General News Sector News — 14 April 2014
Bitter rift on youth mental health provider headspace

A major rift within national youth mental health service headspace has  erupted, with one of its founding board members publicly raising questions about  how the organisation is run and whether it is reaching the vulnerable young  people it was set up to help.

Ian Hickie, who was a key player in securing $420 million in early-  intervention funding from the Gillard government, including the roll-out of 90  headspace drop-in centres across Australia, is now calling for an ”urgent,  systematic national evaluation” of the organisation he helped build, claiming  only half its centres are functional.

In a bitter feud which has seen lawyers engaged, headspace chief executive  Chris Tanti described the claims as ”nonsense”, saying they may be part of a  backlash over the investigation of an incident at a Sydney headspace centre  Professor Hickie runs through his Brain and Mind Research Institute, which  remains in dispute.

However, this was rejected by Professor Hickie, one of Australia’s most  prominent psychiatrists. He acknowledged the ”confidential” review of clinical  services was under way, but said his concerns were long-standing and shared by  other major agencies in the mental health sector.

”It is worrying that Mr Tanti’s assertions are an attempt once again to  deflect public attention away from the open and appropriate reporting of the  operations of headspace centres,” he said.

While Mr Tanti denied that half the centres were not functioning, he conceded  after questioning from The Sunday Age that one in five were  experiencing performance management issues related to workforce shortages,  difficubigstock-Mental-Health-Warning--32532146lties with external agencies, or low client numbers.

On average, each site saw 1000 young people a year, he said. ”Eighty per  cent of our centres are functioning well and have good traction in their  communities. A handful are not meeting performance requirements but are being actively  managed. Most centres are seeing reasonable numbers of patients and have good  uptake,” Mr Tanti said.

Professor Hickie first raised concerns in a keynote address at a youth mental health  conference in February in Melbourne. He claimed the national  rollout of headspace – the largest  federal investment in the sector,  intended  to save money and lives by treating psychological distress early – had turned  out to be ”high-cost, low-impact and low-population coverage.”

Last week Professor Hickie, who resigned from the headspace board in 2012 to  take up a position on the National Mental Health Commission – an expert group  advising the Prime Minister on reform and funding – went further in an interview  with The Sunday Age, saying a lack of evaluation and transparency had  thrown the service’s effectiveness into doubt.

He also argued it had deviated from its original goal to help 12 to  25-year-olds with mental health problems such as anxiety or depression, and  instead had become a ”coffee shop” model, seeing  people with minor issues  such as exam stress and relationship difficulties.

”There’s concern [about headspace] in the community and this has been  expressed right up to the commission and the responsibility to respond to that  lies with management,” Professor Hickie said.

”There’s a great deal of international interest in what Australia is doing,  but the next question is what is the evidence? Not what is the brand, but what  is the evidence? It will not cut the mustard unless it has a very substantive  evidence base to justify this style of national investment.”

Mr Tanti said  headspace was required to provide quarterly financial and  operational data to the Department of Health, and all key decisions were made  with the oversight of probity advisers.

”Ian’s comments possibly reflect a frustration he might have in respect to  other issues we are currently working with the Brain and Mind Research Institute  to resolve.”

He said the ”coffee shop” criticism was unfounded, pointing to a study of 21,000 headspace client, published in  February in the Medical Journal of Australia, which showed 62 per cent  of those who used the service  last year presented with high levels of  psychological distress, compared to just  9 per cent in the general  community.

One of Professor Hickie’s chief concerns – that seven years since the first  centre opened there was little evidence the model was improving mental health  and reaching the young people who needed help the most – has been echoed by other mental health experts in  Australia and overseas.

Leading psychiatrists last year told The Sunday Age they feared the  organisation’s ”marketing is getting ahead of the science” and  that better evaluation was needed before it expanded any further.

Last year six headspace centres opened in Denmark and there are plans to sell  the model to Israel, the United States, Canada, Britain, Hong Kong, Singapore  and the Middle East.

Mr Tanti acknowledged  headspace did not  have long-term data yet to show  what happened to young people after they have been treated at a centre. He said  the service was not funded to  do this type of research and that there were  ethical limits to institutions evaluating their own services. He also stressed  how difficult it was to track transient youth populations , and to definitively  gauge whether specific interventions had altered the trajectory of mental  illness.

He said headspace was relying on a Department of Health evaluation –  originally due this year, but now delayed until 2015 – to provide outcome data  for young people nine months after leaving the service. The organisation this  year also has  started collecting  information to provide a three-month  follow-up on clients’ short-term outcomes.

This article first appeared on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ on 12 April 2014.

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