Men­tal well­be­ing a poll is­sue

Men­tal health re­mains a con­cern for vot­ers de­spite gov­ern­ment spend­ing in­creases. Health ed­i­tor Adam Cress­well re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

MEN­TAL health ad­vo­cacy groups, ex­perts and com­men­ta­tors lined up to ap­plaud John Howard when he an­nounced a $1.8 bil­lion boost to treat­ment and other ser­vices in April last year.

While many cau­tioned that it could only be wel­comed on the un­der­stand­ing that much more was still nec­es­sary to cor­rect past un­der­fund­ing, the over­all re­ac­tion was nev­er­the­less un­wa­ver­ingly pos­i­tive.

As the shift in the tone of me­dia cov­er­age over sub­se­quent weeks showed, the im­pres­sion seep­ing into the pub­lic con­scious­ness was that while not nec­es­sar­ily fixed, the wellpub­li­cised prob­lems plagu­ing the men­tal health were well on the way to be­ing so.

But the re­sults of a new sur­vey by a re­spected men­tal health or­gan­i­sa­tion sug­gest that those at the re­ceiv­ing end of men­tal health ser­vices re­main far from sat­is­fied by the Prime Min­is­ter’s in­ter­ven­tion.

The Men­tal Ill­ness Fel­low­ship of Aus­tralia has just re­leased the find­ings of a sur­vey it con­ducted in­volv­ing 2286 Aus­tralians.

While not all par­tic­i­pants re­sponded to all the ques­tions, the re­sults make clear that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity be­lieve wide de­fi­cien­cies re­main — in­clud­ing in ar­eas such as hous­ing avail­abil­ity, em­ploy­ment op­tions and so­cial se­cu­rity.

One ques­tion asked whether par­tic­i­pants be­lieved ‘‘ gov­ern­men­tal han­dling of men­tal health is­sues’’ had im­proved or wors­ened over the last fed­eral par­lia­men­tary term.

Con­trary to what the gen­eral pub­lic might ex­pect, seven out of eight of the 1345 who re­sponded to this ques­tion (87.5 per cent) thought mat­ters had ei­ther stayed about the same or got worse.

As both ma­jor par­ties con­tin­ued to make an­nounce­ments on how they would fur­ther im­prove men­tal health ser­vices if elected, a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion — 87 per cent — said men­tal health is­sues would af­fect their vote in the loom­ing fed­eral elec­tion.

Lack of suit­able hous­ing was ranked in the top three most press­ing is­sues by 70 per cent of re­spon­dents, while 60 per cent cited em­ploy­ment sup­port and 48.6 per cent cited ed­u­ca­tion and sup­port for fam­i­lies of men­tally ill peo­ple and the pub­lic.

The great ma­jor­ity — 82.2 per cent — said they were dis­ap­pointed with the gov­ern­ment’s per­for­mance on hous­ing for peo­ple with a men­tal ill­ness.

Peo­ple ques­tioned as part of the sur­vey were drawn from the gen­eral pub­lic (45.6 per cent of the sam­ple), peo­ple with men­tal ill­nesses (21.1 per cent), and fam­ily mem­bers and car­ers (38.1 per cent).

Mem­bers of lo­cal men­tal health fel­low­ships ac­counted for 19 per cent, but this group in­cluded some peo­ple who were also fam­ily mem­bers or peo­ple with men­tal ill­nesses, which means the to­tal does not add up to 100 per cent.

Jon Kroschel, a con­sumer con­sul­tant with Al­fred Psy­chi­a­try in Melbourne, who has suf­fered from ma­jor clin­i­cal de­pres­sion in the past and used men­tal health ser­vices him­self, says he is ‘‘ not sur­prised’’ by the find­ings — al­though he agrees they may well sur­prise the gen­eral com­mu­nity who have less to do with the cash-strapped sec­tor.

‘‘ One of the prob­lems with the way gov­ern­ments give in­for­ma­tion to the com­mu­nity is that it ($1.8 bil­lion) sounds like a lot of money,’’ he says.

‘‘ But when you break that down into five years, and break it down again into eight states and ter­ri­to­ries, and in Vic­to­ria, break it down again into 22 area health ser­vices — af­ter all that it’s equiv­a­lent to the cost of hir­ing one staff mem­ber.

‘‘ If the com­mu­nity was told about it in that sort of lan­guage, they would be ou­traged.’’

The CEO of the Men­tal Ill­ness Fel­low­ship of Vic­to­ria, Mar­garet Spring­gay, says while a lot of money has been pumped into im­proved treat­ment ser­vices as a re­sult of the gov­ern­ment’s in­ter­ven­tion, ‘‘ the is­sues sur­round­ing men­tal health are much larger than just treat­ment’’.

‘‘ Peo­ple with a men­tal ill­ness need a safe and se­cure en­vi­ron­ment to achieve sta­bil­ity and to dis­cour­age re­lapses,’’ she says. ‘‘ That means ap­pro­pri­ate hous­ing and the fed­eral Gov­ern­ment has a real re­spon­si­bil­ity to im­prove th­ese ser­vices.’’

Psy­chi­a­try ex­perts have pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fied short and medium-term step-down beds, where pa­tients can go as a half-way house to con­tinue their re­cov­ery af­ter a spell in an acute fa­cil­ity, as among the most press­ing is­sues in ac­com­mo­da­tion needs.

The fed­eral Gov­ern­ment has been firm in the past in de­scrib­ing this as a state re­spon­si­bil­ity — one rea­son that Mr Howard called on states to match his $1.8 bil­lion in­jec­tion, later in­creased to $1.9 bil­lion.

Pic­ture: Richard Cisar-Wright

Con­cerned: Jon Kroschel of Al­fred Psy­chi­a­try, right, with Stav Stathopou­los, cen­tre, and Rohan Reid, left, in a sup­ported ac­com­mo­da­tion cen­tre in Melbourne

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