In a statement this morning, the Chair of Australia’s Mental Health Commission Professor, Alan Fels, has criticised both major parties for failing to represent the interests of Australians for better mental health care. He said, “On behalf of the more than 3 million Australians who will experience a mental health difficulty this year, and their families and support people, I feel compelled to speak out…This deafening silence on mental health cannot be justified.”
Shortly thereafter he was joined by Chair of the Mental Health Council of Australia (MHCA), Frank Quinlan, who highlighted the fact that both major parties have so far failed to come forward with any significant mental health policies in the lead-up to the election. The MHCA has demanded a ten year action plan to reform our mental health system.
These powerful statements reflect the experience we have had in trying to find out where each of the major parties stand on mental health care. Federal Labor has stonewalled us for 2 years on questions about whether they intend to restore the Better Access to Mental Health Care program or if they intend to cut it back even further. Although the Coalition have been somewhat more open to discussion, they have so far offered us no reaassurances about whether Medicare access to psychological care will be improved until there is a major review of the system. The reality is we can’t afford to just sit in silence. Australian voters deserve to know ahead of the election what each major party intends to do. We are stuck at the traffic lights and waiting.
The outspoken comments from Fels and Quinlan follow the Greens release of a mental health policy statement. The Greens are the first political party to have made a specific policy statement about Better Access to Mental Health Care. Our hope is that they have paved the way for other political parties to now come forward. The good news is that the Greens have recognised the importance of Medicare support for access to psychological care.
The bad news is that they are not recommending that the program be fully restored. When the scheme was launched in 2006 the Better Access program allowed a person diagnosed with a mental health condition to receive up to 18 sessions of therapy if needed. This approaches the minimum standards set by research which recommend that we allow access to between 15 and 20 sessions. Some of you will recall that when the cuts to Better Access were first announced by Labor the Greens responded by proposing a disallowance motion to overturn the decision. A few months later they said “time is ticking” for the Government to address the lack of access to psychological care, compromising on access to 16 sessions rather than 18 until other services meet the need. At the start of this year time ran out and access was restricted to 10 appointments with alternative treatment programs failing to keep up with demands. Offering a mere 16 sessions was meant to be an interim measure to help us get by when the reality is that most people need more time to recover.
The other difficulty with the Greens policy is the terminology around people having to demonstrate “exceptional circumstances” when more than 10 appointments are needed. To avoid stigmatising those who seek help for mental health conditions we need to take care with the language we use. Given that the research shows that the majority of people have not recovered after 10 appointments, is it fair to say that those who need more than 10 sessions are an exceptional case?
Setting those challenges aside, we are relieved that finally a political party has put something on the table. We know that this issue matters to Australian voters simply by the statistics. The figures are repeated each year ad nauseum reminding everyone that vast numbers of people live with common mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. We know that most people don’t look for help even when they do need it. Most Australians are genuinely concerned but so few will speak out and our politicians now take that for granted. It isn’t that voters don’t care, but rather, that our political representatives have so far dodged taking any real action to address the problem.
Let’s hear from all political parties about what they will do to restore Better Access to Mental Health Care. Minor parties can’t do this alone, so we need to hear from every side of politics, big and small. The Greens have started the conversation, now lets keep it going with some genuine heartfelt dialogue and constructive ideas about what to do next.
We agree with Professor Alan Fels: “Our political leaders talk about building “a stronger Australia”, about “a new way” forward. Well, there is no better place to start than our mental health and wellbeing,” We also agree with the Australian Psychological Society who say that we need to put mental health on the election agenda. Politicians, it is now up to you.
Want to help?
Please start by signing our petition at Change.org and if you can spare a few minutes, write to the Prime Minister and the Federal Minister for Mental Health, Jacinta Collins. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter to connect with others who care about this issue.