Health | Ageing

Broken mental health system prompts Victorian Royal Commission

The Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System will provide a blueprint for lasting change and help establish the state as a leader in mental health support systems, Victorian Minister for Mental Health, the Hon. Martin Foley told a CEDA event in Melbourne.

The Royal Commission is the first of its kind in Australia and is tasked with providing a comprehensive set of recommendations about how to best reform the current mental health system and support Victorians with mental illness.

Mr Foley said nearly half of the people attending the event would experience poor mental health in their lifetimes with around one in five experiencing mental illness this year alone. Many of those would suffer in silence and receive no treatment. 

“This is deeply concerning at lots of levels but particularly concerning because poor mental health, when untreated, when unacknowledged increases the likelihood of all sorts of poor outcomes not the least being self-harm and in the most tragic of circumstances, suicide,” he said. 

Mr Foley said almost 600 Victorians every year take their own life, more than double the number of lives lost to the road toll. Suicide is now the nation’s leading cause of death of people aged between 15 and 44. 

“Mental illness is not something that happens somewhere else,” Mr Foley said.

“Mental illness is something that happens to me, it happens to you, it happens to us. It may go unnoticed, it may indeed go deliberately hidden away, it may get lost in the crowd, but it is everywhere and ubiquitous.

“And no-one and no community is immune from its impact.

“And yet we know our mental health system is facing major challenges in coping at many levels, particularly with the rapidly increasing demand.”

The Minister said the Royal Commission would raise public awareness of mental illness by giving voice to the stories of those impacted by mental illness. It would also provide a pathway towards better access to high-quality and safe mental health services for people who need them. 

“It’s an opportunity to have a community conversation, a political conversation, an economic conversation about the social licence we need to drive change,” he said.

“The highest form of inquiry we have available to us – a Royal Commission – is not just an inquiry into the particulars of the service, it’s a community led engagement process that says this is  a serious issue for all of us and we need change.”

Mr Foley lamented that Victoria once led the nation in accessible mental health service delivery but no more.

He said the proportion of Victorians receiving public clinical mental health services is now lower than in any other Australian jurisdiction. Fewer than half of the three per cent of Victorians with acute mental illness at any one time now receive the specialist clinical mental health treatment they need.

“That is clearly not good enough and the consequences can be and often are catastrophic. The fact is that over the past 10 years our mental health services have failed to keep pace with demand,” he said. 

Mental health services are also failing those recovering from mental illness. 

“Our public mental health services are pretty much a revolving door when it comes to the most acutely unwell,” Mr Foley said. 

“Nearly 14 per cent of Victorians are re-admitted from our acute mental health services within 28 days; the worst outcome in the country. 

“This is clearly an unacceptable situation and no doubt one that will occupy the mind of the commissioners over the next two years.”

The Royal Commission is being led by Penny Armytage as chairperson, supported by commissioners Professor Bernadette McSherry, Professor Allan Fels AO and Dr Alex Cockram. 

It will investigate best-practice treatment models, developing and retaining a highly skilled workforce, how to best support families and carers and how to improve outcomes for those at greatest risk of experiencing poor mental health. 

Mr Foley said a final report of the Royal Commission is due in October 2020. In the meantime, the State Government is continuing to invest in mental health efforts aimed at stabilising the system ahead of fundamental reform. 

“Our mental health system in Victoria in short is broken and its foundations are crumbling,” Mr Foley said. 

“Victorians deserve much better than what they are getting at the moment from our mental health system. 

“The Royal Commission will kick start lasting, system-wide change. It will provide us with practical recommendations and the platform to drive meaningful and enduring reform across our mental health system.”