“Watching the statistics on calls to Lifeline is a good way for us to monitor how the community is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic,” says John Brogden, Chair of Lifeline, the 24-hour telephone crisis support service.
He is speaking to Good Grief! as Victoria is relentlessly pummelled with new COVID-19 cases and deaths and as Melbourne lives with Level Four restrictions – involving night-time curfews, something beyond the imagination of most Australians only six short months ago.
“Curfews, wow!” John says, with a slight whistle.
“We’re averaging 2,500 calls to Lifeline a day at the moment. There were 2,900 a day during the peak of the bushfires and then we found we had a new peak of 3,200 calls a day at Easter time.”
Many have observed that in this second phase of lockdowns, stress levels are higher and the average person is gloomier. So it can be a struggle to imagine calls to Lifeline being higher some months ago.
“In the first lockdown everyone was very stressed, yet there was an element of novelty. People expected to be in serious lockdown for six months and then, suddenly it was all over. People hoarded toilet paper, rice, pasta. Back then we thought thousands of Australians were going to die. The numbers of calls dropped from the very high Easter peak when people realised that wasn’t going to happen, in the way it has in other countries.”
“But there was a sense that we’d all done the right thing and we were rewarded for it. Now there is the serious realisation that it just doesn’t work like that and we are in for a very rocky ride. And when the Victorian housing towers lockdown was declared, Lifeline had a surge of 20 per cent of its usual calls a day.”
“So people’s responses are different this time and the impacts on our mental health are just as serious, but in a different way.”
Recently Victorian Minister for Mental Health, Martin Foley, released figures showing a 9.5 per cent increase in self-harm cases presenting to Victorian hospitals from all age groups, and for people under the age of 18, a 33 per cent increase in cases of self-harm presenting to hospital emergency departments over the past six weeks, compared to the same time in 2019.
In addition, there has been a 23.3 per cent increase in people presenting to Victorian hospital emergency departments with an acute mental illness, compared to the same time last year. But the mental health impacts won’t be over, even when the infection rates and death rates in Victoria drop, John explains.
“Fear of high deathrates has given way to fears around the economic impacts on people’s lives. We had braced ourselves for the fall off the cliff after JobKeeper finished, but fortunately, JobKeeper has been extended. So that has eased the pressure a little,” John says.
“Yet we have to be realistic. We know that when we come out of this it will be to very difficult economic circumstances. Unemployment will go through the roof and as people lose jobs, they’ll lose houses and marriages. It will be the crisis after the crisis and there will be an even bigger challenge for the mental health of the community at that point.”
“Some people have already endured fire and flood before the pandemic. So we need to get the message across that ‘it’s alright not to be alright’,“ John says.
“So it really is a time to reach out to friends and neighbours. Make a call a day. Everything old is new again, so yell over the back fence, down the hall of the apartment block. Check on people. It’s a time for reaching out and seeing how people are.”
“Make that call to people who you know would enjoy a call – others have done the same for me.”
And this is the comment that opens the door to a very important part of this conversation. It reveals that John is not just reading from a prepared script with neatly clipped speaking notes. He speaks for Lifeline with the voice of deep personal knowledge.
What has grief taught me?
“I’m very lucky in that I’m 51 and my parents and siblings are all still alive. So are most of my cousins and friends. I haven’t had that much personal experience of death around me.
When my grandmother died she was the most important person to me at the time, but she was 97 so it wasn’t unexpected, even though it was sad and upsetting.”
“The real grief for me has been in dealing with my own mental health issues. So mine is a grief without loss,” he explains.
“I’ve had a suicide attempt and hospitalisations associated with that. I’ve had two nervous breakdowns. These were 10, 12 years apart. But the second one was harder because I thought I’d mastered it, that I’d developed all the strategies I needed never to go down that path again, but clearly I hadn’t,” he says.
John’s suicide attempt was at the peak of his political career. He was the youngest leader of an Australian parliamentary party ever, when at 33 he was elected leader of the NSW Liberal Party in 2002. This vibrant young man had not only survived the rough and tumble of political life but had proved very adept at it. But as a result of his very public shaming over controversial behaviour at a political function in 2005, John resigned as Leader of the Opposition on 29 August, that year.
The next evening he was found unconscious in the backrooms of his electoral office having made a suicide attempt, something which very quickly became extremely public and from which he and his wife, Lucy, have never tried to hide. Not that they had much choice.
It was the end of John’s political career but some would say, the beginning of the remaking of the man – and the beginning of the resurrection of a life of service to others that has given quiet hope to so many who have fallen, then remade themselves – particularly those who suffer mental health problems that impact on their career dreams.
Showing that your mental health lows need not be all of your story, John has had an impressive career since that terrible August of 2005. He became the CEO of Manchester Unity in 2006 and among other roles, he has been CEO of the Financial Services Council, Managing Director and CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and Chairman of the Board at UrbanGrowth NSW. In 2018, John became Chief Executive Officer at Landcom, the NSW Government’s land and property development organisation. And then there is John’s role as Chair of Lifeline.
As one of the first Australian public figures to go through such an exposed reckoning with self, John made probably one of his biggest contributions to the community – helping to change the dialogue and therefore the thinking about mental health issues in this country.
“With my suicide attempt everyone knew what was going on but there was this extraordinary outpouring of support. Lucy and I got letters, faxes, emails from more than 10,000 people. We kept them all. I haven’t been able to bring myself to read them all and I still don’t think I will be able to. But it demonstrated that there was support. People were telling me about things that had happened in their own lives and to their brothers and sisters.”
So John’s mental health survival connects him to people – to the real grit of life.
“You can say, ‘I don’t want to be defined by this’, but the trouble is, If you don’t treat it, it will own your life, it will dictate and define you. You have to keep working to avoid some of the grief and the negative part of it. And it can come on very quickly, when you’re not ready for it.”
That is why Lifeline plays such an important role at such a difficult time, he says.
“Society has changed – for the better. Over the last 40 years attitudes to mental health have improved. Back when I first started my career, people didn’t write articles or talk about coming to terms with mental illness. But it’s openly discussed now, and this is good.”
“It was illustrated very clearly to me just recently how important this is. I was at an Australian Institute of Company Directors meeting and there were many high-level people in the room, the leaders of at least a quarter of the businesses that make up the Australian economy – businesses such as AMP, CSR and some of those present were on the boards of two or three leading Australian companies. They were all people in their 50s and 60s and we were there to talk about the latest issues in governance.”
“But at one point, when we’d finished discussing the core business, one man asked me some questions, he opened up about how his son-in-law was quite depressed and everyone in the room started talking about these issues, sympathetically, empathetically.”
“This was the subject the people at that table most wanted to talk about. We talked about all the other issues on the agenda, yet this was the one where everyone came together and talked most constructively, trying to find solutions.”
“Today builders, tough sports players, politicians put out into the open their mental health issues and this is good for everyone. It changes the way we live with this.”
“I would say even politics is a little kinder these days. In fact, we are all a bit kinder these days – with the exception of social media, where people are so prepared to say things they wouldn’t say face to face. And that’s something we have to address.”
But that is a story for another day.
What is COVID-19 teaching you?
“On the humorous side, I’ve got a new-found respect for toilet paper! But more seriously, the Brogden children are 16, 14 and 12. Strangely, for us lockdown was a wonderful time. Without the daily transport commute it’s been a time of getting together.”
“Instead of things like going to the movies, it was very easily replaced by the family going for a walk – and a talk. We live on the northern beaches so the opportunities for that were really good.”
But John is also thinking about the question in terms of mental health strategies.
“One way we’ve suggested people adopt to cope with all the bad news, which comes relentlessly at the moment, is to actually stop listening to the news. When you listen to updates every hour on the number of new infections and deaths, this puts you in a very negative and worried position. So we suggest you limit the number of news bulletins you listen to, to one a day, maybe the news first thing in the morning or the main news bulletin at night – but no more.”
“And while the message of social isolation is important for people’s physical health, sadly, it’s a very risky message for people’s mental health. COVID-19 protection strategies are telling people to be lonely.”
“Before the pandemic, Lifeline was already an outlet for people’s loneliness. For some people, the only real voice they hear in a day is when they speak to one of our Lifeline counsellors over the phone. For these people, their only other human contact is coming mainly from the radio or television.”
John also points out that those who’ve managed well in the past might have mental health challenges for the first time ever.
“I’ve met people who are ordinarily quite stoic but during these times they are very stressed. We’re actually in contact with people who are experiencing mental health issues for the first time, because of the pandemic.”
“So COVID-19 is teaching me that now, more than ever, we need to be aware of the deep human needs of each other, to rethink and find ways to improve our society and economies so we can improve our social contract with each other.”