Hello, my name is Ruth Vine. I am the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Mental Health and today I bring you the top 3 for December 2021.

Greetings first, my greetings to everyone who works and has worked in the mental health field. Your professionalism and compassion have helped countless people endure the hardships and challenges of the pandemic. In addition, of course, the usual tests of everyday life. A big thank you to all general practitioners, specialists, nurses, psychiatrists, management and employees, and I very much hope that you can relax a little during this holiday season. Please don’t forget to take time for yourself.

The first question I was asked is that the holiday season can be a joy, but it is also a time of stress and anxiety for some. How can people best support and manage their mental health and wellbeing? This is a different kind of Christmas and holiday season. Because 2021 has come after two rather difficult years because of the COVID pandemic. We have had many conversations that it is normal to feel stressed and a little anxious about COVID-19. Times were unprecedented. In a way, the pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Especially for those who endured bans, especially those who endured restrictions on contact with family and friends. So be aware that it is okay to feel a little strange during these unusual times and ask for help. But there are some things that you can do beyond the usual. That means, don’t forget to keep wearing your mask at times, washing your hands, maintaining social distance, keeping your own boundaries. It’s a great time to meet up with family and friends but sometimes there are complex family dynamics and I know that especially during this time there can be very complex dynamics with vaccination and who has been vaccinated, who has not and all the things that go with it. Stay calm, stay friendly, and keep doing the things that will help you exercise or maintain a routine. Do not indulge too much in the festivities that go with it. Remember, mental health services are also available during this holiday season, as well as online information and support if you find things particularly challenging. A good place to start is the Head to Health website for information and guidance on the services available. If your need is more urgent, the appropriate hotlines are Beyond Blue at 1300 224 636 or Lifeline at 13 11 14 and you can talk things through. But just know you can reach out, help is available. This should be a happy time. Sometimes when they’re not quite as happy as you wanted them to be, they can be especially unhappy, so take care of yourself.

My second question is, what can people do to reduce fear of travel and border closings during the holiday season? I would start by doing this today, December 16th, which is a pretty important day because I think it was yesterday, December 15th, when a number of states reduced their restrictions or opened their borders, including Tasmania and NSW have also changed their restrictions. So there are still some border closings. We know Western Australia isn’t planning a full reopening until early February. The first thing to say about reducing your anxiety is to be as knowledgeable as possible. Go to the appropriate websites, see the restrictions, see if there is a declaration or exemption form, and do whatever you can to prepare yourself and others. I have to say, and I’ve personally seen it over the past few years, that planning is difficult at this time of the year. You can forge great plans and then suddenly they are no longer feasible. The other thing I think to help you overcome your fear of travel and border closings is to be a little prepared. A little prepared for things not going quite according to plan, and maybe with a plan B up your sleeve. Not just to know what is going on, of course, but also to stick to what is going on. I have to say make sure you have one shot, two shots. For those of you relevant, please grab your booster shot. We know that the Omicron variant is increasing in our community. We know the best proof is when you receive your booster. Right now, you have five months to do so, which increases your protection and therefore also the protection of your environment and your community. Just a couple of other suggestions to handling the added stress of travel during the vacation time are to make sure you check your list and know if you had or did a test and make sure that is relevant to your family. Get the appropriate COVID app on your phone, check in, and having it there already will leave you less anxious and less angry when it all happens. For some, international travel is opening up again. It is the same thing to make sure that you have navigated through the requirements to the best of your knowledge and checked the appropriate websites. Don’t forget to do the usual wherever you go, wash your hands, use soap and water, use disinfectant, and keep your distance. Just be extra aware of crowded events and keep in mind that there may be an additional risk and instead go to more ventilated areas or where there is more space. If you have any symptoms, get tested. I would like to emphasize the importance of the vaccination again and now get a booster, thank you very much.

My third question, some people may feel exhausted and burned out as they near the end of the year. Especially after long lockdowns and working from home. How can we best use the vacation time to recharge? That’s a really good question. For many people, especially families, younger people, high school graduates, who have really important times ahead of them in terms of progress in their lives, the past few months have been really difficult. I’m a Victorian so I’ve experienced these prolonged bans and I was definitely fed up with not going and visiting who I wanted to visit and traveling where I wanted to go. It’s great that we can do more, but you’re right, a lot of people will feel exhausted. Perhaps these are health workers in particular and, as I said, families and parents of young children. Learning to switch off, to give yourself a bit of freedom, to do things that you enjoy, that are worthwhile for yourself, is really important. Just do this so that you have enough sleep and structure in your day, but some new things, some other things. For me, I recently had a great time in nature in a particularly beautiful part of NSW. But you can also catch up on reading, catch up on good music and just take time for yourself, take time out. It is also very important that we recognize that not everyone can take time off during this time. Even those who are feeling quite exhausted may need to continue to be on the front lines and remain available, so it would be very remiss on my part not to mention health professionals and psychiatrists who have to work during the holidays to continue to support us. There are some special supports for those who work, including Black Dog which is the essential network accessible over the Internet. So everyone can benefit from doing things to refresh and recharge. Please be optimistic. We have made great strides in the past few years and demonstrated tremendous resilience despite the pressure, but it is also time we all recharge our batteries.

So, take your time and thank you very much. I wish you and your families all the best for the holidays.