Time for Action on Mental Health

Feature Story by Frank Quinlan, Chief Executive Officer, Mental Health Australia

It’s been a busy month in mental health, with a lot of political attention. Over the last month we’ve seen the release of the National Mental Health Commission’s Review of Mental Health Programmes and Services and the 2015 Federal Budget.

Firstly, to the Budget.

Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the Budget had very little to say about mental health directly. A few measures are welcome, including the announcement of the ‘Investment Approach to Welfare’ strategy which will gather important data regarding the long term costs of unemployment and disengagement; and the ‘Youth Employment Strategy’, which is aimed at providing direct assistance through targeted employment programs for vulnerable young people who live with mental illness, replacing services that were previously withdrawn.  

But surely we cannot allow another year to pass without securing the future of high quality services and programs that people living with mental illness so dearly need. Reform of our mental health system should be not be a partisan issue; with small piecemeal gestures and annual announcements in May and November. True reform must take place outside the usual short-term budgetary and election cycles, with commitments across the party divide. 

On to the release of the National Mental Health Commission’s Review.

The release of the Review is extremely important to mental health reform. Long awaited, it confirms many things that we already knew. 

It highlights the systemic failure of current arrangements. It notes poor planning, coordination and operation between the Commonwealth and the states and territories, results in vulnerable people trying to navigate a complex and fragmented system, which does not work in their best interests.

The Review, which was commissioned by the Coalition Government as part of their pre-election commitment to mental health, spells out the issues, possible solutions and a template for action. 

This is no time for business as usual. There is an unprecedented level of agreement around what we need to do, and the steps we need to take. The mental health sector has already begun working to prepare for reform and we are ready for action.

As outlined by the Federal Government, a working mental health system must focus on suicide prevention, promotion, prevention and early intervention, the role of primary care in the treatment of mental health issues, including better targeting of services and the integration of regional services. It must focus on leadership, both local and national.

Clear roles and responsibilities must be established across government (Federal, state and territory), and other stakeholder organisations including; health organisations, social and community services, clinicians and non-government organisations, and we must have commitment to change.

Without clear commitment from all levels of government, and from the sector, this important Review will go the way of so many before it - a brief moment of hope followed by inaction and despair. As Minister Ley said when she released the Review, our response must be coordinated, national and binding.

As we approach this challenge, we must remember that reform isn’t a theoretical idea about a hypothetical system. Change impacts real people and the services they rely on every day. The mental health system has failed too many Australians for too long – and people are dying because of it. 

Only by working together can we make a difference in the lives of people who live with mental illness and those who care for them. The next six months will be a crucial time for the mental health sector. We must stand united if we are to deliver a consistent message to governments and actually achieve change. We know what we need to do to fix mental health, we have the solutions in front of us – we just need the will to embrace the challenge of reform.


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