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Motion - COVID-19 response to social impacts: mental health & digital inclusion

Tuesday 18 October 2022, Motion

Consideration & Noting - Report of the Auditor General No. 7 of 2021-22, COVID-19 - Response to Social Impacts: Mental Health & Digital Inclusion

[11.34 a.m.]

Ms ARMITAGE (Launceston) - Mr President, I move -

That the Report of the Auditor-General No. 7 of 2021‑22, COVID‑19 ‑ Response to social impacts: mental health and digital inclusion, be considered and noted.

To some, the pandemic may feel like it was some time ago but in reality, the past three years completely changed the way we worked, went to school and interacted with one another. We were forced to rely more heavily on technology than ever before to stay connected. For many, however, this quick pivot to technology use meant that people who could not afford newer computers, tablets or phones or lacked the digital literacy needed to meaningfully participate were largely excluded, despite their greater need to have better access to these services.

In a place like Tasmania, where communities are more regional, phone and internet connections are poor and people are simply less inclined to use technology quite as much, this digital divide is far deeper and wider than it is in other places. The Tasmanian Audit Office, in analysing the social impacts of the pandemic, assesses the Tasmanian government's response to the social impacts of COVID-19 in 2020, and focuses on how effectively resources were allocated in 2020 to address digital inclusion. The aims of this report are to bring some assurance to the parliament and community about the effectiveness of the recovery effort and provide some pragmatic recommendations to help improve our state‑led emergency recovery processes in the event we may have to face a similar challenge in the future.

The report notes that prior to the pandemic, Tasmanian's mental health system suffered from significant deficiencies, including siloed and fragmented services, lack of a centralised point of access and the shortage of specialist staff. During the pandemic, these issues were exacerbated across an array of ages, social status and life circumstances.

People do not thrive in uncertain conditions and, in addition to the health concerns, the pandemic brought with it anxiety about people's future plans regarding work, education, social interaction and mobility, which reached very high levels. Other groups of people traditionally defined as vulnerable, including young people, elderly people, families with children, temporary visa holders, migrants and people with disabilities, were identified as possibly experiencing greater levels of distress during this time.

I will take a moment to talk about our young people and their experiences throughout the pandemic. The Mental Health Council of Tasmania identified that younger Tasmanians were disproportionately affected by it. Young people were found to be generally less resilient than older people, possibly because the pandemic hit at a crucial stage of their development. Disruption to learning, studying for university entry and loss of casual weekend and after-school jobs, all culminated in a novel situation that caused an understandably adverse reaction. Without having the benefit of life experience up until this point in their lives, many young people were faced with an onslaught of setbacks that they were simply not prepared for.

As a corollary, an already high demand for mental health services spiked, and access became further restricted. Adapting to remotely delivering mental health services required a greater allocation of resources between providers and clients, requiring training to adequately make use of them and time to adapt to these changes. The report found that community support from local councils and non-government organisations was also used very effectively to provide the first line of support for people with situational distress, but this level of community support was not available across all of Tasmania.

A number of pre-existing programs aimed at ameliorating digital literacy issues in Tasmania offered face-to-face assistance for people to navigate things like social media, phone and internet banking, making online applications and setting up email accounts. I am aware, as one example, of various programs being run by Libraries Tasmania to help people understand the basics of the internet, how to use their phones, and the dos and don'ts of cyber safety and security. Various initiatives during the pandemic were introduced to improve digital access for people with lower digital literacy, but some of these existing programs had to be withdrawn.

It is notoriously difficult to shift from delivering programs of this nature from in person to online. Getting people to a point where they feel comfortable and safe enough to ask for help and to engage with learning of this nature, especially for older people, is a feat in and of itself. Getting the same levels of engagement in other ways therefore reduces the likelihood that people will continue on with learning of this nature. In other words, the social distancing element of the pandemic raised barriers to people accessing help with digital literacy when it was most needed.

In response to these issues, the Government announced a number of measures to address the digital literacy and access divide. In 2020, the Australian Government introduced initiatives to help people to continue to access health support, such as telehealth services, which are particularly targeted at vulnerable people where face-to-face services were not practical. These included $875 000 for A Tasmanian Lifeline; $240 000 for Lifeline Tasmania to deliver mental health training and support small business operators and their employees; $826 000 for mental health and other wraparound support for homeless clients of Housing Connect and shelters; $120 000 for the Migrant Resource Centre and $65 000 each for the Council on the Ageing Tasmania and the Youth Network of Tasmania, amongst a number of other measures.

The Tasmanian Audit Office report indicates that by using existing relationships and funding agreements with NGOs and other community providers, this funding was able to be distributed quickly and efficiently. This clearly shows the importance of building and maintaining good relationships across government, the community and the NGOs.

Being able to leverage these existing relationships meant that the people who relied on services like these were able to access help more quickly. While this was the case, providers of mental health support experienced increased demand, with clients presenting with greater complexity. To this end, the Tasmanian Audit Office report states that although the Government was aware of the capacity issues experienced by community mental health providers, they could not find any evidence that attempted to address them. However, they acknowledged that these issues resulted from prior systemic failings, which meant it was probably too late for the Government to take effective action.

The identification of these issues by reports, like this one from the Tasmanian Audit Office, and through implementing the recommendations of the Premier's Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council, will put us in a better position to monitor and respond to similar issues in the future. Ensuring that people have access to adequate technologies, to connect, learn, conduct business and have leisure time is extremely important in this technological age. It is incumbent upon us to ensure that no-one is left behind in this regard. People deserve the opportunity to have access to the skills they need to use technology and the means to have access to good phone and internet services.

The pandemic was a time that was fraught with uncertainty. We have now moved into a period where we are still grappling with the longer term effects of COVID-19 and looking to a future where we can implement the things we learned during that time. Where more vulnerable people are concerned, efforts need to be to ensure equity of access to services for their emotional, physical and mental wellbeing. I know that is something we all seek to address.

I commend the organisations which have existing programs aimed at helping people develop their digital literacy skills and access and the workers and volunteers who carry out these programs. I also commend the people who take the step of seeking help and engaging with learning programs like these. The fewer barriers we have to people accessing support services and each other, the better.

I thank the Tasmanian Audit Office for producing this important report. It will help us better determine social inclusion policies in the future.


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