Reforms ignore mental health - GREG BARNS - The Mercury - April 26, 2010 10:42am
Rudd and Bartlett have no good news for those Tasmanians who live with mental illness, writes GREG BARNS.
"KEVIN Rudd and David Bartlett were crowing on Thursday, during the former's visit to Tasmania, about the historic health care reform package that all states and territories, with the exception of Western Australia, signed earlier in that week.
Bartlett and Rudd held a joint news conference at the Royal Hobart Hospital on Thursday morning. Rudd boasted, with Bartlett eager to share in the glory, that the health agreement "will deliver over the next three years $142 million in additional investment, and over the period ahead beyond that, a further $340 million", to Tasmania.
Rudd talked up reducing emergency department waiting times, a bigger investment in elective surgery, and more hospital beds. All politically sexy, and designed to win votes. No wonder Rudd had alongside him the Labor MP for Franklin, Julie Collins, and the newly anointed candidate for Denison, Jonathan Jackson.
But Rudd and Bartlett shamefully had no good news for those Tasmanians who live with mental illness. There was no good news for people who are pushed from service to service by state and commonwealth services, or who are boomeranged in and out of public hospital mental health units on a daily basis, or who cannot get access to the psychiatric and psychological care they need because there are no funds available.
The message Rudd and Bartlett left mental illness patients last week was simple: we have forgotten you because you are not vote winners.
Sure, there is $4 million for "youth-friendly mental health services and more mental health nurses". And some of the additional emergency care beds will go to mental health patients.
But as Mental Health Council of Tasmania CEO Michelle Swallow said on March 12: "The rate of people experiencing mental distress accessing Tasmanian public hospital emergency departments indicates gaps in current service provision, and further emphasises the importance of dedicating more funds towards prevention and early intervention."
Swallow and her colleagues are no doubt as shocked as other mental health professionals and advocacy groups around Australia at the cavalier way in which the Prime Minister, the premiers and chief ministers have relegated mental health to an also-ran position in their bargaining.
That is because out of $5 billion that Rudd put on the table to get the states and territories across the line last week, only $115 million of new money was allocated to mental health! As Profession Ian Hickie, of the Sydney-based Brain and Mind Research Institute, put it last Thursday: "Clearly when it got down to the hard politics and the hard cash, the premiers went for the hospitals. The Commonwealth said, 'we are basically not serious in this area'."
Professor Patrick McGorry, the Australian of the Year and a leading mental health researcher, agrees. He noted on April 14 that mental health "is obviously seen as expendable by both state and federal governments. And the risk is that mental health will be the one huge area of health reform that's left out". Sadly, his prognostication has largely come true.
That politicians have cruelly placed mental illness on the backburner for political reasons is borne out by virtue of the fact that they could not rationally ignore it to the extent they did in this latest health package.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported on December 23 last year that in "2007, 45 per cent of Australians aged 16-85 years (or 7.3 million people) had, at some point in their lifetime, experienced at least one of the selected mental disorders (anxiety, mood or substance use disorders)". Mental illness, the ABS reported, costs the Australian economy $20 billion a year in lost productivity and reduced labour force participation.
And the ABS said people "with a mental illness are more likely than those without to have physical conditions, such as back or neck pain/problems, asthma or heart trouble, further compounding the difficulties they face".
In 2007, the ABS reported, "59 per cent of people with a mental illness also had a physical condition, compared with 48 per cent of those without any mental disorder".
In other words, the link the link between mental and physical illness is strong. So why is it that physical health facilities and resources get big bucks, while their colleagues in mental health struggle by as the forgotten people?
The Rudd health package is commendable for ensuring we bang another nail in the coffin of inefficient federalism. But it is not the magic wand that Rudd and his state Labor colleagues believe it to be.
And it is to the Liberal Party's shame nationally that it also has not bothered to pursue the cause of people with mental illness. But then what could one expect from a party led by a man who thinks anyone who does not have a job, including those with mental illness, should be forced into a job in the iron ire belt of Western Australia?"