting through society into the foreseeable future.
The impact of COVID-19 will require ongoing solutions and there are many lessons to be learnt from this pandemic. Australia must take the opportunity to prepare more strategically for future pandemics and other disasters through investment in research, both at the national level and locally to identify gaps, strategies and solutions.
Many people will carry the social, economic and psychological consequences of this pandemic for the rest of their lives.
Reflecting on the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and investing in strategic solutions will ensure that Australia is well equipped to manage the grief, bereavement and mental health challenges ahead.
Authors pictured below, L to R:
Professor Meera Agar, Chair, Palliative Care Australia
Chris Hall, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement
Professor Liz Lobb, Professor of Palliative Care, Deputy Chair, Calvary Palliative and End of Life Care Research Institute