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Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Page: 2128

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (6:00 PM) —I have just received a copy of the report and obviously have not had the opportunity to read it. I will just make some general observations and then seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Of course, suicide and suicide prevention are vitally important. As I said in the earlier matters of public importance debate, it is a false economy not to fund mental health properly because we ultimately all pay for that through the cost of suicide. I quoted figures showing six Australians a day die from suicide, and that is only the statistics that we know. Society ultimately pays for it through costs for policing, emergency hospital admissions, road accidents, unemployment, family dysfunction and other sad outcomes of mental illness.

My criticism of the government and its lack of action on mental health was shared by so many experts at the last federal election. When the government announced its $277 million spending in suicide prevention it was criticised, not because this was money that was not vitally needed in suicide prevention but because this was the sum total of what the government did for mental health. This was the only announcement in relation to mental health by the government, and that was done during the election campaign. Whilst it was welcomed, the scathing criticism of this government was directed towards the fact that it was the sum total. I can remind the Senate of comments that were made by Professor Mendoza, attacking the government’s announcement as just being mere tokenism. That was only one of the rather scathing comments that were made.

Regrettably, the issue before us today and what we discussed in matters of public importance highlights that suicide is vitally important and funding towards suicide prevention is vitally important. But that is not the sum total of mental illness and the spending that needs to happen for mental illness in this country.

Mental illness affects more Australians, as I said earlier, than other health disorders; only cancer and heart disease impact more people. Almost half our population experiences some form of mental disorder. Recent studies show that in any given year one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness. As I said, suicides are a portion of this, but where you have mental health being 13 per cent of the total burden of disease in Australia and only six per cent of the health budget you do see the need, and you do see why people like Professor McGorry, Professor Mendoza and so many other experts in this field have been so critical of the government for its lack of attention to mental illness.

We know that delays in accessing appropriate treatment and early intervention are not only damaging to young people but to people suffering from mental illness across the spectrum, and that social and family relationships suffer. In employment, secondary problems such as substance abuse, behavioural problems and the illness itself may become more deeply entrenched. Most people with mental illness in Australia have little access to appropriate professional care and, of course, if left untreated they become increasingly unwell. Then you have the vicious cycle of revolving door presentation at hospital emergency departments, confrontations with authorities, substance and alcohol abuse and homelessness. That all adds to the cost pressures in health care and also to the detrimental outcomes for sufferers.

As I said in the earlier debate, criticism of the government has been very much in relation to its inaction. I want to focus on this because the government missed its opportunity. The coalition has been very critical of the hospital grand plan. Indeed, we believe that monies should be better spent to assist mental health in this country—$1.5 billion was our policy. Money should not be pumped into needless state and territory bureaucracies, which is what the government’s grand hospital plan is all about. That money also builds on the single biggest investment in mental health, which was undertaken by the previous coalition government. It committed $1.9 billion over a five-year period for services not only for people with mental illness but also for their families and their carers.

Through that program we saw increased packages and increased access to psychiatrists, psychologists, GP mental health nurses and other health professionals. We saw the Better Access initiative, which this government attacked. It was not until the coalition, social workers and occupational therapists thumped the table and really made a big song and dance about what the government was doing that suddenly the Minister for Health and Ageing, Minister Roxon, had to do another government backflip and reverse her decision. That has been typical; we saw that initiative and we saw the day-to-day living program cut back by this government.

I hear Senator Moore and her colleagues come in here and attack me because I am being critical and political. Senator Moore, I am doing that because the government has failed. We sat through the COAG health reform inquiries and we heard expert after expert in the mental health area castigate the government in the most scathing of terms for its lack of action in mental health.

Certainly, the spending in relation to suicide prevention was welcomed; but, in the words of Professor Mendoza, it is just tokenism and it goes nowhere near the spending that is vitally necessary in this country to help with the one in five Australians—and, indeed, a staggering 65 per cent of sufferers—who battle their disorder alone or with the help of their families only. Indeed, Professor McGorry told the COAG health inquiry of the hidden waiting list of Australians desperately in need of mental health services, including three-quarters of a million young Australians. He was focusing on the expanded funding of headspace and EPIC programs, which of course are the focus of the coalition’s policy and were the focus of the motion that was passed by the Senate on 26 October. I hope that the motion will also be passed tomorrow in the other place.

The reality is that, sadly, Labor’s gross failure in mental health has been evidenced by the scathing criticism of so many people, including Professor McGorry; Professor John Mendoza, the former chair of the national advisory council who resigned in utter disgust at this government’s lack of inaction; and the Mental Health Council of Australia. To quote Professor Mendoza after resigning from his position on the advisory council:

It is now abundantly clear that there is no vision or commitment from the Rudd Government to mental health.

That came from the former chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.