GPs struggling to deal with mental health problems among patients are turning to a new federal program that brings psychologists and psychiatrists into consulting rooms.
Supported by mental health experts, community groups and GPs, the Better Outcomes for Mental Health initiative allows GPs to be trained to better deal with patients who have mental health problems or refer them to psychologists.
The project's chairwoman, Julie Thompson, said the scheme had tapped into an area of need.
"In the short 18 months since [the project began], one in seven GPs nationally have registered for the initiative, and in small country towns it is as high as 39 per cent of GPs - it shows the program is meeting a need," Dr Thompson said.
"It is providing improved access to mental health services and improved support for GPs."
Under the scheme, GPs can refer a patient for six sessions with a psychologist. The patient is then reviewed and can be referred for another six sessions if needed. However, the project is capped at three years and restricts doctors to referring 15 patients per year.
The chief executive officer of the Mental Health Council of Australia, Grace Groom, said the project should be expanded.
"It makes to sense to have GPs to be an integral part of the initiative . . . because the physical health of people living with mental illness is very poor compared to the health of the broader population," Dr Groom said.
Ian Hickie, of the national depression initiative beyondblue, said the ideal model was GP referral, with the cost of seeing a psychologist picked up by the Federal Government.
He said the system was underfunded.
"The $23 million that has been devoted over four years will be hopelessly inadequate for the needs - the real level of need is 10 times more than that. If you want to contain the rise in costs of antidepressants you need to give people access to psychological services," he said.
But the program stops short of opening up Medicare to psychological services, a change that the Australian Psychological Society continues to campaign for.
The Health Minister, Tony Abbott, has not ruled out expanding the project, but said people with mental health problems already had "a reasonable range of services available to them", with the Federal Government spending close to $1 billion on mental health.