Mental Health Advocacy Day - ‘a watershed moment’

Feature story by Frank Quinlan, CEO Mental Health Australia

No one knows exactly where the phrase ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ originally comes from, but folklore attributes it to the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop from his fable The Four Oxen and the Lion

In this story, a lion tries to attack a group of four oxen, but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another. Whichever way the lion approached them he was met by the horns of one of the oxen.  At last, however, the oxen quarrelled among themselves, and each went off to separate corners of the field.  The lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of them all.

This famous (and arguably somewhat overused) phrase has graced political speeches, mottos of nations and songs throughout history, and while slightly clichéd, its message is a powerful one – only through unity can we overcome challenges and make a difference.

There was certainly a strong sense of unity a month ago when representatives from the mental health sector met with parliamentarians en masse for a day of advocacy surrounding mental health.

Rather than speaking solely about local issues, representatives presented a cohesive message, united as one voice, calling for change in the way we approach the mental health system. 

The delegates included leaders from mental health organisations, as well as consumer and carers. They presented three key messages to 47 Members and Senators from across the political spectrum, asking for clarity on the direction of mental health in Australia. 

Firstly, they petitioned for the public release of the National Mental Health Commission’s Review into Mental Health Services and Programmes. 

The Federal Government received the report back in December last year. 

While we respect the Government’s need to consider and respond to it, as a sector we must be consulted about what’s in store in the future so we may continue to drive change.

With so much riding on the Commission’s Review, and with so many unsure of who is responsible for what, we are seeing a perfect storm of indecision from all levels of government. The release of this report would definitely give the sector some much needed illumination of the Federal Government’s thinking around this issue.

The question of uncertainty extended to the next message, with delegates asking for funding certainty for not-for-profit mental health services. Thousands of Australians use these services across the country, however many organisations are still unsure if their funding will be renewed past June 30.

This was partly addressed the following Monday, with Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield announcing that the Personal Helpers and Mentors Program and the Mental Health Respite: Carer Support program will have funding extended for another twelve months. While this is fantastic news for the agencies who work with those programs, many other services are still in the dark of what the outcome will be. 

We are seeing NGO organisations beginning to hit the wall - they are already winding up services and seeing staff leave. 

The reality of these shut downs is a significant loss of knowledge and services. Down the track, due to this current indecision, we will see further stress on the public health system and the federal welfare system, as more Australians fall through the gaps usually filled by the mental health sector.

We need assurance of short term funding now, to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of Australians. As shown in our survey conducted in November, 40% of responding organisations were already losing staff due to this uncertainty.

Lastly, the delegates discussed the importance of major reform of the mental health sector, calling for a ten-year commitment to reforming Australia’s inadequate mental health system. For this change to be meaningful and lasting, the measures must be outside the usual short-term electoral and budgetary cycles.

The delegates held a final press conference, with nearly all of the 90 or so delegates gathering in the Senate courtyard of Parliament House to present a united front to the assembled media.

It was a fantastic day of advocacy, with one delegate commenting “I don’t think I am involved with any other peak or representative organisation that invests its members with such trust and commitment. This was a very, very worthwhile day for us.”

David Meldrum from the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia described the day as a “watershed moment for Mental Health Australia and the mental health sector.”

From all accounts, it appears that most of the Members and Senators we met with listened to our concerns seriously. We hope this will result in tangible action further down the track. 

The fact that we spoke to parliamentarians from every major political party as well as some independents is definitely encouraging. Only through multi-partisan agreement can we hope for change beyond politics.

My sincere gratitude goes out to the delegates and the organisations they represent for their participation and enormous effort which they put into the day.  As a sector, we will continue to make our case for change, and we look forward to working with you all along that journey.


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