Data reveals impact of COVID on mental health
Another breakdown of the data reveals that 3.4 million Australians aged 16 to 85 – around 17% of the population – have seen a medical professional about their mental health.
Women were also more likely to report “high or very high levels of psychological distress than men,” 19% versus 12%.
For the first time, the 2021 census also collected information on diagnosed and ongoing health conditions. He revealed that more than 8 million people have a long-term health condition.
While mental health topped the list of chronic conditions, it was closely followed by arthritis, which affected 2.1 million Australians. Asthma was the third most common long-term condition, with more than 2.06 million people reporting a diagnosis.
More than 1.1 million Australians have reported a diagnosis of diabetes and 999,000 people have reported a diagnosis of long-term heart disease. More than 732,000 people were diagnosed with cancer older than six months or were in remission from the disease.
When asked if the pandemic had influenced chronic disease results in the census, professor of public health at the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, Rob Moodie, replied that the answer was a yes resounding.
He said physiological distress was often a factor in worsening chronic disease.
“Social connection is an incredibly important part of our overall health,” Moodie said. “It’s as important as weight and smoking. It’s far more important than we ever give it as a protective or preventive factor in things like cardiovascular disease.
The record of delays in access to medical care due to the pandemic was not taken into account in the census. Moodie was concerned about the thousands of Australians who had delayed screenings for life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, which plummeted at the start of the pandemic.
“It’s definitely going to happen,” Moodie said.
Victorian woman Jo Hall is one of thousands of Australians who have been diagnosed with delayed cancer. Her toothache lasted a year before she was diagnosed with oral cancer.
Working from home in her public service job during Melbourne’s 2020 and 2021 shutdowns, Hall said she had “cleared her symptoms” due to the turbulence of adjusting to pandemic conditions.
Initially, the 58-year-old was told by her dentist that a wisdom tooth was causing her persistent toothache. But eight months later, her mouth still hurt. She noticed a growth in her gum cavity and returned to the dentist, who referred her to an oral surgeon.
“I think the dentist knew then it was cancer,” said Hall, who is now recovering from the disease. “What started out as something unimportant suddenly became the most important thing.”
On August 10 last year, millions of people across Australia were asked to disclose any long-term health condition from a list of nine conditions – arthritis, diabetes, heart attack, asthma, lung or kidney disease , stroke, cancer and mental health.
“It’s a really smart move to collect this data,” Moodie said. “Throughout the pandemic, we’ve talked about communicable diseases that are life-threatening and happen very quickly. This is completely opposite to other major chronic disease pandemics that have plagued our world for the past 20 years.
He warned that the true extent of chronic disease was likely much higher in Australia than the census reflected.
“There would be more cases of high blood pressure or diabetes that people don’t know about yet,” Moodie said.
“It is so important that we do more to try to prevent chronic disease. Australia’s approach to weight has been an absolute disaster for the past 15 years and the ultra-processed junk food industry has completely ruined any effective public health intervention.
Before winning the federal election, the Labor Party pledged to create an Australian Center for Disease Control, promising that the dedicated body would have the capacity to monitor current and emerging threats and work with state governments and medical providers to prepare for the next crisis.
Moodie said the center should also address longer-term non-communicable diseases, which leave millions of Australians in chronic pain and causing them to die prematurely.
“Whether it’s cancer, heart disease, musculoskeletal problems or diabetes, these are issues that take years out of people’s lives,” he said.
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