Addressing Mental Health

Addressing Mental Health Main Image

24 November 2021

I'd like to start by acknowledging the work of the chair, Dr Fiona Martin, the member for Reid. Fiona and I share a deep mutual interest in the work of this committee, and her background and experience is evident in this final report. Fiona, you are honouring the memory of Brett. My Labor colleagues and friends, the member for Werriwa and the member for Macquarie, who, through quarantine and whilst supporting their own communities through the pandemic, committed fully to the work of this committee, championing access and affordability for the millions of Australians living in the outer suburbs and the regions. I would also like to thank the many individuals and organisations who made submissions and gave evidence to this inquiry. It is as the member for Reid has said: it is our responsibility to you to see these words translate into action and meaningful change.

The risk to Australians' mental health and wellbeing through COVID-19 has often been described as the shadow pandemic. The loss of loved ones, separation from family and friends, business closures and job losses have had a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of hundreds and thousands of Australians. This has been particularly felt in the states, who, in keeping all Australians safe, endured long and repeated lockdowns, for which we are all very grateful. Many Australians have lived through COVID-19 while enduring bushfires, floods, droughts and other natural disasters. These events have further exposed the gaps in Australia's mental health systems and the growing disparity of access and affordability, especially for those living outside of big cities. This burden, carried disproportionately by the most vulnerable in our communities, has been brought into sharper focus through the global pandemic. Unless we as a country address inequities to access to services and the underlying social determinants, including housing, employment and education, we won't see a significant shift in our lifetimes so that, wherever you're born and wherever you live, grow up and age in Australia, you enjoy a good quality of life.

This is about people, and it's about the economy. The Productivity Commission found that in 2018-19, prior to COVID-19 and the Black Summer bushfires, the annual cost of mental ill health and suicide was around, as the chair has said, $70 billion. As can be seen from the reviews cited in the terms of reference for this inquiry, considerable work has already been undertaken to examine this problem and to recommend action. The Productivity Commission inquiry report Mental health, the report of the National Suicide Prevention Office and the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System have all made recommendations on how to improve the provision of mental health services. But what is needed is a sense of urgency—swift action to implement the recommendations in this report and preceding reports and proper funding to allow this to happen.

A key recommendation of this report is accessibility. It must be front of mind for researchers, policymakers, practitioners and funders. As evidence has shown and lived experience tells, accessibility is most acute for the most vulnerable Australians—those on low or fixed incomes, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and those living outside of big cities. It is urgent, and we must act.

Then there are carers. The current mental health system does not work well to support those caring for people living with mental ill health. Despite their roles and significant responsibilities, carers often feel left out and overlooked. The report recommends a national carer strategy which includes a way for unpaid carers to be integrated into care teams and to access training for suicide awareness, risk and prevention, and a clear pathway for engagement for carer advocates and representative bodies. This must happen.

As a pharmacist, I understand the valuable role of pharmacists and other allied health workers in mental health and suicide prevention. Community pharmacists are often the first point of contact for many people experiencing mental ill health problems. Their role can span through to key members of multidisciplinary teams in acute inpatient settings. To support pharmacists in this role, the committee recommends evaluation of pharmacy mental health training and support for more mental health training for pharmacists and pharmacy staff.

My own experience as a pharmacist working in acute adult inpatient mental health units at Wyong hospital in the electorate I represent largely led to me being in this place. I worked alongside dedicated and capable nurses, social workers, OTs, psychologists and doctors doing their very best in a system under enormous strain. I saw firsthand the circumstances of people's lives that led to sometimes lengthy inpatient stays in stretched and underfunded public adult mental health units, only to be discharged often to the circumstances that made them sick. We discharged people to couches, to caravans, to caves. In a community where rents in the private rental market have increased by $3,600 a year, this problem has become a crisis.

The problems identified by this committee are not new. But progress in this area is being slowed by lack of clarity around funding and responsibilities between Australian and state and territory governments. I urge the government to finalise negotiations for a new national agreement on mental health and suicide prevention as a matter of urgency.

Another significant obstacle to action is the mental health workforce. There are simply not enough mental health workers, and there are barriers to employing existing workers in the areas of greatest need, or to work to the top of their skills and training, the top of their scope of practice. The National Mental Health Workforce Strategy must be finalised and acted on as a matter of urgency. Mental health is a bipartisan space, and it is above politics. We must work to ensure that the announcements made by the government are implemented, that the recommendations of this report and preceding reports are implemented, that there is a sense of urgency and that we don't have experiences, like the chair and I have had, of friends and colleagues who have had lives cut short, who should have been able to live full and active lives in our communities.

The government must work with the states and territories and with advocacy groups, not-for-profits and for-profits collectively and collaboratively so that we have a whole-of-community, whole-of-government response to mental health and wellbeing. The need for more mental health support is urgent in many areas, particularly for those living outside of major capital cities, yet there are long waiting times, leading to poorer health outcomes. Some communities are still waiting for headspaces that were promised prior to the 2019 election, such as headspace Wyong in my electorate on the Central Coast. I've been told several times that it is coming soon, and I hope so, given the impact of the pandemic, the surge in demand and the growing need. Climate change and natural disasters are impacting young people in my community and in communities across Australia. The need, as we know, is urgent. The need for implementation is urgent. The time for action is now.

In closing, I would like to thank the many individuals and organisations who made submissions and gave evidence to the committee, my fellow committee members and the secretariat. I now urge the government to act promptly on the recommendations on behalf of all of Australians.