Mental Health In 2020
10 November 2020
This year has been tough for so many Australians. We've faced the 'black summer' bushfires, floods and, of course, the virus. More than at any other time in recent decades, Australians have relied on mental health support to help them through this year. Only on the way into the House this morning, I heard from a father who had lost his son due to mental health issues. Since March, Beyond Blue have seen an increase in demand for counselling services of between 30 and 40 per cent each month, peaking at the height of the pandemic in May. ReachOut saw a 48 per cent increase in its youth, parent and school services from March to May, with more than 184,000 extra people accessing support, and most seeking assistance due to COVID-19.
Labor has been constructive and has offered bipartisan support throughout the government's response to the pandemic. We've welcomed the government's $74 million for preventative health measures and the $48.1 million for the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan. We were relieved, as were so many Australians, particularly in regional and remote Australia, when the government increased the number of telehealth services from 10 to 20 across Australia, and we're pleased to see this change reflected in the budget.
However, there is a gap and lag between announcements and delivery, and this is hurting Australians. Last year I raised with the minister the National Children's Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy announced in August 2019. We supported the strategy then and still do today. It is well established that half of all mental health conditions experienced across our life spans have started by the age of 14. This is why I was disappointed to hear in Senate estimates that the strategy will not be finalised until at least June next year, nearly two years after the minister's announcement. A draft strategy is due this month. My question to the minister is: has the minister received a draft yet? If not, does the minister expect to see the strategy this month? During a global pandemic, a national coordinated approach to children's mental health is now even more urgent.
I turn now to the Productivity Commission report into mental health, which presents an opportunity to address the growing mental health challenges faced by all Australians. I want to acknowledge all of those individuals, organisations and advocates in the sector who have contributed by making submissions through this process. Before coming to this place, I worked as a pharmacist, for much of the time in acute adult mental health inpatient units. Every day I saw firsthand the circumstances of people's lives that led to mental health crisis, emergency and acute admission. I was part of a team stretched and at times buckling under the strain of growing demand and scarce resources. Minister, I'm not sure if you know what it feels like to be part of a team where you see someone who needs help, and you know that help should be available, but in a wealthy country like Australia we can't provide it. Minister, why do we have this narrowcast view of health which means that vulnerable people in acute crisis, particularly in regional and remote Australia, cannot get the help they need when they need it? Teams are under extraordinary strain, and people are discharged to the circumstances that made them sick. I've seen people discharged to caravan parks and to caves. Why, in a wealthy country like Australia, in the middle of a pandemic, is the only safe place for someone sometimes a public hospital bed? It's just not right. The Productivity Commission report gives the chance to address the issues at the cause—the underlying problems of unemployment, education, housing, the burden of which is carried disproportionately by those in our society who have the least. Where you are born, live and grow up in Australia matters.
The terms of reference for the inquiry into mental health were released in November 2018, nearly two years ago. The PC's interim report into mental health was released in October last year. The final report has been sitting with the government for five months. Professor Ian Hickie of the Brain and Mind Centre said before the budget that it was essential the government release the report 'because we need a large, systemic and informed response in the October budget'. That opportunity has now been missed. Instead, the government handed down its budget last month and missed the opportunity to respond to the PC report on mental health. A response now appears unlikely before the next budget. If that is the case, it will be 2½ years between it being announced and any action or response by this government. Minister, when will the report be released, and what process is in place for consultation to take place before the government's response? In Senate estimates we heard reports suggesting that health officials were unsure whether they had received the final version of the report. It's been with the government since June. Minister, does the health department have the final version of the report, and who else has been involved in this process?
I want to finish by saying: this is urgent; it matters. I know you are genuine and you care. What we now need to see is action.