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04 Jun 2019

The May federal election saw the return of the Morrison Coalition Government. During the election, mental health was raised in the mainstream and other media, and a brief outline of the major policy initiatives is provided below.

The Liberal Party (the Nationals did not release a separate policy) was strong on its commitment to addressing suicide. Their policy position states:

The tragedy of suicide touches far too many Australian families. Suicide is the leading cause of death of our young people – accounting for one-third of deaths of Australians aged 15-24. The tragic impacts are even higher in Indigenous communities.

The Morrison Government is leading a change in the way Australians and Australian governments think about suicide prevention. Recognising that social, financial, legal, family, health and mental health factors may all play their part, we are elevating suicide prevention to a national, whole-of-government priority.

Our $503.1 million Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan (Plan) is the largest suicide prevention strategy in Australia’s history. It will ensure that government activities are coordinated, services are delivered to young Australians at risk and support is available for friends and families.

Our Plan focuses on:

  • strengthening the headspace network;
  • Indigenous suicide prevention;
  • early childhood and parenting support.

We will ensure young Australians and their families get help where and when they need it by investing an additional $375 million to expand and improve the headspace network. headspace provides youth-friendly services for the challenges facing young Australians: across physical health, alcohol and other drug use, vocational support and mental health.

To strengthen Indigenous youth suicide prevention, we will invest $34.1 million, including support for Indigenous leadership that delivers culturally appropriate, trauma-informed care as well as services that recognise the value of community, cultural artistic traditions and protective social factors. Our support includes $19.6 million for measures to prevent Indigenous youth suicide, particularly in the Kimberley.

To support Australian parents and their children we will invest $11.8 million in a range of initiatives to help parents recognise when their children are struggling, improve mental health skills training in schools, enhance peer support networks and boost counselling support services for young people.

We are investing $15 million to create a new national information system. This will ensure communities and services can respond quickly to particular areas affected by a high incidence of suicide and self-harm.

For Australians living in rural and regional areas we are establishing more than 20 new headspace sites in these areas and we are providing new mental health telehealth services funded through the MBS.

Our Plan also includes mental health and wellbeing projects, funded through our $1.25 billion Community Health and Hospitals Program to provide vital frontline local mental health services.

We are also delivering $22.5 million in specific youth and Indigenous health research projects as part of our $125 million ‘Million Minds Mission’ into mental health research.

These investments can only be made because of a strong economy.

 

The Australian Greens, whose position in the Senate is important, released a broad range of mental health policies, including $491 million in grant funding over the next decade for communities to implement assertive outreach programs, with guaranteed funding for programs targeting children and young people. They committed to increasing investment in early intervention programs by providing $25 million for a four-year trial of 50,000 children and young people to each access 10 group sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy from July 2019. We also know that online mental health treatments can improve symptoms for some mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. The Greens further offered to fund online Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for a total of one million users at a cost of $761 million over four years.

With the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), they offered an additional $450 million for community psychosocial services. Other commitments included:

  • $604 million over the decade for mental health intervention measures in smaller businesses;
  • $50 million per year for three years for mental health interventions in larger businesses.
  • Provide $166 million to fund a two-year national peer workforce trial with 1,000 places from 1 July 2019. Provide $13 million for a National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in 2019.

The Labor Party committed to investing almost $200 million in headspace Plus to improve youth mental health services. Labor said:

“More needs to be done to help young people who need more mental health support than they would get at the GP or their local headspace centre, but who aren’t at the stage where they need hospitalisation. These services are often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ in our mental health system.”

Labor commitments included:

  • Invest $144 million over four years to trial three metropolitan headspace Plus sites – in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
  • Invest $36 million over four years to trial a regional headspace Plus site in Tasmania.
  • Provide $14 million over four years for Orygen to provide central implementation support, technical guidance, research and evaluation and $3 million for an independent evaluation.

Labor committed to invest an extra $35 million to deliver more early intervention mental health services for young people aged 12 to 25 and $29.6 million to reduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth suicide and poor mental health.

 

Comment

It would be fair to say that the skewing of mental health dollars towards headspace services, and the expansion of headspaces to ‘adult’ trial sites, has not been universally welcomed as the most efficient and effective investment. At Senate Estimates hearings after the May Budget, we heard that waiting times for a first session with headspace can vary from one day to 99 days. Average waiting time for a therapy session with headspace is 25 days. Twenty five percent of headspace centres have a wait time of one month, while 25 percent of headspace centres have wait times of 35 days. Subsequent waits for therapy sessions are from two to 30 days. It also emerged that evaluation and data about headspace centres in Australia is conducted by headspace central.

Some in the mental health sector are concerned that there is no rigorous independent analysis of headspace by outside agencies or expert consultants. The Coalition Government announced in the May Budget an additional $154 million for headspace to manage their blowout in waiting times, however headspace have not released their specific waiting time figures for each centre and it is up to headspace central how this money is allocated.

headspaces play a valuable role in helping young people and there is no question that they are an important part of mental health services. But it is legitimate to question the amount of funding they receive and call for thorough, independent evaluations to provide the evidence of outcomes. The Labor Party mirrored the Coalition in focusing on headspace as the centrepiece of its mental health election promises.

During the election there was a lot said about health care. Yet the one aspect of health needs that General Practitioners, Emergency Departments doctors and psychiatrist see every day is mental illness. Every day we see families living with some of the most difficult problems. They struggle to afford the coordinated and team-based care they desperately need. It is frustrating that Labor doesn’t see mental illness in the way they see cancer. Proper funding for both the mental health and physical health needs have been historically neglected. They should be very high on the agenda of the next Government in Australia.


Published: 04 Jun 2019