COVID-19: Impact on vulnerable Victorians
24 August 2020 at 5:38 pm
Mike Davis shares findings from TaskForce’s demographic survey which shows how COVID-19 has prompted growing demand for drug and alcohol counselling services and led to a rise in the number of people facing unemployment, economic disadvantage and poorer mental health.
The onset of COVID-19 has had a significant impact on all Victorians. However, the impact on vulnerable Victorians experiencing a range of pre-existing social and health issues has been somewhat under-explored.
Using our TaskForce demographic survey which tracks client and service level data we can consider how our vulnerable clients in South East Melbourne have been impacted by COVID-19. We do so by comparing pre-COVID-19 activity including the October and January quarters to the COVID-19 onset period of April and July quarters (ranging up to early August) 2020.
This analysis reveals some key trends and patterns from our aggregate data, which provides meaningful insights about who our vulnerable clients are, how and what sort of care they are accessing and how they are faring mentally during the pandemic.
We can also better understand how to adjust our services or what more we might be able to do to ensure wraparound support during a challenging period. Moreover, these patterns help us understand how COVID-19 has impacted upon vulnerable Victorians, who are already seeking help for a range of health and social issues.
Services shift to outreach (telehealth and calls)
At the beginning of February our outreach services were at just 2 per cent of our overall counselling services. This then climbed to between 80 to 90 per cent for the months May to July, representing a shift in our services from onsite counselling to remote calls and telehealth services.
This has led to a dramatic shift in how we work with clients and a challenge for our entire sector’s service delivery model, as to how we can support vulnerable clients at a distance. So far the remote approach has yielded mixed results and time will tell as to how clinical effectiveness and convenience balance out.
Increasing alcohol and drug counselling focus
Our service mix also changed showing a sharp increase in the amount of services focused on alcohol and drug counselling. Activity went from a range of 20 to 30 per cent pre-pandemic to between 60 to 80 per cent mid-pandemic. This represents an approximate 100 per cent increase in demand.
This is reflective of general community trends, showing an increase in drinking and drug use during COVID-19. This may also reflect our client’s challenges in responding to the circumstances of COVID-19, which have included job losses and insecurity, education programs put on hold and increased social isolation, stress, anxiety and financial hardship. These are all factors which may have contributed to excessive drinking and drug use.
Seeing more younger clients
During COVID-19 we observed an increase in the percentage of younger adult clients attending our services (25 to 34). Pre-pandemic this ranged between 20 and 30 per cent of clients and this jumped to 30 to 40 per cent of clients mid-pandemic reaching a peak of 64 per cent of clients mid-August.
In early August, 73 per cent of clients visiting were under 34 years of age as opposed to this averaging between 50 to 55 per cent pre-pandemic.
This trend toward youth might reflect the general trend toward increased alcohol purchase and daily consumption since the onset of COVID-19. Recent FARE polls indicated that 20 per cent of people were purchasing more alcohol during COVID-19 and 34 per cent of this group are now drinking daily.
This demographic may also be particularly impacted by economic uncertainty, lower-skilled, less secure and less well-remunerated jobs.
More clients are on Centrelink payments
Approximately 45 per cent of our clients were on Centrelink pre-pandemic. We have seen this rise to 75 to 82 per cent of clients during COVID-19. This is close to double pre-pandemic levels.
This is generally reflective of broader social trends in Victoria, with a significant increase in the number of people seeking social support.
This is in the context of record high unemployment and job availability at an all time low, with recent estimates indicating just one job advertised for every 13 people on JobSeeker or Youth Allowance. This is compared to one job for every eight people prior to COVID-19.
Our clients are experiencing poorer subjective mental health and wellbeing
The proportion of our clients experiencing poor psychological health of four out of 10 or less has increased from pre-pandemic levels. Pre-pandemic this was about 35 per cent of our clients and since the onset of COVID-19 has risen to 55 to 65 per cent of our clients.
It is not surprising to see a number of our clients struggling with poorer mental health during COVID-19. This is reflective of community-wide trends and coincides with a number of Victorian government mental health funding announcements aimed at fast-tracking upcoming Mental Health Royal Commission findings.
Those reporting poor mental health are often citing that they are experiencing social isolation and related anxiety. Clients enrolled in other programs at TaskForce are more often seeking mental health and wellbeing support.
Our counsellors also report a sharp increase in family violence cases, which is consistent with troubling community-wide trends.
TaskForce as a wraparound service provider works with a wide range of clients facing various health and social issues. Our clients are particularly vulnerable to a crisis such as COVID-19.
The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the growing demand for drug and alcohol counselling services, particularly for younger clients, that are remote, flexible and client-centred.
We are also concerned to see the sharp rise in the number of our clients who are facing unemployment and economic disadvantage in addition to generally poorer mental health.
Understanding these trends in service use and how our clients are feeling can help us to better respond to client needs and build a more resilient wraparound care model that is well prepared for future system challenges.
These findings can also serve to identify policy and funding gaps, where greater resourcing could be dedicated to support vulnerable Victorians battling substance abuse issues.