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In The News

Our mentally ill can no longer be ignored
31st October 2005
By Matt Price
Publication: The Weekend Australian
© The Weekend Australian. Reproduced by Permission

IT'S 10 years since the Easton royal commission ripped the guts out of Carmen Lawrence's potentially stellar political career. Lawrence was found to have lied about her knowledge of a flawed petition tabled in the West Australian parliament.

The story is complicated - Penny Easton, the subject of the petition, committed suicide in 1992, sparking a political bunfight - but Lawrence was ultimately charged with three counts of perjury. Although eventually she was acquitted, a once high-flying career has flat-lined since.

A bloke named Keith Wilson lit the spark that begat the inferno that engulfed Lawrence. Wilson was a minister under Lawrence who had retired from state parliament by the time his ex-boss jumped to Canberra. The Easton affair seemed an old scandal when Wilson agreed to reminisce about it with a journalist.

Lawrence had long denied any knowledge of the notorious petition. Wilson, plagued, he said, by a guilty conscience, insisted the matter had been raised by Lawrence as premier in cabinet before the tabling. Everything that followed - the inquiry, the political fallout, the charges, the trial - stemmed from this explosive admission.

A decade on, Wilson has resurfaced with another incendiary announcement bespeaking a second, much more serious scandal. By rights, it should run and run and run. Sadly, that's unlikely.

Wilson, almost 70 now, is chairman of the Mental Health Council of Australia. His name is at the front of Not for Service, a sad, scathing report into Australian mental health care released this week. It runs to 1006 pages, happily devoid of bureaucrat-speak. At a guess, close to two-thirds of this dangerously thick tome consists of patients, parents, carers and health professionals recounting their stories. They're desperate and frightening and help confirm the central thrust of the report, that after a decade or more of neglect by state and federal governments, Australia's mental health services are broken and failing.

The report contains story upon story documenting official malaise, maltreatment and maladministration.

Early intervention is the credo governing the treatment of all physical ailments, but mental health care in Australia has degenerated to reflect the exact opposite. Moderately afflicted sufferers struggle to convince authorities to treat them. Only when patients appear seriously unhinged, to the point of exhibiting violence or criminality, do they attract attention. Police and jails become de facto carers and clinics.

At Wednesday's launch of Not for Service, Wilson had his own sorry story to tell. He spoke passionately of an adult son, a schizophrenic for 30 years.

"For 20 of those we found it impossible to find and access appropriate care and intervention for him," he explained. Wilson's afflicted son became violent, attacking his brother and smashing up the house, prompting the bewildered, broken family to win a restraining order from the West Australian courts.

Wilson, once a state health minister, told of his guilt at not being able to do more for mental health patients. He turned to federal Health Minister Tony Abbott and made a plea that reduced many in the audience to tears: "I was angry about the system's failings, I was really angry and my anger has never abated, that's what drives my advocacy.

"The appalling state of mental health services is a national crisis and demands a national response ... Bring us in from the cold, help us to become real participants in Australian society, don't leave us as the lepers of the 21st century, untouchable, untouched.

"Minister, we look to you and your cabinet colleagues, and especially the Prime Minister, to really listen to the thousands of voices in this report. I know, minister, that you're a man who takes a high moral position as a Christian believer ... this situation is actually immoral. We have an immoral disregard for the lives of millions of Australians stricken through no fault of their own and stigmatised and left out."

The inarguable evidence from Not for Service is that the standard of mental health care has declined steadily, disgracefully during a decade of unprecedented economic growth. Instinctively, state and federal ministers blame each other.

Abbott, who can brag of an increase in funding during his tenure, essentially pleaded impotence after the launch, arguing that unless the states agreed to cede their powers to the commonwealth there wasn't much more the federal Government could do.

This is unwashed cant. As numerous frustrated mental health administrators have noted, where there's a will - national security, bird flu, skills shortages, to name a few recent issues - rival governments conspire to bury their differences and co-operate for the national good.

Until now the political cost of ignoring mental health sufferers and their families has been negligible. That may be about to change. Not for Service is simply too convincing, alarming and important to ignore.

Certainly Australia's most influential broadcaster, Alan Jones, has the sniff of blood in his nostrils. Last week, in an astonishingly aggressive radio interview with Abbott, Jones ripped into the Health Minister for refusing to adequately fund an internet site for depression sufferers.

"You're fiddling and arguing over a couple of hundred thousand dollars," Jones thundered. "I wish the same kind of scrutiny applied to the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, Tony, that goes everywhere else. I think it's an absolute disgrace ... there is more to life, Tony, than industrial relations legislation." Abbott was reduced to babbling in his vain attempts to get a word in.

This week, Jones gave the Not for Service launch a comprehensive airing, interviewing Wilson and delivering another fearsome spray to the commonwealth.

"As I have said brutally to a federal minister not long ago when I was fighting for money for some of these people: why don't you just go out and shoot them because you're obviously not interested in caring for them? There are no homes for them, no hospital beds for them, no nurses for them ... How much longer is this indignity and obscenity going to continue?" Jones said.

Jones, of course, is John Howard's broadcaster of choice. By week's end, the PM was making noises about sitting down with the states to tackle the crisis. Wilson's second coming may amount to something yet.

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