CEO Update from Mental Health Australia: What exactly is so difficult?

Group of young people walking down a suburban street

What exactly is so difficult?

Today I will be more frank than usual.  I am frustrated, disappointed and dismayed.

It is way past time to set up independent peak bodies for people living with mental illness and those who love and care for them.  What exactly is so difficult?

Let’s revisit the context.

Building on years of advocacy from consumers and carers to be part of managing their own mental health care, to advise on how they would like services to be designed, delivered and evaluated, and to lead the change they want to see, the Productivity Commission (PC) embarked on a review. The consultation undertaken was broad and comprehensive. The  recommendations for change across the system were likewise broad and comprehensive.

As a result of this comprehensive consultation and advice the PC called for independent peak bodies to be set up. That was nearly two years ago and Mental Health Australia emphatically supported this recommendation, and still does.

Funding was provided to the National Mental Health Commission more than a year ago – a total of $300K to “investigate and co-design future national peak body arrangements to provide consumers and carers with a greater say in the future of the mental health system”. Where is this up to?

The PC called for an association to be set up to support the development of the peer workforce. There was and still is silence on this recommendation. Mental Health Australia emphatically supports this recommendation and as the peer workforce expands it is more important than ever. Who will support this key part of our workforce in mental health? Professional groups for the existing workforces abound, and here is an emerging group with huge potential who are still fundamentally unsupported.

Subsequent to the PC report, the Victorian Royal Commission into Mental Health and the Victorian government released a comprehensive suite of recommendations and implementation plan for building consumers and carers into leadership roles and functions for initiating, designing and driving change including delivering care.

The vision articulated through this work captured our collective hopes for change, strengthened the existing peak bodies in Victoria and built comprehensive leadership from the lived experience community into the highest levels of government decision-making.

Other states and territories provide support to consumer and carer peak bodies to lead the voices of those with lived experience and to impact systemic change. Mental Health Australia member organisations who provide care have a colourful array of programs and structures to build consumer and carer leadership into their program leadership, design and evaluation.

Discussing “participation” and the development of “networks” of consumers and carers is work that has been done in states and territories, and through the National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum for more than 20 years now.

At a national level there is much catching up to do. So, again, what exactly is so difficult?

We learned this week from the Census that over two million Australians report having a mental health condition, the most common reported long-term health condition.

We cannot ignore the enormity of mental ill health in our community.

We have a complex problem and it will take us all working together to deliver the range of solutions recommended in the PC report and the myriad of other reports delivered as part of the ‘plan-demic’ we have endured for some years.

We must move on from talking about “participation” of people with lived experience at a national level into full independent leadership for consumers and for carers in two independent peak bodies. The PC report said in 2020 that this is what people have asked for. According to our members and those they represent it is what people are hoping and longing for.

Anything less risks being patronizing and paternalistic.

Anything less risks further disempowering those who are at the centre of all our shared endeavours.

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