Opinion — 27 November 2012

Australia has made huge strides on the mental health front, and within a decade we could provide individuals with the best mental health services and programs in the world.

But we need to get better at celebrating our successes. For example, we have seen the male youth suicide rate fall from 31 per 100,000 in 1997 to about 13 per 100,000, according to preliminary data for 2010.

For decades, many dedicated people worked thanklessly at suicide prevention, but it wasn’t until the Howard government in the late 1990s that we started to see substantial investments from government – something that, thankfully, has continued. And delivered results.

That said, there is so much more work to be done. Almost half of us will experience a mental illness. About 100,000 of us suffer from schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses every year. As many as three million of us suffer from anxiety and one million from depression. More than 2300 people took their life in 2010 while tens of thousands more attempted suicide.

There have been substantial investments in mental health in recent years. But there is a real prospect that we could drop the ball on mental health.

There are six reasons Australia can lead the world in mental health.

First, we are a nation of only 23 million people with a continent to ourselves – we can have national conversations and pursue national agendas in a way very few countries can.

Second, community interest in mental health is off the charts compared with other countries – the 2010 survey of 20 nations by King’s College, Cambridge, found 35 per cent of Australians rated mental health as the No 2 or No 3 national challenge. For the US it was only 8 per cent, while it was 11 per cent in Britain and 15 per cent in China, with an overall average of 10 per cent.

Third, there is strong cross-party political support for better mental health for all Australians. There may be some differences in emphasis, but all parties know better mental health outcomes are good policy and good politics.

Fourth, in several areas, especially the youth arena, Australian organisations already lead the world.

Fifth, the coverage of mental health by Australian journalists is as good and responsible as any in the world. During the past decade the quantity and quality of media coverage of mental health has increased significantly.

Sixth, Australia’s economy is as strong as any in the developed world and so we are well placed to make additional investments in mental health.

So if you had to pick one country in the world to lead on mental health, you would have to choose Australia. But we need to be clear on what the future would look like if Australia were to lead the world in mental health. SANE Australia has advocated our first goal should be to halve the suicide rate during the coming decade. We also need to set other specific measurable national goals. And it is time for the mental health sector to take the lead on this.

While the Council of Australian Governments started with good intentions, with a 10-year plan for mental health reform, it’s hard to be optimistic about what COAG can achieve in the immediate future. There are the straight political realities combined with declining state revenues from the GST. It is hard to see the states agreeing to set specific outcomes in the absence of additional resources.

If we are to lead the world in mental health it will require additional funding and this will require changing the Medicare levy or extending the GST.

The forthcoming report card from the National Mental Health Commission provides an opportunity to assess how well we are travelling.

Given the time constraints facing the commission, we shouldn’t expect too much this time, but it does provide an opportunity for us to begin a conversation about how Australia could lead the world in mental health.

As written by Jack Heath – chief executive of SANE Australia. First appeared in The Australian, 23 November 2012


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