A once-in-a-lifetime chance

Penny Armytage is Chairperson of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system.

PENNY ARMYTAGE gives an insight into the work of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System is an acknowledgement that the current system isn’t operating at its best, and that there is a real opportunity for improvement in the way we deal with mental health in Victoria.

We have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make changes so the mental health system works better for people when and where they need it most.

The numbers make for stark reading. We know that one in five of us will experience a mental illness every year. In 2017, 621 Victorians lost their lives to suicide. For every suicide there are many more people deeply affected, including families, friends and colleagues.

This Royal Commission is committed to hearing from people who are living with and caring for those with a mental illness. Service providers and mental health professionals – and people who contribute to the broader system – also have a role to play in seeing this Commission achieve its goals.

We recently concluded our public hearings, where we heard from more than 90 witnesses, from a breadth of consumer perspectives – those who had lived through institutionalisation, Aboriginal elders, farmers and politicians, clinicians, sector leaders, young people, refugees and football players.

The evidence we heard reaffirmed the view that mental health challenges can affect anyone at any time and we would like to acknowledge those individuals who took the time both professionally and personally to be part of this.

The contributions spanned the systemic challenges with our current system and generated many ideas for reform.

Submissions to the Royal Commission opened on 18 April and closed on 5 July, with more than 2,500 people and organisations having their say. The submissions include a range of perspectives from people with lived experience, carers and families, the workforce, mental health and other organisations.

In order to expand our understanding of the broader community perspective, we have also reached out to 3,000 Victorians through a survey on attitudes to, and understanding of, mental health conditions.

We have also experienced increased interest in the work of the Commission via our website and social media channels, all of which builds on what we heard through the more than 60 community consultation sessions earlier this year, which were held in more than 20 regional, rural and metropolitan areas.

The Commission will now deliberate on what we’ve heard and consider the many submissions to inform our interim report in November 2019.

We will then plan our further lines of investigation, which are likely to include targeted engagement and research, roundtables, hearings, discussions with our Expert Advisory Committee, leading thinkers and researchers, ahead of our final report in October 2020.

All the work to date has provided us with a real opportunity to hear first-hand from people about their experiences and ideas for change.

Importantly, throughout the work of the Commission so far, we have also heard a great diversity of voices, which have proven very informative.

The individual and very personal commitment from people with lived experience and workers in the system is inspiring. There is genuine goodwill and desire to contribute and participate, to generate positive change. We do not underestimate the effort it takes for people to share their thoughts.

We have also noticed that the conversation about mental illness has been broadened within the community and that while there is still more work that needs to be done, people’s understanding of mental illness is expanding.

Given the Commission’s remit and timelines, the focus is on identifying and solving system-wide issues, rather than investigating individual cases or incidents.

We need to acknowledge what currently works within the system as well as identify what needs to change – that’s what this Royal Commission affords us. This is a unique opportunity to make a change for the right reasons, not just for change’s sake.

The spotlight is well and truly shining on mental health in Victoria, and while this may bring to light some things that are difficult to talk about, it is vitally important that we have the conversation.

We need to ensure that we treat mental health in the same way that we treat any other medical condition – with respect, dignity and appropriate care. We feel the weight of the responsibility in undertaking this work, but we don’t shy away from this challenge. We know what is at stake.

If you’d like to stay connected to our work, please visit www.rcvmhs.vic.gov.au to see how you can stay informed and be a part of the change. If you have any questions, please call 1800 00 11 34.

If you or a family member has immediate concerns or requires assistance, contact beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.