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Making mental health an election priority

With Mental Health Week upon us, VCOSS is joining the community mental health sector in giving a voice to the thousands of Victorians living with mental illness, their families and carers, who are at risk of falling through the gaps and missing out on community mental health services and support in a reformed system.Image

The Lifting the Lid on Mental Health Alliance represents 20 mental health organisations, led by the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC -the peak body for mental health consumers in Victoria), Tandem (the peak body for families and carers of people with mental health issues) and VICSERV (representing the community mental health sector).

The Lifting the Lid Alliance challenges all political parties to make mental health a priority in the lead-up to this year’s Victorian election. It has developed key messages and asks in the lead-up to the election, and is asking for supporters to sign its petition.

At a pre-election forum in September 2014, speakers representing mental health consumers, carers and the community mental health sector called for strong commitments to address the gaps in mental health support across Victoria.

Jill Gallagher, CEO of Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, spoke about the importance of partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal services and the need for better training for health professionals, to improve the cultural responsiveness of the health system.

Heather Holst from HomeGround called for a ‘housing first system’, and a specialist housing and mental health response.

Kim Koop from VICSERV warned of the gap that is emerging for people with mental health issues who may not be eligible for services under the fully rolled out National Disability Insurance Scheme. She estimated 8,000-10,000 people may no longer be able to access recovery oriented support.

Michelle Swann from Tandem said that carers are a vital resource, but often experience poor health and wellbeing. Mental health carers need advocacy, respite, education, information, counselling and peer support.

Nathan Grixti from the Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council spoke about how funding for community mental health services helps to respond to diverse communities with complex needs, and reduces pressure on clinical and acute systems. Consumer communities and the peer workforce have demonstrated they are innovative and capable of developing reform initiatives that are effective and favoured by consumers.

Minister for Mental Health Mary Wooldridge, Shadow Minister for Health Gavin Jennings, and Greens spokesperson for mental health Colleen Hartland, addressed the forum and responded to audience questions.

Minister Wooldridge spoke about the government’s new mental health legislation, community mental health support services reform, increased mental health sector funding and the release of a new workforce plan for the clinical, community and consumer workforce.

Gavin Jennings said current reforms have great potential but also risks, including people being ineligible for the NDIS, lack of funding creating a ration system, and people being lost in the transition to the reformed system. He also highlighted the importance of diversity in service models, and the risk that only large organisations will survive reforms.

Colleen Hartland spoke about the importance of specialist support for hard to reach groups and the need to return funding to specialist services that was lost in the CMHSS recommissioning process. She said social and public housing should be built as part of all new developments. Colleen Hartland also said that carers require adequate support and a commitment to funding beyond 2015, and that increasing the consumer workforce to 10 per cent of the mental health workforce makes sense.

A key concern in presentations and questions was the possible gap in services for people with mental illness as a result of a full NDIS rollout. Minister Wooldridge emphasised that the current priority is defining the NDIS system to make sure as many people as possible are eligible. If too many people are not eligible, there may be a need to renegotiate the funding arrangements.

Participants questioned what they saw as a lack of clear future policies and plans by both major parties. Minister Wooldridge said that the current government has implemented reforms the sector has spoken about for years, and time was needed to “bed them down”, not just jump to the next thing. Gavin Jennings said he understood the problems people with mental illness face and needed to hear about how to address them from experts like those in the room.

Another key theme was the need to provide community-based, recovery oriented supports. Gavin Jennings said we need to provide more treatment options outside hospitals, but acute services had a tendency to “suck up all the resources.”

All political parties on the panel acknowledged the importance and opportunities of developing the consumer and carer workforce.