No action for a year on mental health reform? Australians deserve better

It’s been 12 months since the government was handed a report into Australia’s mental health system and still there is no response.  The time for further time wasting, reviews or naval gazing is over. Mental health reform must become a national priority in order to address the crisis that is occurring right across the country.

Every year it’s estimated that 3.6 million people will experience mental health problems. The estimates rise to 7.3 million adult Australians who will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives.

Every year more than 65,000 Australians will attempt suicide with more than 2500 dying every year from suicide, and it is hard to accept that suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged between 15-44years old.

These statistics paint a shocking picture and, for an issue which will affect 50 per cent of Australia’s adult population at some stage in their lives, it’s hard to believe that it’s not considered a national priority by the Turnbull Liberal Government.

Every year $14 billion is spent by governments on mental health programs and support and yet despite this the system continues to buckle under pressure and is unable to meet demand.

Successive reports into the mental health system in Australia have found that in order to deliver the best outcomes for people living with or caring for people with a mental illness the current system must change. 

The most recent report is from the Mental Health Commission titled “Contributing lives, thriving communities” which was handed to the Commonwealth Government in November 2014. This report requires an urgent and comprehensive response from the Commonwealth Government.

It’s openly acknowledged that the mental health system in Australia is geared and funded to the acute or crisis end of the mental health spectrum and that not enough focus is placed on early intervention, prevention or community recovery services.

Those arguing for mental health reform want to see an end to the currently uncoordinated and disparate system and encourage a broader response to dealing with the current crisis whereby mental health need in Australia is not seen solely as a health “problem”. A truly integrated system will only be created if there is input and buy-in from other areas such as housing, employment, social supports, general health and well-being services and drug and alcohol services.

It’s well known that we are failing to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with a mental illness, people from culturally diverse populations with a mental illness and young people with a mental illness across the board.

Data collection, measured outcomes, transparency and accountability to expenditure could all be improved and the role and voices of consumers and carer’s need to be respected as equal participants at the table of reform if any changes are to be successfully made.

It’s clear from all the reports released that the mental health sector has been reviewed to within an inch of its life. The assessment of how the sector is performing is in, the facts are well known and the results are not glowing. Responsibility for addressing the challenges and redesigning a system that meets the needs of people with a mental illness must involve the co-operation, agreement and support of the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and the non-government sector working hand in hand to put the interests of people with a mental illness first.

Labor has already outlined some of our plans for providing better support for people with a mental illness under a Shorten Labor government including a reform agenda within 100 days of taking office, a regional model of service provision including the primary health care networks, a commitment to reduce the suicide rate by 50 per cent over the next 10 years, a specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health plan and restoring the independence of the Mental Health Commission.

Over the past two years of inaction by the Turnbull Government the mental health sector has waited patiently for the Government’s response to the Commission’s report. And whilst they wait in this period of unprecedented uncertainty, often surviving on short term 6 month or 12 month contracts they are losing staff, not able to meet the needs of their clients and the situation for many consumers and carers continues to deteriorate.

The Minister for Health says that the response is coming ‘soon’ and whilst we wait for it a creaking system under enormous pressure will operate as best it can whilst too many Australians living with mental illness continue to miss out and fall through the cracks.

Every day that responsibility for mental health reform is put off is another day that people living with a mental illness, those who care for them and those who work in the sector are being let down by the Turnbull Government.

**For 24/7 crisis support and suicide prevention services call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.

Other services include Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 beyondblue: 1300 22 4636 **

This article was originally published in The Guardian Australia on Thursday, 5 November 2015.