Psychological distress during COVID-19

The following summary is based on data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) from the National Suicide and Self-Harm Monitoring System (the System). The System was established as part of the national effort to address suicide and self-harm in Australia by improving the quality, accessibility and timeliness of data on deaths by suicide and on self-harming and suicidal behaviours.

For guidance on reporting on suicide and self-harm data, please refer to the Mindframe quick reference guide.

Released by AIHW on Wednesday, 6 April 2023

The National Suicide and Self-harm Monitoring System’s ‘The use of mental health services, psychological distress, loneliness, suicide, ambulance attendances and COVID-19’ page has been updated to include the latest ANUpoll survey data.

The ANUpoll has collected data on psychological distress using the K6 scale prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Data were collected in February 2017, in selected months throughout 2020, 2021, 2022 and January 2023.

The proportion of Australians aged over 18 years experiencing ‘severe’ psychological distress (as categorised by K6 score) tended to vary depending on the level of social restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the heightened level of psychological distress in April 2020 coincided with the first wave of COVID-19 infections in Australia and the initial lockdown period, while the improvement from April to May 2020 coincided with the loosening of restrictions.

The level of severe psychological distress peaked in October 2021 at 12.5%, declining to 11% in January 2022, and was found to be 10.9% in January 2023. As we move beyond the pandemic it is becoming less clear whether pandemic-related factors or other socioeconomic factors may be responsible for changes in ANUPoll severe psychological distress findings.

It should be noted that despite some increases in the proportion of people experiencing severe psychological distress, there is no evidence to date indicating an increase in suicide deaths in Australia during the pandemic.

Since August 2022, the average level of psychological distress has no longer been significantly higher than the pre-COVID-19 level of February 2017 (11.2%).