House debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


COVID-19: Mental Health

7:56 pm

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] Tonight I want to talk about the challenges my community faces in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. The Prime Minister rightly reminds us that the national plan says that, once we get to 70 to 80 per cent of eligible Australians having been vaccinated, we can open up again safely. We will see fewer transmissions, fewer people with severe illness and fewer hospitalisations and deaths. Being able to open up will help our economy, our communities and, most importantly, our mental health.

Patrick McGorry has called the massive increase in mental ill-health the 'shadow pandemic', and he's absolutely right. Over the last year in my state, around 8½ thousand people under the age of 18 have presented at emergency departments for self-harm and suicidal ideation. This is up nearly 50 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. In the last month, Lifeline had the three biggest days of calls in their entire history. The government has responded by establishing two Western Sydney region and one northern Sydney region Head to Health pop-up clinics to serve my community, and seven more pop-up clinics across Greater Sydney. These clinics offer COVID-safe face-to-face, as well as video and phone supported, mental health services.

My community has now been locked down since late June. As someone who's passionately interested in mental health policy, I want to talk about the mental health toll that the pandemic and lockdowns are taking on my community. I can see it in our businesses, our schools and our community groups. People are struggling to juggle the responsibility of working and running a business with homeschooling. Children who can get connected are struggling to concentrate, with all-day lessons online. They miss their teachers; they miss their friends; they miss the freedom to play team sport or play in the band. People living in Carlingford, in the Parramatta LGA in my electorate, who are locked down for all but an hour of exercise a day and are subject to nightly curfews feel like prisoners in their own homes. People who are usually optimistic are exhausted from the uncertainty of watching yet another press conference. Press conferences are meant for journalists and political junkies; they were never meant to be watched by ordinary citizens, and yet they've become a macabre spectacle in people's lives. That's why the Prime Minister and the premiers' unity ticket on opening up in accordance with the national plan is so important in giving people hope and optimism that there is an end in sight, and that booking a vaccination is the part that all citizens can play in getting there.

Unfortunately, in my community, the mental health issues are exacerbated by the poor telecommunications, which prevent people from connecting to those they love, having a telehealth appointment, working from home, studying or even watching those daily press conferences. Those same telecommunications services that make the lockdown possible in other communities are just not available in my community. I want to give some examples of some stories from my community, in the words of people in my community, about the telco situation. One woman shared her story recently, and I quote: 'I had Telstra come round and they installed a new modem. It's worse. I cannot make phone calls out, and that's using wi-fi, because there's no signal. My internet is so slow that my colleagues cannot hear me. I had to watch my father's funeral streaming from South Africa from a car park. My husband and children had to sit in their cars at the nearest main road to do Zoom calls for work and university. I inquired about the satellite NBN, and my neighbours have told us it's useless. I don't know want to do. I have to work from home, as I can't go into the office; it's in a restricted LGA.'

Another constituent talked about the impact of the bad coverage on her family, and I quote: 'We run a business from home and have four children. The oldest child's doing her HSC. The best internet speed we can achieve is three to four megabits upload on a good day. Most days the internet speed doesn't get past 0.2 megabytes upload, especially with working remotely and learning. The anxiety and stress for my high-schoolers, especially the HSC-er, is enormous, because they simply cannot even log into class—not to mention running a business. I'd hate to quantify the losses to our business due to the appalling phone service, especially when we have sometimes literally had days on end without service, having to go to extreme measures of jumping in our car to seek out better reception. And this doesn't include the hours of productivity lost following up with Telstra, complaining, lodging requests. My husband trades on the financial markets and has ceased trading as a result of the risk. The internet failing during trading can result in thousands of dollars in losses in a matter of seconds.' And this isn't in the outer reaches of our regional areas; this is in metropolitan Sydney.

I want to say to the CEO of Telstra, Andy Penn; and the CEO of the NBN, Stephen Rue: the inaction of your companies is directly contributing to the mental health issues in my community. I know they're not interested in my community. It's alright for them; they can work from home, make calls from any room in the house on their mobiles, turn on their computer and get great speeds, and watch TV uninterrupted, with perfect reception. But just remember: your lifestyle is funded by the bills and the taxes of the hardworking people in my electorate who have got no service from your companies.

House adjourned at 20:01