The health minister, Peter Dutton, has defended his commitment to action on mental health after claims he had broken his pledge to prioritise the area in his first months in office.
The Greens’ spokeswoman on mental health, Penny Wright, said the minister had not mentioned mental health once in parliament, had issued just one media release about the topic on World Mental Health Day, and had posted more tweets about the cricket than about mental health.
Wright said the lack of apparent action came despite Dutton’s promise to prioritise mental health in his first 100 days as the health minister, as reflected in his early interviews with the Australian Financial Review and ABC Radio National in September.
“Australians were outraged when the Coalition chose not to appoint a dedicated mental health minister. They will be even more irate that the man who promised so much has done nothing to push mental health to the front of the political agenda,” Wright said.
But Dutton’s office pointed to confirmation of funding for dementia research, support for an electronic mental health platform for youth, and a pending review of mental health services as evidence of progress.
“Mental health is an area of bipartisan support; it is unfortunate that Senator Wright is seeking to politicise such an important issue,” Dutton said.
A spokesman for Dutton said the minister had “moved on several fronts on mental health issues”, including securing immediate funding for two of the Coalition’s election promises, such as $40m a year for dementia research starting in July.
He said last month’s budget update also confirmed that $5m, including $2.5m this financial year, would flow to the Young and Well co-operative research centre “to develop a comprehensive e-mental health platform to make it easier for young people to get advice on a 24-hour-a-day basis”.
The project is expected to integrate the face-to-face and online services available to young people, with users requiring just one logon to access a range of support. The Health Department remains in discussions with the centre about how to establish the scheme.
The national mental health commission would begin its review of mental health services “soon”, with the terms of reference and deadlines yet to be finalised, Dutton’s spokesman said.
“This is a significant action to make sure we are getting resources to the front line of mental health care and important to the future provision of mental health services,” he said.
“The review will assess all current services provided by state, federal and non-government organisations; how well they are delivered, whether they are properly targeted and identify where gaps remain.
“The review will provide clear indications on how to improve provision of mental health services in Australia.”
Wright said the minister had been unable to identify a single new development since the Coalition announced its election policy on mental health in August.
“When Mr Dutton said he’d prioritise mental health for the first 100 days, I am sure the many people affected would have expected more than budget line items from a commitment in August,” she said.
Wright said she was “not politicising mental health by holding the minister to account for the promises he made” and instead was speaking up for hundreds of thousands of Australians missing out on mental health services. Pointing to the issue of stigma for people with mental illness, Wright said the minister must engage in the public debate and speak up for people he represented.
This article first appeared on ‘The Guardian’ on 8 January 2014.