Mental wellbeing a poll issue
Mental health remains a concern for voters despite government spending increases. Health editor Adam Cresswell reports
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.
Concerned: Jon Kroschel of Alfred Psychiatry, right, with Stav Stathopoulos, centre, and Rohan Reid, left, in a supported accommodation centre in Melbourne