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Mentally ill still turn to GPs for help

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The rate at which people suffering depression and other serious mental health problems see their local GP for help has slowed sharply, underlining fears that patients and the community will pay a heavy price for cuts to Medicare rebates for GP mental health services.

A national snapshot of Medicare-subsidised mental health care has shown annual growth in mental health-related GPs visits has slowed sharply since 2011, down to less than 2 per cent after climbing by more than 10 per cent a year through the late 2000s.

The slowdown followed the Federal Government’s decision two years ago to slash the rebate for GP mental health services by 50 per cent.

The AMA warned at the time the decision would be counter-productive and deter people from seeking help with mental health problems.

The centrality of GPs to the provision of mental health care has been underlined by Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures showing they provided almost 28 per cent of mental health-related services in 2011-12, compared with 26 per cent each for psychologists and psychiatrists.

In addition, 86 per cent of all prescriptions for mental health-related medications were written by GPs.

Despite the slowdown in the growth of patients seeking GP help for mental health concerns, they still made up a sizable proportion of the patients most practitioners see.

According to the Institute, 12 per cent of all visits to general practitioners in 2011-12 were for mental health issues, most commonly depression, which accounted for a third of all mental health consultations.

Despite the slowdown in growth in GPs visits by patients with mental health problems, the Institute’s figures show that the incidence of such concerns is growing.

An extra 100,000 people used publicly subsidised mental health services in 2011-12, reaching 1.6 million people.

In a sign that people are heeding public health messages to seek help for mental health problems rather than suffer in silence, demand for mental health care jumped by more than 6.6 per cent in 2011-12, far outstripping population growth of less than 2 per cent during the same period.

Adrian Rollins