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Mental health experts given tight reform deadline

A group of mental health experts has been given just four months to develop a detailed plan for the Federal Government to implement far-reaching changes to the nation’s disjointed mental health system.

A 13-member Expert Reference Group led by former Liberal ACT Chief Minister and beyondblue Chair Kate Carnell held its first meeting today, 18 June, and has been given until October to finalise an action plan to implement a number of changes recommended by the National Mental Health Commission in its searing review of the system.

The tight timeline has been praised by Commission Chair Professor Alan Fels, who said the review he led had provided a practical plan for modernising and reforming the mental health system and it was vital that the process of reform get underway.


“It’s important that implementation of the review’s recommendations and actions commences as soon as possible, because the review lays out what is a long term plan for reforms,” Professor Fels said. 

The review found the mental health system was poorly planned and badly integrated, and urged an increased focus on prevention and early intervention.

Controversially, it called for at least $1 billion to be redirected from public hospitals to fund community-based mental health services – an idea immediately dismissed by Health Minister Sussan Ley.

But Ms Ley said the review showed there were clear failures in current arrangements and the Government was committed to “meaningful long-term reform”.

The Minister said advice from the Expert Reference Group would help inform discussions she will have with State and Territory governments about developing a new National Mental Health Plan with much-improved co-ordination between federal, state and local bureaucracies and services.

“We have a real opportunity to deliver meaningful long-term reform through this Mental Health Commission Review, and this Government is committed to action,” Ms Ley said. “However, it’s clear…there are still implementation issues to be ironed out. That’s why this Expert Reference Group is so important, to ensure the mental health sector and Government work together closely to ensure recommendations can be practically implemented as we finalise our action plan over the next few months.”

Mental health groups have welcomed the formation of the Expert Reference Group, but its tight time frame has some concerned.

Mental Health Australia Chief Executive Frank Quinlan told The Australian the group would be under “considerable pressure”, and warned that, with so many programs scheduled to end by early next year or be subsumed into the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it was essential the advisory group laid out a properly costed plan to provide the high quality services and programs.

But beyondblue Chair Jeff Kennett welcomed the Government’s urgency.

“I am pleased that the Minister has asked the group to get on with the job quickly. We don’t need more drawn-out discussions about what is wrong with our mental health system. We already know it’s a complex, fragmented and hard-to-navigate system, and the people who suffer the most are the very people and families who need the most help,” Mr Kennett said.

“I hope as a result of the Expert Reference Group’s advice and Government’s quick response, some decisive and practical initiatives are identified and resolved, so people with depression, anxiety and at risk of suicide – and their families – get better outcomes.

“Let’s not just talk about preventing illness and ‘early intervention’, let’s make this a reality, so people don’t have to reach crisis point before they can access services.”

Adrian Rollins