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In The News

MPs present plan to relieve crisis in mental health
31st March 2006
By ANNABEL STAFFORD
Publication: The Age
© The Age. Reproduced by Permission


Six out of 10 people go untreated, says senator

MENTAL health services are in crisis across Australia, according to a report by politicians from all major parties that demands urgent action by state and federal governments.

A Senate committee of Liberal, Labor and Democrat politicians has unanimously called for a boost in mental health funding from about 6 per cent of the $80 billion state and federal health budgets to between 9 and 12 per cent by 2012.

Its report, A National Approach to Mental Health, also recommends between 350 and 400 community mental health centres be set up around the country, the availability of more mental health rebates through Medicare and that government mental health plans be measured for success.

The Senate Committee on Mental Health released its report a month early so it could be considered by state and federal leaders before a Council of Australian Governments meeting in June, at which they will discuss a national mental health action plan.

The deputy chairman of the committee, Liberal senator Gary Humphries, said he hoped COAG would take the report as a blueprint for reform.

"It is deeply regrettable that more than six in 10 Australians who contract a form of mental illness will have that mental illness untreated in this day and age," he said.

Senator Humphries said he was "confident COAG has heard that message . . . and I would be surprised if there wasn't a strong, forthright . . . well-resourced response."

Parliamentary secretary for health Christopher Pyne welcomed the report, saying it was "in line with what the Government has been saying for some time, that the mental health system has failed many Australians who have a mental illness".

Mental Health Council of Australia CEO John Mendoza said the release of the Senate report before the June COAG meeting "could not be more perfectly timed".

"The thing that we welcome in the report is clearly the bipartisan recognition of the state of the mental health crisis in Australia and the recognition that we need new money, new systems to deliver new services and a new level of accountability for all levels of government," he said.

The executive director of the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney, Ian Hickie, said there was "no doubt the Howard Government was very serious about looking at these issues and the community is united about better access to mental health services.

So we have to make sure it happens in the most equitable way in terms of distribution and the costs."

Professor Hickie said community mental health centres as well as more rebates for mental health services would mean services would not just be limited to major centres, but fairly allocated across the country and would be kept affordable for all.

The committee chairwoman, Australian Democrats leader Lyn Allison, said action was urgently needed. As it was, "someone can only get treatment if they can demonstrate they're at risk of killing themselves or someone else," she said. “And some people who are suicidal have actually been turned away because they're not actually cutting their wrists. That's a crisis."

During the year-long inquiry — there were 600 submissions and 10,000 pages of evidence gathered in hearings in hospitals, prisons and community centres across the country — Senator Allison said, she heard of mentally ill patients kept for five days on a trolley in an emergency department, often physically or chemically restrained.

She also witnessed "seriously psychotic" prisoners in a Brisbane women's jail who, because they were a risk to themselves or the staff, were "locked up in single cells for 20 hours a day and . . . the most profoundly disturbing thing is a wall full of television monitors looking at these women".

Apart from a monthly visit from a psychiatrist to have their medication adjusted, they received no treatment.

THE RECOMMENDATIONS

  • About one community mental health centre for each 60,000 people to be set up with recurrent funding to employ psychiatrists, psychologists, GPs, nurses and other mental health workers.
  • A new set of mental health Medicare rebates for GPs, psychiatrists and psychologists who agree to work with one another or in collaboration with the community mental health centres.
  • Mental health "first aid" training for teachers, social security officers, health workers and others.
  • The creation of a specific ministerial responsibility for mental health in state and federal governments.
  • The Mental Health Council of Australia be funded to report annually on the progress of the National Mental Health Strategy, identify gaps and problems and report on targets such as suicide rates, homelessness and treatment orders.

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