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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Page: 6177

Dr SOUTHCOTT (8:30 PM) —I rise this evening to speak on a topic which is often ignored, the topic of mental health. Mental illness is prevalent in our society. One in every five Australians is likely to experience some form of mental illness each year. It costs the Australian economy, in terms of lost productivity and lost lives, around $30 billion each year. Yet it remains an area which is underfunded and poorly serviced by both state and federal governments. I would like to pay tribute to the work of beyondblue and their chair, a former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett. I think they have done enormous good in helping people to recognise mood disorders like depression and also in trying to change the community approach towards mental illness, to help to destigmatise mental illness.

The greatest burden falls on the families of those with mental illness. Families often do the bulk of caring with insufficient support or understanding from the wider community. Research shows that most mental illnesses begin between the ages of 15 and 25. Family breakdowns, peer group pressure and social ostracism can all play contributing roles, leading to the onset of mental illness. We need to do more to support our young people and ensure they receive the treatment and support they need when they need it.

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released this week shows that the number of hospital beds for mental health is declining by an average of almost four per cent a year. We need certainty that public hospitals are equipped to deal with increasing numbers of patients with mental health concerns. We need certainty that we have appropriately trained mental health specialists and nursing staff who can treat these patients, and we need certainty that these people will receive appropriate support in the community.

In my home state of South Australia, we have a state government which is more interested in establishing a movie hub than helping those with mental illness. The Rann government have committed to selling 42 per cent of the land at Glenside, where our major mental health facility is. Whilst happy to commit to photo-opportunities, they persist in neglecting mental health initiatives that would benefit vulnerable South Australians.

Country areas are particularly badly serviced by mental health services. Natural disasters—droughts, floods or bushfires—can exacerbate the pressure on many Australians living in rural areas. Suicides in regional and remote parts of Australia are 1.2 to 2.4 times higher than those in major cities. These areas in particular need better support services.

The former coalition government acknowledged the importance of mental health, committing $1.9 billion to mental health in the 2006 budget. That was a very far-reaching reform. We introduced new Medicare rebates to enable people with mental illnesses to access improved services from GPs and psychiatrists and, on referral, from clinical psychologists. The Rudd government have shown no such empathy for those with mental illness. One of their recent budget decisions was to remove access to Medicare benefits for occupational therapists and social workers. Fortunately, this ill-thought-through decision lasted only a week, with a whole sector up in arms and with many of the most vulnerable in our community affected by this, before another spectacular Rudd government backflip.

The criticism of lack of action by the government has been widespread. Only this week we have seen the resignation of the government’s own appointment, John Mendoza, who was the head of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, due to his frustration at a lack of action and vision on the part of the government. Professor Mendoza was specifically appointed to this position by the Prime Minister, yet after two years of inaction and nothing but rhetoric he has conceded that the government has no vision for mental health and has decided he can better serve this cause in another role.

With appropriate treatment and early intervention, people can often recover from mental illness. But it is vital that the necessary treatments and supports be made available, allowing people to lead fulfilling lives. These vulnerable Australians have been let down by the Rudd Labor government. This government has failed to invest in the mental health initiatives and necessary services that could assist people with mental illness to manage their illness or recover over time.