How can we make 2020 the year of mental health and wellbeing?

20 February 2020

Julia Gillard

I believe that 2020 is the year the nation will come together to profoundly reform the mental health sector.

Across the country, there is growing momentum for change. Every Aussie is concerned about the toll of suicide.

We all know people are struggling.

Politicians, decision-makers, the community and the mental health and suicide prevention sectors are united in understanding that we must improve the way this nation supports people, families and friends dealing with mental illness and suicide.

But I know from my career in politics that windows of opportunity to act don’t stay open for long. That is why now is the time to be clear about what must change, and what we agree on.

Now is the time to think big and set out a reform agenda for governments, employers, and indeed all of us, to act upon.

Such change will not be easy but I believe our nation is ready for the challenge: because public sentiment and political will is aligned.

The National Mental Health Commission’s 2014 review of mental health programs and services found most funding was going towards acute care and crisis services.

Of course sufficient hospital and community-based beds and specialist mental health services are vital, and the system must support every person who finds themselves at this crisis point.

But the system can do better. 

We must find alternatives to busy and overwhelmed emergency departments for people who do not need physical treatment but are acutely distressed or suicidal.

A more appropriate place would be a safe and well-equipped community-based service. 

When we have workforce shortages, limited options and too many people are channelled into acute services, everyone feels the strain, and everyone bears the cost.

We should do everything possible to prevent people needing such intensive support in the first place: by supporting individuals to stay mentally well – and acting earlier on emerging issues before they develop into more severe illness.

We can do this by investing in prevention and early intervention.

At any one time in Australia:

  • Three per cent of us live with severe and complex mental health conditions and often require ongoing, specialist services and supports;
  • 14 per cent have a mild to moderate mental health issue, most likely anxiety or depression;
  • 23 per cent of us are showing early signs and are at risk of becoming mentally unwell;
  • And 60 per cent of us are mentally well.

Those who live with severe and complex mental health needs deserve excellent and empathetic services and supports and a multidisciplinary workforce to deliver them.

But the millions of Australians who are at risk or are managing mild and moderate conditions don’t necessarily need the same services. They could benefit from alternative supports, provided earlier, by new, properly trained and supervised workers. 

The Interim Report of the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health estimates that up to 450,000 Australians currently receiving Medicare-subsided clinical care could benefit from what are called lower intensity supports.

Low intensity therapies are based on evidence, are safe, accessible, and are proven to work. They do not typically require a clinically-trained workforce.

They give local people jobs. They can break through the self-stigma many people feel about accessing mental health services. And, delivered at scale, they cost less.

Yet few low intensity services exist in Australia.

That’s why Beyond Blue developed NewAccess.

NewAccess coaches work with people with mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, giving them practical strategies to recover.

Coaches receive intensive training in proven therapies and regularly check in with their clinical supervisors about each person in their care. If people need higher intensity clinical support, they are connected straight to it.

Currently available at sites in NSW, the ACT, Queensland and Victoria, NewAccess coaches offer support either in person, by phone or through video calls. The service is free and people do not need a GP referral to access it.

NewAccess has been designed to measure people’s clinical improvement, at every stage of the treatment program, and is delivering recovery rates of about 70 per cent.

Expanding low intensity services such as NewAccess can ensure people with mild to moderate mental health conditions can connect with the right support at the right time, and prevent congestion of more intensive services. We stop the preventable flow of people needing higher care.

In 2020, change is possible.  We are ready for mental health reform and together, we can improve the mental health and wellbeing of all Australians.