The National Mental Health Commission’s review of mental health services provides the blueprint to begin long overdue reform to mental health services now. Consumers, their families and health professionals are looking for action. John Mendoza’s message to the Prime Minister? The ball’s in your court. Seize the opportunity in front of you and make change now.
John Mendoza writes:
A week is a long time in politics, and a week has past since the leaking of the National Mental Health Commission’s four-volume 700-page review of mental health services in Australia.
The Commission cleverly packaged the report so that Volume 1 included an action agenda that can be implemented immediately. Not as part of the 2016 budget, not after the next election due in late 2016, but now.
And action has never been more necessary.
Since the public disclosure of my family’s loss on the ABC’s 7.30 program, I have been contacted by hundreds of Australians who want decisive action not endless talk about reform.
Just as I lost my nephew Jeff, so too many of those who have contacted me have lost their beloved family members, friends and colleagues.
I have received on almost daily basis, reports of suicides in the past seven weeks in regional Australia. In every one of these cases, these involved people unable to access any care or anything like adequate care.
These are deaths that I believe could have been avoided had the right care, at the right time, been afforded.
The Abbott Government’s response to the Commission’s review to establish four Expert Reference Groups and even more consultation not only insults the millions of Australians affected by mental illnesses, it brings into question the Prime Minister’s sincerity with regard to his promises while in Opposition, and upon election, to reform mental health.
The report released by the Government under duress on Thursday, after five months, is the latest in a very, very long line of reviews and expert reports. But it is the first honest appraisal of the current situation by a government body.
Most importantly, it sets out nine priority areas for action with 25 clear and implementable recommendations, outlining a new way of supporting the mental health needs of Australians.
The terms of reference set out by the Prime Minister asked for plan – a realistic and achievable plan – that could be implemented within the constraints of the current health budget.
And that is precisely what the Commission has delivered. On a platter, served hot.
The review sets out a comprehensive and coherent plan much of which is the direct and sole responsibility of the Abbott Government.
A key underpinning of the report is that there are structural shortcomings with our system – a point the Health Minister, Sussan Ley, acknowledged in her response on Thursday.
There is no good reason why Australians should be content with a health system that provides the world’s best care when it comes to cancer or cardio-vascular issues, but accepts a broken system of mental health care. No justifiable reason.
The irony is not lost on me. We have world-leading mental health researchers and practitioners in Australia, and yet we are not seeing a reduction in our suicide rates and where suicide now accounts for over 85,000 years of life lost to premature death.
What we are seeing is a system that, despite the expertise of its professionals, is disjointed and floundering doing it’s best to save lives, against the odds. We have the knowledge about how to fix the system, and we have the Federal Government already spending more than $10 billion this year, but five months after the completion of the review it is crystal clear we do have the political will to address mental health.
The report is crystal clear about out what can be achieved within this existing budget. No one would argue mental health is not in need of substantially more investment but the Commission was asked to work within the existing funding envelope.
As the head of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott, said last year, ‘the business case for this decade of change is not only morally and socially compelling, it is economically fundamental’.
Given the rapidly deteriorating fiscal environment for all governments, there is also no argument for failing to adopt recommendations that will produce significant savings over the medium and longer terms.
The Commission has carefully, deliberately and extensively consulted – there can be no mistaking the clear and resounding voices of mental health consumers and practitioners alike – the system is broken and change needs to begin now!
The Government’s announcement of four expert committees and a COAG working group is the misguided. If she had been briefed she would know that these structures have existed a very long time.
The Government must do two things: firstly, move in this budget to implement the recommendations in the review specifically those relating to suicide prevention, headspace, primary health networks and frontline services.
Secondly, to ensure the momentum of reform is not lost as we have seen repeatedly, the Government must commit to a National Mental Health Reform Compact through COAG and a national Mental Health Reform Act that will provide a robust and ongoing mechanism for reform.
The Prime Minister made mental health a focus in his election campaign in 2010 and 2013. The ball is now firmly in his court.
The Prime Minister must seize the opportunity right in front of him to make real change, right now.