Australia’s mental health system was ‘overwhelmed and on its knees even before the pandemic’, according to leading mental health advocate, Professor Patrick McGorry.
The former Australian of the Year and architect of the youth mental health service, Headspace, is calling for an urgent overhaul of the mental health system, saying the ‘precarious’ situation pre-COVID is now under much greater pressure.
‘To put it simply, the system is obsolete and fragile. There has been a tremendous underspend in mental health, and apart from notable oases of progress there hasn’t been systematic reform since the 1990s, he said.
‘There are probably now one to two million Australians – the ‘missing middle’ who don’t get access to proper mental health care, or what help they are getting just isn’t good enough.’
Professor McGorry says the events of 2020 have revealed the wide cracks in the system, describing the impact of COVID-19 and the severe economic downturn as ‘the perfect storm’ for mental health.
‘Our emergency response has been akin to using sandbags in a flood. But we are actually building on sand. The obsolete system we have in place isn’t properly designed to build on. However, recent federal initiatives, notably the one-stop-shop models of Headspace and adult hubs are creating foundations for the future.’
He says the longer the health crisis continues, the deeper the potential impacts. He has compared the mental health fallout this year to the psychological impact of the Great Depression.
‘Just look at the surveys which show the level of distress in the community. The longer the pandemic has gone on, the less accessible are the support services. The welcome telehealth reforms have created a safety net, but many professionals have been forced to step back and too many people have ended up desperately seeking help at the ED. And too many of these cases are just being sent away to fend for themselves.’
This year, organisations like Lifeline have seen a massive surge in calls, initially driven by bushfires, and then coronavirus.
When the Victorian Government locked down several building towers, Lifeline saw a 22 per cent increase in calls from the state. When stage four restrictions were announced, the calls from Victorians jumped by 30 per cent.
While praising all governments for recognising that mental health was a crucial issue and allocating funding packages to crisis responses and boosting public morale, Prof McGorry says it’s ‘too little, too late’ and new funding has to be strategically deployed, but rapidly so, by-passing the usual barriers and red tape.
He sees two opportunities for the federal government to urgently reset and start saving lives.
The first is the 6 October federal budget where Prof McGorry is calling for a substantial but targeted mental health rescue package to be announced to underpin our nation’s COVID survival and recovery. This needs to set the scene for a stepwise rebuild of a 21st century system of equal quality with physical health.
‘We need some serious resources and momentum to save lives and futures. Throughout COVID all the effort has been on fighting the virus, and that’s appropriate. There’s been much less emphasis on mental health, however, and the toll is really starting to reveal itself.’
The second opportunity for government comes with the development of a new national mental health reform plan to address mental illness.
‘The 2030 plan being developed by the National Mental Health Commission for Health Minister Greg Hunt needs to be put on steroids and achieve lift-off by the May budget next year,’ Prof McGorry said.
He says young people are being disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic.
Modelling undertaken before the situation in Victoria deteriorated showed nationwide there may be a 25 per cent increase in suicides, and it is likely that about 30 per cent of those will be among young people
Last week, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed there had been a 26.7% increase in young people presenting to emergency departments for intentional self-harm.
‘Tragically our young people are bearing so much of the brunt of this pandemic, and their futures are under a dark cloud,’ Prof McGorry said.
‘School leavers have had their studies severely disrupted, students at university face bleak job prospects, and the predictions are that many young Australians will face long periods of unemployment before the economy recovers.
‘Add to this during lockdown the things that make our life worth living, music and the arts, other sports and leisure pursuits and spending time with friends, have largely been taken away. It’s been a very bleak ordeal.’
Professor McGorry says the other threat to mental health is recession and unemployment and he’s urged the Government to ‘strengthen the safety nets’ including extending JobKeeper and JobSeeker and boosting skills training and tertiary education to provide the support people need to get through to the other side of the pandemic.
‘As long as the jobs and the support are there, there is real hope,’ he added.
If you know someone who needs help:
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467