The Guardian 26 October, 2005

Mental health system "broken and failing"

Australia’s mental health services are seriously inadequate, resulting in thousands languishing on the streets or in prison, according to a report released last week. Not For Service provides a detailed, state-by-state assessment of government failure and the critical underfunding of an escalating problem.

"We have a broken and failing mental health care system", said Keith Wilson, the Chair of the Mental Health Council of Australia.

"We found that Australians with a mental illness and their carers are suffering every day because they cannot get the help they need."

Not For Service is based on research involving thousands of Australians sharing their stories. It details personal stories of people with mental illness, and their families and carers, along with the strong views of doctors, nurses, psychologists, police and others caring for the mentally ill.

Among the tragic stories recounted are numerous telling of how people committed suicide after being repeatedly turned away from hospitals despite begging for assessments or admission.

The Report notes that there are 705,000 people receiving the Disability Support Pension in Australia, and that almost half of them have a mental illness.

In comparable OECD countries 70 percent of those people would be working. However, due to a lack of support and services Australia’s figure is only 10 percent.

Human Rights Commissioner Dr Sev Ozdowski said that mental health was not just a social issue but also a human rights issue.

"Australia is a party to several international human rights treaties, two of which explicitly recognise the right of everyone, especially children and youth, to the highest attainable standard of mental health care. Yet despite the fact that mental disorders are one of the largest single components of Australia’s disease burden, mental health care is still not a priority — this has to change", Dr Ozdowski said.

Reaction to the Report varied from government to government.

Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott put the blame on the decentralised health systems in Australia, and said states should hand over their healthcare systems to the Federal Government.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie quickly accepted full responsibility for the state of mental health care in his state and pledged action.

In comparison, a very defensive response came from the state that was most heavily criticised — NSW.

NSW Health Minster John Hatzistergos hit back at the Report denying that the mental health crisis in that state was as bad as the Report made out.

"It should be noted that the Mental Health Council’s research methodology was limited…" was one criticism.

And: "The report’s criticisms of the level of community based mental health care in NSW are not valid".

Despite a lengthy press release from Mr Hatzistergos outlining the state’s increases in funding and improvements in some areas, there are stark statistics which illustrate the problem.

The NSW Health Department has a target of 31 mental health beds per 100,000 adult residents. The current rate is 22.

And while the Department has increased the number of acute mental health beds by 12 percent over the last three years, the number of acutely ill patients presenting to hospitals has risen 27 percent over the same period.

Bureaucrats in Mr Hatzistergos’ Department were a little more forthcoming. The Acting Deputy Director-General of Strategic Development admitted the situation in NSW was "pretty bad".

NSW spends the least amount of money per capita on mental health of all Australian States and Territories.

"Yes there is a big problem out there … it is not a decade of under-investment, it is 50 years of under-investment."

The Report also made note of the discrepancy in funding in NSW between health care and "law and order", a point picked up on by Greens MP Sylvia Hale.

"The Government should be providing mental health services … not building more prisons", said MS Hale.

There are huge profits to be made in private prisons — money which if spent on mental health services could do a great deal to reduce the prison population as well as ease the suffering of thousands of Australians.

"Around 30% of prison inmates suffer from a mental illness. Mental health patients are ending up in jails because there are so few services to care for them in the community…

"Prisons have become the new asylums."

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