General News Opinion — 02 August 2012

We’ll do it by working with those who have a loved one affected by mental illness, stated Alan Fels.

IT is a great responsibility to be inaugural chairman of the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) — a greater responsibility than I have had in any other position. The mental health of all Australians, especially those with mental illness, is critical for them as individuals and as members of families, the economy and the community.

Mental illness can have a devastating effect on individuals and their families. I know: my daughter has schizophrenia. Despite care and support, which has led to improvement, she has a daily struggle with basic living skills and with leading a fulfilling life.

Australia has a health system that is one of the best in the world. But it has at least two serious weaknesses — mental health and indigenous health (of which mental health problems are a major component). I say this even though Australia does a better job on mental health than many countries.

Mental health services need to be a much higher priority for governments and the community. I hope the NMHC contributes to this.

The NMHC is a new independent body established in January to tell the public the truth about mental health services — the availability, the gaps, the good practices and the areas where improvement is needed.

It is attached to the Prime Minister’s portfolio, recognising both that the issues need attention at the highest level of government and that mental health is about far more than just the matters dealt with by health departments. A whole-of-government approach is required if a whole-of-life approach is taken to mental illness.

Our first task is to compile a national report card on mental health and suicide prevention.

Our concern is whether people with mental disorders are able to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life — a “contributing life” — whether they can have proper support, care and treatment, stable and secure accommodation, employment where possible, good family and personal relationships, social connectedness and achieve a good proportion of their potential.

But how can you have a contributing life if you’re in poverty, isolated and struggling to relearn social skills — despite wanting to work?

Australian businesses lose more than $6.5 billion each year by not providing early intervention and treatment for employees with mental health conditions. The total economic costs probably add up to 3-4 per cent of GDP.

In the mining industry, each year 8000-10,000 employees experience a common mental health illness such as anxiety, depression or substance abuse that costs the industry about $400 million a year, or about $300,000- $400,000 for an average mine. The commission has found that job discrimination based on a person’s mental health still occurs, meaning it’s harder to get a job and keep it.

Solutions include more knowledge about mental illness in the workplace and less stigma so that people in distress can be helped as quickly as you would expect with a physical illness.

You can’t have a contributing life without a home. Yet people with mental health problems are far less likely to be homeowners and far more likely to live in unstable environments.

SANE Australia found that 94 per cent of survey respondents with a mental illness had been homeless or without suitable housing at some point. The Australian Bureau of Statistics claims that of those who reported having been homeless, more than half had experienced mental health issues. Housing is in the commission’s sights as a critical foundation for recovery.

You can’t have a contributing life if you’re physically unwell and die young. This scandal receives almost no attention. People with chronic illnesses such as schizophrenia die about 15 years earlier than the rest of us, perishing in their fifties. It can only be worse in indigenous communities. People with serious mental illness experience more heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and are undertreated for these conditions.

You can’t have a contributing life if you want to take your own. Suicide represents at least a quarter of male deaths between the ages of 15 and 40 and 20 per cent of female deaths in their early twenties. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities it is at least 2 1/2 times higher.

Our job and “our contribution” is to observe, listen to the lived experience of consumers, carers, families and the community and fearlessly report and advise on what needs to happen. We want all people to have a contributing life. Our annual “report card” will help us understand how Australia is meeting people’s needs, and track performance.

There no point in providing services if people’s lives aren’t improving materially, psychologically and socially. We’ve lots of numbers, but they say little about whether they’ve helped people with mental illness achieve the life they hope for themselves. Our report will also showcase and promote excellence.

So we are consulting widely and listening to the lived experiences of as many segments of the population as we can, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. They are telling us what is wrong, what is right and what is needed.

Our report cards will be targeted to action and outcomes. I’ve no intention of wasting my time, the time of my fellow independent commissioners, or taxpayers’ money on just another government commission.

The National Mental Health Commission is going to make a difference and if it doesn’t, I’ll be the first to call for it to be closed.

But we shall make a difference because we are grounding ourselves in the experiences of ordinary people whose lives have been affected by their or their loved one’s mental illness.

First appeared in The Australian, 1 August 2012


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