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Mental health system crisis deepens as Govt dithers

Mental health system crisis deepens as Govt dithers - Featured Image

The mental health system is descending deeper into crisis and instability as the Federal Government delays its response to the National Mental Commission’s report, a Senate inquiry has said.

The Senate Select Committee on Health has warned that while Health Minster Sussan Ley ponders expert recommendations on how to reform mental health care, the prolonged policy and funding limbo is taking a heavy toll of the system.

“Mental health policy and funding in Australia is in a state of suspended animation while the Government re-reviews, re-consults on, and re-considers the findings of the National Mental Health Commission’s review,” the Committee said in its fourth interim report. “The uncertainty caused by the government’s constantly delayed decision making has caused workforce instability and increasing uncertainty for mental health consumers and carers. This is an unacceptable situation.”

Its call was backed by Mental Health Australia, which said the current mental health system was “fragmented and difficult to navigate”, and urged the Government to take a bold approach to reform.

“The mental health sector is ready to embrace reform, and to assist the Government in a carefully staged reform process,” Chief Executive Officer Frank Quinlan said. “We need to build a system around the individual, and ensure care is provided in the community, preventing illness where possible and providing early assistance when illness does occur.”

Related: MJA – Telling the story of mental health

Ms Ley is examining the recommendations of the Expert Reference Group she appointed to advise on the implementation of the Commission’s reforms, and has said the Government will announce its plans by the end of the year.

But the seven-member Senate Committee, which chaired by Labor Senator Deborah O’Neill and includes three Coalition MPs, has called on Ms Ley to immediately release the Reference Group’s report and guarantee funding for mental health groups and providers for 12 months after the Government announces its reforms.

“Mental health policy has been on hold since the beginning of the Commission’s review in February 2014. In October 2015, ten months after the completion of the Commission’s thorough review, the government has still not responded to the Commission’s recommendations.

“As a result, the mental health sector struggles with ongoing funding uncertainty and indecision about the future direction of mental health policy in Australia,” the Committee report said. “The Committee considers that the Government’s lack of response to the Commission’s findings has caused significant harm.”

The National Mental Health Commission’s report, released in April, identified “fundamental structural shortcomings” in the nation’s health system, and urged a shift in emphasis away from acute care and more on to prevention and early intervention.

It argued this would reduce the severity and duration of mental health issues, ultimately slowing demand for expensive acute hospital care and lowering the incidence of long-term disability.

Ms Ley rejected the Commission’s suggestion that $1 billion be re-directed from hospitals to primary care, but endorsed the need to close service gaps and improve coordination between services.

“We needed to re-think our approach…and change the focus from a service-centred approach to one where services are organised around the needs of the person,” the Minister said.

The Senate Committee said the Government’s reforms should include recognition of the links between housing, employment and mental health, support models of care that promote early intervention, and articulate a clear and comprehensive mental health workforce strategy.

It said the Government needed to provide its response “as a matter of urgency”.

The Senate Committee’s report can be viewed at: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Health/He…

Adrian Rollins

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