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Monday, 7 March 2005
Page: 139

Senator TIERNEY (9:50 PM) —I rise tonight to draw to the attention of the Senate the needs of the mentally ill, their families and mental health workers in Australia, and to discuss the need for a review of the funding and resource allocations nationally in the area of mental health through the establishment of a comprehensive parliamentary mental health inquiry. It needs to be a national inquiry because we are facing a national mental health crisis: statistics now indicate that one in five Australians will experience a mental illness at some stage in their lives and that almost every family in Australia will be touched directly by mental illness. With existing services poorly funded and under ever-increasing pressure, the mental health system is in crisis. The gap between the burden of mental illness in our society and the amount of funding being allocated is stark, and action needs to be taken.

Twenty-two years have passed since the Richmond report recommended moving people with mental illnesses out of psychiatric institutions and into the community. The state governments’ resulting programs of deinstitutionalisation were supposed to move people out of institutional care and into community homes with supervision and care, but the necessary state funding never followed the patients into the community. Brian Burdekin, former commissioner for human rights, has acknowledged that deinstitutionalisation has largely failed because not enough resources have been allocated to front-line services by state governments. This means that, despite applauding mental health plans, families are struggling to get access to services quickly when they need the support most.

While the Australian government funding for mental health increased by 128 per cent or $643 million between 1993 and 2002, the state governments have lagged behind appallingly, with a combined 40 per cent increase over the same period. State governments are spending less than $100 a year on mental health for every Australian. This is simply not good enough. It is the states that are constitutionally responsible for mental health and yet it is the federal government that is increasing funding and setting the agenda for mental health reform in this country.

Nationally, we are now in the early stages of the third national mental health plan, which will run from 2003 to 2008. It is a fine plan and it has been agreed to by the federal and all state and territory governments. This plan has received favourable international recognition, but there is no point having a fantastic plan if there is not enough money to implement it. Professor Ian Hickie, Executive Director of the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Sydney, recently said that, despite having a world-best national policy for the past 12 years, Australia has failed to fund mental health adequately. Mental illness represents, according to Professor Hickie, 14 per cent of Australia’s disease burden but receives only 6.4 per cent of health funding.

It is for these reasons that it is necessary to examine properly the adequacy of mental health services in Australia. We need to understand the current level of resources directed to mental health, the allocation of these resources and the role that the states play in their delivery. We need to look at the division of responsibility between the Commonwealth and the states, whether the states are meeting their responsibilities to those who are suffering from mental health issues and all the aspects of how mental health services are delivered in this country. It is now time to try to determine how we can better manage mental health funding, resource allocation and service delivery.

I therefore have worked with other senators to establish a Senate select committee to inquire into mental health services. This committee will conduct a broad-ranging inquiry into mental health services right across Australia. The inquiry will investigate the lack of hospital and community care, chronic shortages in crisis services and the growing demand for care of the young, the homeless and people in custody. The establishment of this inquiry has been supported by mental health leaders, who acknowledge that the system is dramatically underfunded and underserviced. The chairman of beyondblue, the Hon. Jeff Kennett, has welcomed the inquiry and called for this inquiry to develop a blueprint for the future in terms of resourcing and funding. Like Mr Kennett, I am committed to ensuring that both individuals and organisations, particularly the professionals associated with treating those with mental illness and their families, have proper access to this inquiry. The Senate inquiry will also examine issues affecting Indigenous Australians, carers, children and people living in rural and regional areas. The over-representation of people with mental illnesses in prisons and the need for public education so as to remove any stigma will also be examined.

Like many developed countries, Australia needs to further integrate mental health services—not only into the community but also into the primary health care system. In particular, we need to balance resources and the disease burden of mental health. The states are clearly not delivering when it comes to allocating resources to those who are in need and those who support those people in need, such as GPs, nurses, social workers and other health care practitioners who are on the front line. Over the next eight years, from 2005 to 2013, the states need to bring into line the proportion of their health budget that goes to mental health so that it matches the proportion of the total disease burden that mental ill-health represents. In particular, we need to rebalance these resources.

The latest national mental health report states that, while Australia has made significant progress against the national reform agenda, there are many challenges still to be addressed. The number of mentally ill people who are committing suicide is rising, families do not have access to the services they so desperately need and state governments are simply not allocating the funds necessary to help people suffering from mental illness and to help those service providers on the front line.