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Respringing the mental health safety net


The pandemic has left more Australians needing and calling upon mental health support, but the crisis has revealed an underfunded system struggling to cope, writes Geoff Harris. State and federal governments must now act to invest in and rebuild an essential health network.


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We have learnt many things from COVID-19.

We have seen the fragility of aged care settings, how quickly public health measures can lead to mass unemployment and how unprepared our mental health systems are to support a new wave of people needing help.

For those individuals and families who have been navigating this system for many years this is not new, but with COVID-19 we are seeing people needing help for the first time and discovering the chronic underfunding of community support.

When state and federal governments made agreements to shift funding from community mental health programs to the NDIS, we pointed out to decision and policy makers that this was just bad policy. We knew it was going to make this underfunding persist further. The good news is that NDIS is providing substantial packages of support for people with mental illness who meet the threshold for access. The bad news is that this has left 88 per cent of people with community support needs – who were not the target of the NDIS – facing a world with far fewer options for support.

As COVID-19 is reminding us, not everyone who needs mental health support is experiencing chronic or severe mental illness. Many just need simple supports to help them manage day to day until they feel able to cope again. These are supports to help them keep or find employment, support with housing or just managing relationships in their lives.

Our counterparts in Tasmania did some policy work in this area and found that when we are addressing needs of people experiencing mental distress during COVID-19 we need to have different approaches to messaging and support for people with pre-existing mental illness compared to people without a prior illness. Yet regardless of a person’s current or prior experience, the standout issue in both groups was that they were facing isolation, loneliness and lack of connection.

Meanwhile, carer groups were at pains to highlight the limitations of technology and virtual services as a replacement for human contact. Family carers in surveys in South Australia and New South Wales reported that they were experiencing poor levels of support pre-COVID-19 and that the pandemic has made the situation worse. As Carers NSW reported; “The existing inequalities for carers in relation to digital access, affordability and literacy have been further exposed and exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Increased and sudden reliance on technology for social connection, medical appointments, therapies, and caring has further disadvantaged some carers and the person(s) they care for.”

Early in the pandemic there was a realisation that we would need to put extra funding into mental health and we welcomed the investments by the South Australian and federal governments.

The stressors associated with COVID-19 are not going away any time soon, nor are the mental health impacts that come with it. We would argue that in an environment where we have seen mental health underfunded for many years there is an ongoing need well past COVID-19 to increase funding for community mental health support.

But now as we wind back restrictions and encourage the country back to work, we are also seeing intent from the federal government to wind back a lot of their COVID-19 mental health investments.

We would encourage both the South Australian and federal governments to consider the effectiveness of their COVID-related initiatives and whether some are worthy of retaining into the future. Some, such as the temporary housing initiatives for some of the homeless in Adelaide, could be used as a springboard to more permanent solutions.

In Mental Health Week we encourage everyone to consider what we can each do to improve our own mental health and wellbeing, that of people dear to us and that of our community.

But if ever there was a time to fix a broken mental health system, our recent run of drought, fire and pandemic should tell us that now is it.

The South Australian Government has their Mental Health Services Plan and the Commonwealth Government has the Productivity Commission Report from their Inquiry into Mental Health.

So this Mental Health Week, we urge our state and federal governments to work together to substantially reduce the massive underinvestment in mental health, particularly in community support.

Geoff Harris is executive director, Mental Health Coalition of SA

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