Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Australians urged to take up mental health telehealth and put on 'digital sunscreen'

Ten-year project condensed to ten days to help Australians deal with existing mental health concerns and those brought on by the global pandemic.

Half of all mental health consultations in Australia conducted on telehealth during COVID-19
2:17

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said one million mental health telehealth consultations have taken place since the federal government announced on March 29 it would be fast-tracking digital alternatives to in-person medical care.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Morrison said the one million figure equates to 50% of all mental health consultations that have occurred in Australia during that period.

"Some AU$35 million specifically in mental health-related consultations have been conducted over that period of time," he said.

The overall telehealth spend is AU$669 million.

"The isolation -- the stay at home -- has been important, but it does come with an increase in anxiety and an increase in pressure on individuals, their mental stress, and that also takes a toll," Morrison said.

Read more: COVID-19: Australia's new app, WhatsApp chat, and telehealth launch

"That is why it is important that we get these COVIDSafe arrangements in place so people won't be constrained, as they have been, [so] they won't be under as much anxiety as they have been as a result of the isolation restrictions that have been necessary."

Morrison pointed to Lifeline Australia, Kids Helpline, Beyond Blue, Suicide Call Back Service, Men's Line Australia, and Headspace as some of the services available online and via phone.

"They are there to help you through this very stressful period and it only underscores again why it is so important that we get Australia back to a position where it can be COVID safe across the country," he said.

The new online mental health services are aimed at helping Australians get through existing health concerns and those that have been brought on by the global crisis, with the digital capability fast-tracked from 10 years to 10 days.

"We made a shift, which really was a 10-year shift done in 10 days," National Suicide Prevention adviser Christine Morgan added, speaking alongside Morrison.

"And I can't overestimate that, of moving our mental health services onto a telehealth platform."

Morgan said she had hoped with the telehealth option that there would be an Australia-wide increase in the use of mental health services, but that the reality is, overall, there has been a decrease.

"I do this as a call out to all Australians. We did come into this scenario, we did come into COVID-19, with mental health challenges, many of us, we did come in with mental illness," she said. "You do still need to contact your mental health services. You can do it now through telehealth, you can do it through the digital services, but part of getting through this whole crisis is that we actually address our mental health and our wellbeing, so reach out."

Also on telehealth, preparations are being made to enable Australians to access electronic prescriptions by the end of next month.  

As of Monday, 2.44 million Australians had registered for COVIDSafe, the federal government's COVID-19 contact tracing app. On Tuesday, that number rose to 2.8 million, but Morrison wants "millions and millions and millions" more to jump on board.

"This is an important protection for a COVID-safe Australia. I would liken it to the fact that if you want to go outside when the sun is shining, you have got to put sunscreen on. This is the same thing," he said.

"Australians want to return to community sport. If you want to return to a more liberated economy and society, it is important that we get increased numbers of downloads when it comes to the COVIDSafe app.

Read more: COVIDSafe privacy report calls on state health bodies to comply with Privacy Act

"Downloading the app is like putting on sunscreen to go out into the sun. It gives us protection as a nation. It protects you, it protects your family, it protects your loved ones, it protects our health workers, and it protects your job, and the jobs of many others, because it enables us to move forward and to get the economy back on the track we want it to be on."

Morrison said the government is unable to provide breakdowns of what the ages are of those that have downloaded the app, or even what state they hail from as "all of that information is locked in the national data store".

"That is not information that is available to the Commonwealth government or the state governments, that is the protection we have put in place," he said.

"Download the app, COVIDSafe, please, please."

Hosted by Amazon Web Services out of its Sydney region, the app is a rework of Singapore's TraceTogether. Its source code is due out within a fortnight.

Through the use of Bluetooth, the app records "digital handshakes" for each minute that two phones using the app are in contact.

When a user tests positive for coronavirus, they are asked to upload the handshakes to a centralised National COVIDSafe Data Store, which are then accessed by contract tracers to notify people who are determined to be at risk.

The handshakes contain: The unique IDs of each user in contact -- said to be an "encrypted version of the user's mobile phone number"; Bluetooth signal strength used to determine distance; and a timestamp. Handshakes are stored on mobile devices and deleted 21 days after being created.

Responsibility for the implementation and operation of the app lies with the federal Department of Health, along with the Digital Transformation Agency, but app information is passed only to state agency-based contact tracers.

At the time of writing, the World Health Organization reported that there have been nearly 3 million confirmed cases, with over 202,000 fatalities as a result of the virus. Australia has reported around 6,700 cases and 88 deaths.

More than 536,000 tests have been conducted across Australia.

IF YOU OR ANYONE YOU KNOW IN AUSTRALIA NEEDS HELP CONTACT ONE OF THESE SERVICES:

  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
  • MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
  • Headspace on 1800 650 890
  • QLife on 1800 184 527