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Tuesday, 8 February 2005
Page: 70


Senator ALLISON (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (5:04 PM) —It would not be the first time that tragic events have put someone with a mental illness into the headlines in this country. A couple of years ago we had numerous police shootings in Victoria involving people with mental illness. More recently, we had patients being shackled and guarded by security personnel in South Australia. The tragedy of people on the treadmill of illness, homelessness, incarceration and often suicide now and again gets media attention. But none of the public outrage that is attached to those stories appears to make much difference to the way people with mental illness are treated in this country. We heard from the minister today that mental health services are all up to the states, despite the fact that what is called the National Mental Health Strategy is supposed to be in place. It is a fine document and it has worthy aims, but it is not being implemented and it does not have the funding, either at the federal or the state level, to put it into place. In this latest incident, I think the victim of neglect, misunderstanding, misdiagnosis and mistreatment can point very clearly to the government for the situation that has transpired.

The Democrats are disappointed in the inquiry which has been announced today. It is not a public inquiry; it is going to be conducted behind closed doors. It will not have powers to call witnesses and to seek evidence. In our view, an inquiry should have been conducted by a judge and it should have had those powers. It should not be conducted behind closed doors. It could be made confidential where necessary, but secrecy about the evidence seems to us to be unnecessary. Those aspects of the inquiry that could impinge on Cornelia Rau’s privacy could be kept closed while it remains an open inquiry about the practices of the various agencies. That is what we are talking about here today—the treatment of someone with a mental illness who has ended up not just in prison but subsequently in a detention centre when there was clearly no reason why they should be there.

We also think there needs to be an inquiry, in addition to what should have been a judicial inquiry but is now just a private inquiry, into the state of Australia’s mental health services. We think that, given the number of people with mental illness who are not receiving treatment, given the failure of the national strategy to deliver and given the number of people who, as I said, are in this cycle of homelessness, despair, lack of treatment and sometimes suicide, we have a very serious situation on our hands. One of the reasons this is the case is that Australia spends on mental health services around half the percentage of the health budget that countries such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom do. As I understand it, it is just five per cent of the health budget, yet the mental health burden, if you like, is around twice that at 10 or 11 per cent.

I think there are some questions we need to have the government answer. We need to know how many people have become mentally ill since the government put them into detention centres, how many have been found to be refugees and released into the community without access to Medicare but who have serious mental problems and how many are suffering from a mental illness which has been caused by their detention.

On Friday, I went to the Maribyrnong detention centre. I regularly visit that place. I met with an Iranian asylum seeker who has been there for a long period of time. He is now on a cocktail of medication related to mental illness. When this man came into detention, he was not sick and he was fit. I argue today in the Senate that incarceration, particularly for very long periods of time and particularly where there is no end date in sight—that is, the government does not indicate to those detainees when they are likely to be released—in fact causes mental illness. I think that is what ought to be examined in the Senate inquiry that the Democrats are proposing.

Let us just look at some of the recorded impacts of detention and mental illness. We know that there is limited access to mental health services. The man whom I visited is on medication, but he does not have access to psychologists and psychiatrists. One of the reasons he does not is that he does not wish to be handcuffed when he leaves the detention centre. That is one of the conditions on his seeking and receiving that treatment. There is limited research into the impact of detention on the mental health of asylum seekers, which is mainly due to difficulty in getting access to that evidence. But there is evidence that detention and the treatment that asylum seekers receive in detention contributes to high levels of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm and suicidal behaviour.

A study reported in the Medical Journal of Australia found that all but one of the detained asylum seekers who participated in the study displayed symptoms of psychological distress at some time. At the time of the study, 85 per cent reported chronic depression, 65 per cent had pronounced suicidal ideation and 20 per cent exhibited signs of psychosis. We also know that in our prisons there are vast numbers of people who suffer from mental disorders. In prison those conditions are far more common than in the general population. For psychosis, less than half a per cent of the general population has that condition compared with nine per cent in prisons. For affective disorders—for example, depression—it is six per cent in the general population and 22 per cent amongst inmates. For anxiety disorders, it is 10 per cent in the general population and 43 per cent amongst inmates. For substance abuse disorders, it is five per cent in the general population and 57 per cent amongst inmates. I think that gives us some insight into the cycle. (Time expired)