The Turnbull government must take responsibility and invest more in frontline mental health services struggling with surging demand as a result of the same-sex marriage postal survey, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says.
A range of mental health groups are in urgent talks this week to develop a strategy to meet the increased demand, with fears the situation will worsen as the postal survey campaign continues for another two months.
Many same-sex marriage advocates wanted a free vote on the issue in Federal Parliament and opposed a public vote – whether by plebiscite or postal survey – partly because of fears about the potential damage to some people’s mental health.
Mr Shorten says the development is “exactly what we feared” and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must act.
“He was warned this would happen now he needs to take responsibility for it,” Mr Shorten told Fairfax Media on Monday. “Turnbull promised a respectful debate. This is his survey – and it’s his responsibility to ensure services are equipped to deal with this unprecedented demand.”
Mr Shorten has written to Mr Turnbull calling for a “small increase” in funding to help the counselling services keep up.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said mental health issues were of “deep personal and professional importance to me”, and pointed out the government was providing an extra $47 million in frontline services.
Mr Hunt announced a $47 million boost suicide prevention services in May. The funding was not tied to a public vote on same-sex marriage but did include money for some LGBTI community-specific services.
Groups such as ReachOut, Headspace and BeyondBlue have all reported increased calls or website traffic since the campaign kicked off in August.
One of the country’s top mental health experts – former “Australian of the Year” Professor Patrick McGorry – says for many people the campaign is reviving traumatic memories of the bullying and discrimination they faced at school.
Professor McGorry on Monday criticised sidelined Turnbull government minister Matt Canavan for saying last week that people hurt by the divisive debate around the postal survey should just “grow a spine and grow up”.
“I think those were very regrettable comments. I think the people he’s talking about have a very strong spine actually – they put up with much more adversity than that particular MP is likely to experience in his life,” said Professor McGorry, head of Orygen, the national centre of excellence in youth mental health.
“They’ve come through it but that doesn’t mean they should be subjected to more. He’s entitled to his point of view but I think most Australians wouldn’t agree with that.”
The government’s own National Mental Health Commission has also expressed “concerns about the detrimental mental health impacts of the marriage equality debate”.
This piece was first seen on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’, Septemer 18, 2017.