Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard says improving counselling services, early childhood education and changing the conversation around men’s mental health will be her top priorities as beyondblue’s new leader.

Speaking at Perth’s Curtin University on Wednesday evening, Ms Gillard delivered her John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Anniversary Lecture entitled ‘Great reform requires courage’, and took the opportunity to outline her strategic priorities as incoming chair for the mental health organisation.

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard Photo: Justin McManus

Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard Photo: Justin McManus

“It must be said that past investments in, and approaches to, suicide prevention have not led to reduction in deaths – which are now at a ten year high,” she told a packed audience at Curtin Stadium.

“This is an extraordinary opportunity to make generational and system-wide improvements to the mental health of children and adolescents by offsetting the impact of depression and anxiety through early intervention and education.”

Ms Gillard will take over the beyondblue’s chairmanship from former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett on Friday, and said the Federal Government’s $52.7 million grant to the mental health advocacy group would stimulate one of the most significant reforms to the health system “since Medicare”.

 “One of the pillars Jeff established for beyondblue was fierce bipartisan advocacy for better answers on mental health. It is a commitment I embrace wholeheartedly and intend to continue.
“Jeff Kennett is not an easy act to follow, but that is exactly what I intend to do in three days time,” she said.
She flagged the development of two new programs to be rolled out throughout 2018, referred to as New Access and the Way Back.
Ms Gillard spoke to a packed out Curtin Stadium. Photo: Hannah Barry

Ms Gillard spoke to a packed out Curtin Stadium. Photo: Hannah Barry

The New Access program is designed for people who experience mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and depression, and is a free service.

Ms Gillard stressed it would be completely confidential, and would not require a doctor’s referral.

The service could be accessed by anyone face-to-face, over the phone or online, and those who access it are assigned a trained coach – usually someone with their own experience of such conditions.

Their “coach” will guide them through the first steps of better mental health practices and life skills and help them with recovery.

The second program, named the Way Back, is another initiative designed to reach those who have recently been discharged from hospital following a suicide attempt or self harm incident.

The Way Back program assigns a patient with a support coordinator who provides one-on-one practical support, including helping build and personalise a safety plan, ensuring medical appointments are kept, advising on stress management and linking patients to community services.

Ms Gillard also defended the $22 billion National Disability Insurance Scheme, and said criticism regarding the inclusion of mental health in the system was unwarranted.

“Some have contended that including mental health in the NDIS was a mistake: it was not,” she said.

“But it was a decision that will require time, flexibility, transparency and cooperation across governments to get it right.

“The NDIS is still being rolled out, so the time is right to continue to raise concerns, debate the detail and identify potential gaps in the system before they are cemented.”

The NDIS has come under fire in recent months after the Productivity Commission raised concerns about the rollout, and how it would affect patients already in care.

The Commission also warned it was likely the program would experience a cost blow-out as more participants than first anticipated signed up to the scheme.

But Ms Gillard said too many governments had previously decided there was “something more important on their agenda” than mental health, and the time was right for significant investment.

“We always knew the NDIS would be costly,” she said.

“That’s why the government I led was prepared to make hard savings to support it. Budget choices are one way of demonstrating what you believe in and prioritise.

“Landmark policies and groundbreaking societal change take time to get right and become a valued part of our society. There will always be challenges along the way, that doesn’t mean we should falter.”

Ms Gillard’s lecture was well received by a number of attendees, and Curtin Vice Chancellor Deborah Terry said the University had never experienced such a large turn-out to one of its lectures before.

This piece by Hannah Barry on ‘The WAtoday.com.au’ June 29 2017.

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