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Australia "must act with urgency” on mental health reforms, former prime minister Julia Gillard has told a CEDA event.
Speaking in her capacity as the Chair of Beyond Blue, Ms Gillard said the pandemic has “amplified pre-existing problems in our mental health system”, which she described as “chronically underfunded” and “confusing to navigate”.
“Too many Australians are told they’re either too sick, or not sick enough,” she said.
Beyond Blue is calling for a whole of government approach to the issue and the redesigning of the National Mental Health Commission into a stand-alone, statutory body.
It’s third – and “most important” - priority is the creation of a “compassionate system that works for and is co-designed by the people who use it”, Ms Gillard said.
"We must harness the wisdom of those living with mental illness, and their support networks.
“They know better than anyone what support they need to survive and thrive.
“Too often we fail to see the whole person, treating them as a collection of symptoms in need of a quick fix rather than understanding their unique life circumstances.
“What has become abundantly clear through the pandemic is the causes of mental ill health are often structural and multi-faceted, and our response must reflect that.
“Secure work, a safe and stable place to call home, food on the table, and meaningful connection are every bit as important as access to services.
“These social structures are the foundational pillars of mental wellbeing and suicide prevention.
“When one or more of these pillars is removed, things can quickly fall apart.”
She also noted that “the full effects of COVID-19 on mental health yet to fully emerge”.
Stifling our collective prosperity
Ms Gillard said that mental health issues cost the economy an estimated $200 billion each year in things such as healthcare costs and lost productivity.
“That equates to more than one tenth of Australia’s entire economic production in 2019 – more than $550 million every day,” she said.
“These are pre-COVID estimates. Given the rising distress in the community, costs are likely to now be much higher.
“It’s a toll borne by the whole community – families, health and social services, and businesses small and large.
“The 2021 Intergenerational Report tells us that to be economically strong and support an ageing population, we must build a high-functioning, diverse, and innovative workforce.
"Every episode of mental ill health can put a ‘dint’ in a person’s unique potential. Left unaddressed, these individual dints also stifle our collective prosperity.
"People who are mentally well are more likely to get a job, stay in a job and perform well in their roles.
“And a good job provides protective mental health factors, through financial security, social connection, and purpose.”
Busiest period on record
Ms Gillard said the pandemic had been Beyond Blue’s busiest period on record, with the Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service used more than 1.4 million times since launching in April last year.
Demand for its counselling services was up 60 per cent last year, and is already up 53 per cent on 2019 levels this year, with six out of ten contacts from those aged 15 to 34.
While there been no significant change in suicide rates, ambulances had been called to more incidents of self-harm and suicidal thoughts in the lockdown states in July.
“We know that mental ill-health and suicidality can lead to incalculable social and emotional costs.
“Life trajectories are interrupted, hopes and aspirations put on hold, and plans thrown off course.”
“Turn words into action”
Ms GiIlard said she was encouraged by commitment by governments across the country to implement recommendations of reviews in the Australia’s mental health and suicide prevention systems.
“This commitment, along with record budget announcements, is welcome.
“But it must be delivered with urgency and ambition. And it will need to be enduring.
“If we are to finally secure wholesale structural reform and build the nation’s resilience for future shocks, we must look beyond election cycles and turn words into action.”