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Let’s get Victoria’s mental health system back on track

Victoria lags behind other states in meeting the needs of people with mental illness. In the next term of Parliament, the Victorian government must do everything to get our mental health system back on track.

Our mental health system was once the envy of the Australia. We were the first to take people with mental illness out of institutions and care for them in the community.  But under-investment by successive Victorian governments has seen many people fall by the wayside. Victoria has the lowest per capita expenditure on mental health in the country, 13 per cent below the national average.

It’s time to redress this imbalance. State and federal governments must work together to re-build Victoria’s mental health system. It needs a massive funding injection so the system can promote good mental health, intervene early when people are at risk of mental illness, and provide necessary treatment and support.

Sadly, community mental health services and their clients have been the big losers in the NDIS transition. For some people experiencing mental illness, community mental health workers are their only link to the outside world. Those who qualify for the NDIS can still get help from community mental health workers, but only a small number of the estimated 150,000 people experiencing severe mental illness qualify. Each year, 135,000 Victorian adults rely on mental health services outside the NDIS.

Even for those who do qualify, a change in the funding model means community mental health workers can’t provide a holistic and responsive service. One frustrated mental health worker says:

“Before the NDIS was in place, if a person didn’t answer a knock on the door, we used to be able to check on them two to three times a week, to see if they were OK, or needed help. But now, we can only check on them in a week’s time. That person might have been sitting in the dark for a week. By this stage they need a trip to the hospital, not the doctor.”

This represents the stark systemic issues facing Victoria’s mental health system. The system’s every pressure point feels the funding shortfall. When people can’t get help from community-based services, they end up in crisis services: ambulances, hospitals, police stations and prisons. In four years, mental health related emergency department admissions have risen by more than 19 per cent.

Governments must fund community mental health services outside the NDIS, so people without individual funding packages can get help. In Victoria, community services have long provided psychosocial rehabilitation and support services, helping people with mental health difficulties stay well and able to work, study, care for their children and families, and participate in community life. We need to strengthen these services, including suicide prevention programs, early intervention for young people and community mental health services.

Ambulances, hospitals and prisons aren’t the answer to mental health problems. Governments need to listen to the experts – people with lived experience and service providers – to get our mental health system back on track.