ABOUT a month-and-a-half ago, when I was overseas for work, one of my friends, let’s call her Meredith, tried to kill herself.
After realising the drugs she had mixed to achieve her demise weren’t interacting the way the internet said they would, Meredith called a friend to take her to hospital.
Once at St Vincent’s, she saw a series of people who spent minimal time with her. One nurse she spoke to commented that she’d just had a bad day. And, after admitting to the psych nurse that she didn’t regret her attempt to kill herself and that she planned on trying again soon, the nurse just sent her home.
The CAT team called her the next day (Wednesday) and asked her to stay “safe” until they could see her on Thursday. On Thursday, they called to say they couldn’t make it until Friday. When they did come, they couldn’t give her much information about the service they were referring her to. Adding insult to injury, trying to research mental health services on the internet takes one on a fruitless, and potentially life-threatening, journey to nowhere.
Just over a week ago, almost exactly a month later, Meredith tried again. Luckily, one of her housemates found her and took her to a different hospital. This time, she spent more than a week in the psych ward. After three years of watching Meredith battle her illness, watching her try to get help, we’ve discovered three problems with our mental health system.
The first is that too many mental health professionals don’t seem to actually know how to talk to depressed or suicidal people. Most are just too afraid to actually talk to the person like a person and instead take on a “victim voice”.
We have also experienced at least one case of a serious breach of privacy, which we ended up referring to the complaints body.
From that, it’s obvious that there needs to be more ongoing training for people dealing with patients. Although I’m told most on the front lines get regular extra training, it doesn’t seem to be either frequent or effective enough.
Another big problem is there are just so many services, each of which have specific eligibility criteria, such as where you live, how old you are and how severe your illness is. That means many mentally ill people who move, continue to age normally, or aren’t assertive, will end up being shuffled from one service to another throughout their treatment. That makes it easy for patterns to be missed and for people who have given up on themselves to just stop trying.
This abundance of not-quite-overlapping services that don’t always communicate well with each other makes it so easy for people to fall through the cracks.
The Victorian (and possibly national) mental health system needs a complete overhaul to consolidate it into one service that looks after the whole person, no matter what stage of life they’re in. After all, the point is to make sure the person can grow old. People don’t just “get over” depression the day they turn 26.
But the most crucial thing we need to do, according to Monash University Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, is fund more mental health research. The focus on direct services is important, but until we better understand how to tailor the treatment to the individual, including taking gender and biology into account, the services aren’t as effective as they need to be.
The Federal Budget dealt a terrible blow to medical research, especially women’s health research, which is a mistake from which it will take years to recover.
Cancer treatments have improved dramatically over the past decade or so due to the high level of investment. Mental health could benefit in the same way with the same level of commitment.
Awareness of mental health problems is great, but unless there is the money, research and commitment to back that up, awareness for awareness’s sake doesn’t really mean much.
More than half the population will experience some kind of mental illness in their lifetime; that’s a lot of people we’re currently failing. And I’m just not ready to lose Meredith.
This article first appeared on ‘Herald Sun’ on 19 October 2014.