A revival of last year’s boosted income support payments would be the most “decisive” action the Morrison government could take to address the youth mental crisis, according to a group of prominent experts.
A new thinktank – which includes former Australian of the year Prof Patrick McGorry – argues mental distress among young people has been more severe during 2021 in part due to the withdrawal of last year’s Covid welfare support measures.
Last year all jobseekers and most stood-down workers received either $1,110 or up to $1,500 a fortnight through the coronavirus supplement or jobkeeper wage subsidy, however the new “disaster payments” program is more targeted.
Australia’s Mental Health Think Tank’s first policy paper, to be released on Friday, calls on the government to urgently reintroduce the coronavirus supplement for jobseeker and youth allowance recipients.
It also calls for a rebooted version of jobkeeper, which kept laid-off workers connected to their employers.
The paper said these two measures would “reduce the number of young people falling into mental health crisis” and “reduce the burden on over-stretched mental health services now and in the longer term”.
The group of 14 experts formed in response to the pandemic also includes Lifeline chair John Brogden, Black Dog Institute director Helen Christensen and former national mental health commissioner Prof Maree Teesson.
“We argue this is absolutely the first and most decisive action the Australian government could take,” said Prof Teesson, the thinktank’s chair.
Prof Teesson said the group reviewed the literature and interviewed more than 1,000 Australians to discern the main factors driving mental distress for Australians.
“Economic insecurity, unemployment and importantly the prospect of unemployment were key drivers in multiple studies,” she said.
Prof Teesson said improving and increasing mental health services was crucial but took time.
“This measure is both fast and effective,” she said. “In a crisis, that’s the kind of action that we need.”
As Delta outbreaks have dragged on in New South Wales and Victoria, the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, last month warned the wellbeing of Australians would suffer if states and territories did not follow national cabinet’s reopening plan.
Frydenberg quoted McGorry’s warnings about a “shadow pandemic” and said mental health emergency figures out of Victoria and NSW were “alarming”.
Experts have previously told Guardian Australia that although the pandemic was having a big impact on the mental health of Australians, the upward trend in distress began a decade ago.
Prof Teesson said it was the seriousness of the recent data which prompted the thinktank to call for additional economic support.
“Lifeline has had the most number of calls in their 58-year history,” she said.
“Also, more than 40 young people a day in NSW [are] attending emergency departments for self-harm.
“While we understood … that Covid had resulted in higher rates of anxiety and depression, what we’ve really seen this year after this second series of lockdowns is a ramp up of that.”
Under the government’s current Covid support measures, people who can’t work due to lockdowns can receive a $750 a week disaster payment while welfare recipients who’ve lost more than eight hours of work receive a $200 top-up payment.
The $750-a-week full-time rate is equivalent to the $1,500-a-fortnight paid to stood-down full-time workers under the initial iteration of the jobkeeper program.
Under jobkeeper, payments flowed to workers through employers, prompting criticism the scheme allowed businesses to pocket taxpayer subsidies they didn’t need.
Unlike the disaster payment, jobkeeper also excluded some workers, such as those on temporary visas.
But the government has been far less generous towards the unemployed during the current crisis, with those under lockdown on jobseeker or youth allowance payments receiving no additional financial support.
The Australian Council of Social Service estimated last month this group totals 540,000 people.
Despite increased discussion of mental health during the pandemic, Prof Teesson said the impact of financial stress was too often left out of the conversation.
“There are many reasons people feel increased anxiety and depression in the time of the pandemic,” she said.
“Some of that will be underlying conditions, some of that will be lack of social supports, but one fundamental driver of that in the research we’ve reviewed is the distress they directly attribute to economic insecurity.
“There are many factors but this is a key driver. And this is one we can change.”
A spokesperson for social services minister, Anne Ruston, said the government was committed to supporting people “doing it tough as a result of the pandemic”.
“Throughout the height of the pandemic we provided $32b in emergency support payments and on top of that this year we have delivered the largest increase to unemployed benefits since 1986,” she said.
“Covid-19 Disaster Payments are paid in respect to hours lost as a result of lockdowns. Income support recipients are not being excluded and are eligible for a $200 per week where they have lost work.”
The spokesperson said the government had provided a record $6.5bn in mental health funding in 2021-22.
“Specific additional mental health support for young people includes $18.8m additional Covid-19 funding for Headspace to support young people before and during the pandemic through the 138 Headspace centres operating across Australia, and $100.9m to support the mental health of Australian children (0-12 years), including $42.3m for parenting education and assistance.”
Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636