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Monday, 2 June 2003
Page: 15635

Ms BURKE (5:31 PM) —There is a cry for help in my constituency—a loud cry, which unfortunately is echoed in every other electorate represented in this House. It is an agonising cry for help from those who, in most cases, are least able to seek help for themselves either from unnecessary embarrassment or simply from the inability to do so. It is a desperate cry that, if made, often falls on deaf ears or, if heard, often is ignored due to fear or lack of understanding. A cry, even if it is made on someone else's behalf, still brings an unwanted stigma from those in our society who are unable or do not want to understand.

The group within our society I refer to are those in our community, our neighbourhood, our street or our family who suffer from mental illness. Mental illness will affect one in five adult Australians a year. That is a staggering 20 per cent of all Australian adults. They will suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disease, depression, anxiety or Alzheimer's disease—just to name some of the more common forms of mental illness. Aside from the destructive effects of severe mental disorders, what is also frightening is that six per cent of these sufferers will commit suicide—that is about one in every 17 people suffering from such an illness compared to one per cent of the population as a whole. Sadly, suicide is the main cause of premature death amongst people with mental illness.

What is also tragic about mental illness, which I alluded to in my introduction, is that it carries with it a real stigma. Although it is a disease like any other—diabetes, asthma or even heart disease—sufferers are given little sympathy or support; rather, they are labelled with derogatory names and cruel titles. Many times, if a sufferer is fortunate enough to have close family, the stigma extends to them as well.

I recently took great offence and objection when I read an article in a major national newspaper that referred to a serial killer as `the Schizo'. This not only offends sufferers and their families; it also propounds any misgivings about the disease and shows the ignorance and irresponsibility of the newspaper. It has taken many years to bring mental illness out of the darkness, and to use such a label just cloaks the disease with incorrect and unwarranted negativity.

A publication more deserving of mention and one which should be praised has recently been released by one of my constituents—a remarkable person, indeed. In his book You are not alone: a sane guide to mental illness for children, 15-year-old Dan Halloran aims to help young people who have a parent or family member with a mental illness. Dan's mother, Virginia, who sadly passed away last year and to whom the book is dedicated, suffered from schizophrenia. Although a loving and dedicated mother, her behaviour was at times unpredictable and necessitated her being separated from Dan at an early age. In his book Dan and other children in similar circumstances offer advice on how to cope in such a situation. It is a groundbreaking book that has never been produced before.

Dan's plight was recently documented in the ABC program Australian Story. I hope people saw it. His spirit, maturity and strength are truly remarkable, especially considering his young age. He has had the courage to use what were personal and hurtful experiences to help others in similar situations and not to be frightened by what might be said of him or his family by an ignorant minority. Dan and John Halloran are remarkable people, and I wish them well in their life journey.

Ignorant people exist in all levels of society and include, I am embarrassed to say, even those in this very House. I was absolutely stunned recently when I heard the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Philip Ruddock, say in an interview that he did not think depression was seen as a mental illness by the broader community. This was in response to a question on whether he was concerned that DIMIA does not currently classify depression among detainees as a mental illness. One cannot help but wonder in which millennium Minister Ruddock lives or, possibly more pertinent, where he has been hibernating for the past 50 years or so. Depression is recognised nationally and internationally as a major mental disorder. Sadly, it is one of the most common forms of mental disorder suffered by our community today. Until Mr Ruddock and others in his position of responsibility come to terms with it, they are doing nothing—actually, they are doing more than nothing: they are doing harm—to raise the awareness and understanding towards mental illness. Having said that, I must be honest and say that this general ineptitude on behalf of the present Liberal government comes as no surprise to me. As always, when it comes to helping those who need it most, this government seems to take perverse pleasure at giving them even less.

To illustrate what I mean, for the year 2000 the Republic of Ireland spent just over eight per cent of its total health expenditure on mental health specific programs and for the year 1999-2000 the UK spent 6.6 per cent of the total UK Health Authority expenditure on mental health. But what about Australia? This government has the dishonour of having spent only 3.4 per cent of total health expenditure in 1999-2000 on mental health. Although this figure has recently risen—it is a bit sad, really, that it has actually risen to 3.4 per cent—it is still pitiful compared to what is actually needed in this area.

My condemnation is supported by the recent report Out of hospital, out of mind!—a report detailing mental health services in Australia in 2002 and community priorities for national mental health policy for 2003-2008. This Mental Health Council of Australia report highlights the inadequacy of the federal government's role and its disgraceful lack of contribution to this important issue. Of the many recommendations in this report, the first action that is noted as necessary is having real monetary investment. That means raising mental health expenditure to at least 12 per cent of total health expenditure. This is more than reasonable considering mental health accounts for at least 20 per cent of total health costs due to death and disability. Other First World countries, by comparison, already report spending between 10 and 14 per cent of their total health expenditure on mental health. This same report also notes that 38 per cent of persons with mental disorders access care from their GP. This accounts for about 10 million encounters with GPs per year, a total of about seven per cent of all problems managed by GPs. The premeditated and disgraceful decline in bulk-billing orchestrated by the Liberal government in the latest budget will therefore place further pressure on this already very limited access to basic care services necessary to persons with mental illness.

Another action the report calls for is real intent, accountability and national leadership. This means that under the auspices of the federal government there needs to be developed an agreement with state governments to support and review mental health reform. However, based on the absolute lack of interest and the arrogance shown by the health minister in her dealings with her state colleagues in the recent past, this will, unfortunately, also be a difficult aim to achieve for the present Liberal government.

On the subject of the input by the states, I take this opportunity to congratulate the Victorian state government for its continued effort in this area. Firstly, it should be noted that the states contribute nearly double the amount that the federal government contributes to mental health. Secondly, Victoria is the leading state in the extent of structural reform, with resource distribution greater than all jurisdictions combined. Thirdly, Victoria is the top-ranking jurisdiction in the development of disability support services provided through NGOs. Also very worthy of mention is that the Bracks government is funding 25 separate depression research projects through the Victorian Centre of Excellence in Depression and Related Disorders, to the tune of $2.1 million. This research funding is part of the Victorian Labor government's commitment of $3.5 million per year over five years toward the treatment of depression.

Lastly, and on a local level, I want to praise the continued work that is being done by Upton House, a mental illness facility within the Box Hill Hospital, an important hospital within my electorate. Their valuable, hands-on assistance to mental illness sufferers has been and continues to be exemplary and very worthy of mention.

In concluding, it is unfortunate yet quite apparent that those afflicted with a mental disorder, unlike others afflicted by other diseases, receive no sympathy. No-one laughs at or mocks a person with arthritis or diabetes, yet a person with a mental illness is very often ridiculed. This needs to stop. We as a parliament need to do more. This government needs to do more. I believe that, as the representatives of all Australians, we in this House are given the responsibility to ensure that all Australians are treated with dignity and respect. We must, therefore, set the example by providing these people that are in need and crying out for help with the support and assistance that they deserve and to which they are entitled. Regrettably, inaction and comments like those of Minister Ruddock just push this issue back into the Dark Ages, where the Liberal government has kept it for far too long.

On the issue of mental illness, I would like to commemorate the death of Greg Wilton, one of our colleagues, who took his own life. A mental disorder at the time probably contributed to his suicide. The system failed him. We spoke in this House at great length about needing to ensure that that did not happen again. To ensure that this situation does not happen again, we on both sides of this House need to realise that mental illness is a serious issue and accord it the attention it deserves.