As we approach the federal election, public criticism about mental health policy is getting louder. I was never much of the political sort in previous years, but lately my efforts to change mental health policy has made some political comparisons necessary. It has been fascinating over the last two years chatting with various politicians about their vision of mental health reform. Even more interesting though has been hearing from members of the general public who more often than not go unheard on this issue. The long and the short of it is that a lot of people really do care about mental health, despite the sad lack of attention this issue receives from political parties.
Our 20,000 supporters are a diverse mix representating all sides of politics. In our Facebook group alone, there are well over 1,000 people, some of whom are aligned with the ALP, the NLP, the Greens, and the smaller minor parties. Over the last two years the Alliance for Better Access has tried to broadcast public concerns about cuts to Medicare supported psychological care. We have found that there is a balancing act between letting people express their feelings openly versus watching a forum deteriorate into all out denigration. To give you a sense of just how extreme things can get sometimes, we saw a recent of example of this on the Facebook page of one of the major parties, which saw tit-for-tat name-calling of our political leaders who were branded insane, mad, and other nasty remarks that perpetuate stigma. We don’t tolerate any of that in our own group, but due to the fact that we let people speak out, we can give you an idea about what the public is really feeling about each of the dominant political forces in Australia when it comes to mental health policy. Here goes…
We will start with the ALP because they are our current Government. To put it bluntly, we hear from huge numbers of people who are annoyed at Labor for having cut the Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative in May 2011. Our group is about restoring that program. So as you can imagine we had a lot of people join the group hoping Labor would hear them and change course. They haven’t listened to us at all. In fact, the Labor party has refused to meet us across the entire 2 years we have been raising concerns. It’s not just us though. Some months ago the website OurSay arranged for the Minister for Mental Health to answer three questions that were voted most popular by the public. The top two questionswere about Better Access but the ALP is now simply refusing to respond, despite having agreed to do so. Labor supporters are so disappointed and confused about why this issue is being given the silent treatment, particularly given the rhetoric we have heard about caring for the disadvantaged.
Sadly, the confusion doesn’t stop with Labor. Hundreds of our supporters have told us they are annoyed with the Coalition, who originally created the Better Access program in 2006, but now they are not making any promises to restore it should they be re-elected. The Liberal party are asking for yet another report when we know from numerous studies that the Better Access program works and is cost effective. As with the Labor party, the Coalition’s main policy direction is to support youth mental health. Liberal supporters have told us that they feel let down that tens of thousands of adults living with a mental health condition are being left to struggle without support.
Finally we have Greens supporters in this group who have expressed shock and frustration at some of the twists, turns, and compromises that have been made over the last two years. First we saw the Greens promise they would disallow the cuts, but just a few months afterwards they fell silent. We heard rumours from Canberra that the Greens made a deal with Labor not to disallow the cuts, then lo and behold they dropped the disallowance motion. This was hugely upsetting and I think it is fair to say that many Greens supporters in this group were in disbelief (as I was). They settled on a temporary compromise of 16 sessions (rather than 18) and now they seem to be saying that this is adequate when the evidence says that it barely meets the most minimal treatment mark (15 to 20 sessions).
As you can see, mental health policy direction is in a bit of a state of confusion and dysfunction right now. The major parties recent statements about mental health are squarely focused on youth and make much the same promises as one another. These statements followed announcements from the Chair of the National Mental Health Commission, and the Chair of the Mental Health Council of Australia, both telling the major parties that their silence is not good enough. And those announcements followed the Greens release of a mental health policy the day before that. A lot has been happening just a few weeks out from the election, but the question is whether anything significant will happen after the election. My hope is that our politicians might appreciate from the above reflections just how strongly voters feel about addressing mental health care, not just in Medicare, but in every branch of our wider systems of care.
As first appeared on Alliance for Better Access, 1 September 2013