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Government backflips on axing of Mental Health Commission

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The State Government has backflipped on plans to axe the SA Mental Health Commission, instead vowing to expand it.

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In March this year, the Marshall Government released an external review of governance in South Australia’s mental health system.

The review recommended “bringing the SA Mental Health Commission into” a new agency, Wellbeing SA.

In its interim response to the review, the Government appeared to go further, arguing for the “integration” of some of the Commission’s functions into Wellbeing SA, and that the rest of its functions be “realigned with” the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist by July 1, 2019 – today.

The language made it difficult to understand what this actually meant, but InDaily understands the Government had intended to axe the Commission altogether.

The Government today announced that it would be bringing the Commission under Wellbeing SA, but instead of cutting it altogether, it would be expanded.

“The Commission will be retained with an increased focus on engagement with consumers and carers,” said Minister for Health and Wellbeing Stephen Wade.

“The Commission will have a full-time Commissioner and two part-time Deputy Commissioners.

“The current health promotion, preventative and administrative resources of the Commission will be transferred into Wellbeing SA.”

Asked whether the Commission’s 9.7 full-time equivalent staff will be retained, a Government spokesperson said “the change will see no reduction of resources focussed on mental health”.

“The detailed structure of Wellbeing SA will be developed in consultation with staff, consumers and carers.”

Wade also said the Government had listened to stakeholders during a consultation period.

“We have consulted widely on the review and listened carefully to the feedback, in particular about the important role that the SA Mental Health Commission can fulfil in partnership with Wellbeing SA,” Wade said.

“The reformed Commission will be available to co-design plans and projects in partnership with Wellbeing SA, the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, Local Health Networks and Primary Health Networks.

“The Commission will also work with the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist on the implementation of the Mental Health Strategic and Services Plan.”

He added that: “Today’s response demonstrates our commitment to delivering the highest quality mental health services for all South Australians.”

“As part of that, we will reform the SA Mental Health Commission to have a stronger focus on bringing the voices of people with lived experience and the wider community to mental health strategy, policy and service improvement.”

Commission’s independence “axed”: Labor

Opposition Health spokesperson Chris Picton said the Government’s plan would undermine the Mental Health Commission’s independence.

“Stephen Wade has taken an axe to the independence and resources of the Mental Health Commission,” he told InDaily in a statement today.

The benefit of the Mental Health Commission has been it has had independence from government, and enough staff – to properly focus on the important issue of mental health.

“In Opposition Stephen Wade said the independence of the commission was crucial, now he is gutting it.”

Quoted in a joint media release entitled Weatherill Labor Government failing South Australians with Mental Illness in 2015, Wade said:

“We need to establish a mental health commission now, and ensure it is independent, strongly focussed on consumers and their family members, provides a holistic model and that due process is undertaken for the leadership of the commission.”

Picton today argued that taking the commission under the department’s auspices “goes against what the hundreds of mental health stakeholders have told the government”.

 “It is an insult to all of those people that the government would claim this is somehow good news for mental health.

 “And this bad news follows the cut of 25 per cent of state mental health programs that is coming in from today – which will add more pressure on our mental health system.”

Reading between the lines at the time of the original announcement, Opposition Health spokesperson Chris Picton railed against what he described as the “abolition” of the Mental Health Commission.

“On Friday afternoon the Government slipped out the news, uploaded on the (SA Health) website that they’re going to abolish the Mental Health Commission,” he said at the time.

“They’re getting rid of the people who advocate for consumers (and) getting rid of the people who have independent oversight of mental health in South Australia.

“We need this oversight. We need this independent expertise.”

The Mental Health Commission’s main function has not been “oversight” of any part of the mental health system: the Minister and the Chief Psychiatrist hold the pre-eminent oversight functions for mental health.

Rather, its main function has been the development and implementation of the SA Mental Health Strategic Plan 2017-2022 and the promotion of mental health and wellbeing.

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