Stigma Reduction Therapies — 28 March 2018

Rachael Stevens believes she overcame her severe mental health issues “despite the treatment I was given,” and now she’s ready to tell the country’s most powerful politicians that the system needs to change.

Ms Stevens was hospitalised with anorexia at the age of 15, and attempted suicide at the age of 17. Now 26 and campaigning for change, the Canberran says the difficulties in dealing with the mental health system exacerbate the challenges in trying to get better. 

Canberra woman Rachael Stevens will tell politicians that the mental health system is broken at the launch of Australians for Mental Health on Monday.  Photo: Jamila Toderas 

“The system tells you that you’re broken, but actually the system is more broken than you’ve ever imagined. They really do blame people for so much when so much of the services are uncoordinated or unsupportive,” Ms Stevens said.

Ms Stevens will speak at the launch of Australians for Mental Health, a new national advocacy body led by Professor Patrick McGorry and television personality Jessica Rowe, which will push for a redesigned mental health system. According to Australians for Mental Health, the system is broken, and the four million Australians with mental health problems need a voice in order to fix it.

Professor Patrick McGorry wants the whole mental health system to be redesigned to better serve those with mental health problems.

Professor Patrick McGorry wants the whole mental health system to be redesigned to better serve those with mental health problems. Photo: Eddie Jim

The system needs to be more compassionate, as well as easier to navigate, Ms Stevens said.

“You feel as though your life is quite disposable. We recently had an experience in Canberra going through the system here with a close friend and we felt like her life was kind of treated as disposable as well,” she said.

“I have had positive experiences but they’ve definitely been the minority, which is crushing. I think I got better despite the treatment I was given, which is pretty crazy.”

Australians for Mental Health wants every Australian to have access to the healthcare they need, at the same standard that is available for people with physical health issues. They want the healthcare system to be easy to navigate and for governments to invest in prevention and early intervention.

Professor McGorry said the push for a better mental health system was beyond party politics, and that the vision and funding needed was longer than one budget or one election cycle. While he praised Health Minister Greg Hunt and recent former health ministers, he said a long term commitment to changing the system is needed.

“It’s not a party political thing. It’s just a structural failing of our society really, that we haven’t treated people with mental illness in a fair way in terms of access to health care,” Professor McGorry said.

“Something serious has to be done to lift the access and quality of care to the same level as we see in cancer and heart disease, where 100 per cent of the people pretty much are getting access to care and mostly it’s pretty high quality care. In mental illness it’s well below 50 per cent get access and the access, and the quality of care that they get access to, is well below the quality that we see in other areas of health.”

According to Professor McGorry, just five per cent of health funding across state and federal budgets goes towards mental illness, but solving the problem isn’t as simple as a funding injection.

“We don’t want more money into more of the same, we want a redesigned system as well. Our National Mental Health Commission set up by the federal government and commissions set up at state government level really have said the same thing. They’ve all said that we need a redesigned system.”

While there have been many inquiries and reviews into mental health services already, he is calling for a Productivity Commission review into how the health system doesn’t serve those with mental health problems.

“The sort of review we need is probably what led up to the NDIS. A Productivity Commission review which looks at the financing in health which is not working for mental health. It’s working for other parts of the health system but it’s certainly not working for mental health care.”

“So that’s the kind of review that has never happened and it’s the one that we need to design a system that is financially going to deliver the quality of care that we need.”

Politicians from across the political spectrum attending Monday’s launch at parliament house will be asked to sign a pledge, in which they commit developing policies, legislation and prioritise redesigning and strengthening the mental health system in the budget.

Jaimie Ching will also speak at the event, describing more than 20 years of contact with the mental health system, starting when he was 15 years old. He says he witnessed violence and sexual abuse in psychiatric wards, as well as disjointed care across city and regional health services.

“In the city, they’re just inundated, they’re just overwhelmed,” he said.

“The last suicide attempt I had I desperately tried to get into hospital and IO just could not get in and I was just so terrified and so sick that I tried to end my own life.”

“People are just dying, literally dying because of it,” he said.

While the new organisation aims to give a voice to those with mental health problems and their families, the long-term campaign will be more than just talk according to Professor McGorry.

“We’ve definitely had a lot more awareness and conversations but I think that’s actually paralysed us, we actually think because we’re talking about it that something being’s done.”

If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au or the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467 or www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au. 

This piece by Sally Whyte was originally published on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald‘, 28 March 2018. 

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