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29 May 2020

The Mental Health Commission’s COVID-19 response plan is totally inadequate to address current mental health prevalence in the community and prevent further anxiety and mental illness arising from COVID-19.

The Mental Health Commission’s COVID-19 plan omits measurable outcomes, timeframes, and key performance indicators to track and measure prevention and treatment of mental health conditions linked to COVID-19.

For example, the plan does not detail how many more psychiatric beds, how many more clinician home visits, or what workforce strategy for regional and remote areas is needed in response to mental health conditions triggered by the pandemic.

But the biggest omission is the plan’s total failure to recognise and embrace the key role of general practice in managing mental health issues in Australia.

Roughly three quarters of first presentations for a mental health condition currently occur in general practice. Despite this, there is only one single reference to the role of GPs in the 51-page Mental Health Commission plan.

Not everyone with COVID-19 related anxiety or other mental health issues will need clinical help. Yet GPs are, and always have been, the most appropriate ‘first call’ for any anxiety, depression, or mental health concern.

It is the GP who can assess and assist relevant treatments or referral pathways to other clinical care, and also help patients manage other health issues that have arisen during this unique period.

Due to decades of under-resourcing and under-staffing, public mental healthcare services were struggling to deliver accessible and high-quality care before the COVID-19 crisis.

Private health practitioners in psychiatry, psychology, and allied health have been actively providing care for patients with existing and new mental illness during the COVID-19 pandemic, rapidly shifting to flexible modes of care such as telehealth.

Private psychiatric hospitals have been providing ongoing comprehensive mental health care during the response.

Yet job and income losses, and an anticipated fall in private health insurance coverage, means those who were once able to access private care will soon depend on an already underfunded public mental health system.

The Mental Health Commission Plan completely fails to address risks to our balanced public and private mental health system.

It proposes to gather information on the mental health impacts of the pandemic. But increased mental health care demand is already evident. I have seen it in my own practice, and my medical colleagues have reported the same.

General practice, psychiatry, psychology, and community mental health services must be sufficiently resourced to meet the increasing demand for comprehensive, increasingly integrated services across the public and private sectors.

The role of general practice in identifying, treating, and referring COVID-19 mental health conditions also warrants significant extra resourcing.

The Mental Health Commission Plan sadly does not even begin to sufficiently address resourcing needs.

The medical community looks to all governments across Australia to be ready to make new resources available as the mental health impacts of COVID-19 become more apparent.

There is a better mental health plan – it is one with GPs at the heart of it.

Published: 29 May 2020