Greens launch plan for better rural mental health

ABC Rural By Anna Vidot 21 August 2013

The Greens have launched their policy for rural mental health, calling for an additional $550 million for the sector over four years.

The policy includes funding for more flexible and community-based care for regional Australians, better services, better training for people in regional communities, and better outreach programs.

The eight-point plan is the result of consultations conducted by Greens mental health spokeswoman, South Australian Senator Penny Wright, who held 55 meetings with 185 people in 24 towns across regional Australia to speak with community representatives and mental health professionals about what's lacking in rural mental health services and how to fill those gaps.

"One of the things that's clear is that there's a real shortage of qualified mental health professionals in country areas," Senator Wright said.

"We have a workforce plan, which is a strategy to attract, train and retain qualified mental health workers in rural areas because it's important that we have those people there.

"But it's also about training frontline people in communities, to know what to do when mental health issues are emerging."

Those 'frontline people' could include locals such as stock and station agents, and hairdressers, Senator Wright says, to give communities more capacity to cope with mental health issues as they arise.

Over four years, the plan would allocate $55 million per year mental health service reform, including developing more flexible community-based care; $20 million per year for facilities such as mental health and wellbeing centres; $35 million per year for training, education and research for the mental health workforce and $15 million to train frontline staff and community members; $35 million per year for better prevention programs including accommodation and residential care; and a yearly $4.2 million 'social inclusion campaign' to reduce the stigma around mental illness.

The Greens say the plan has been fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office, and would be paid for by a range of previously announced measures, including a revamped mining tax.

Senator Wright says she'll work with whoever wins government to see the plan become national policy.

"I have seen this as a means of putting this issue on the agenda, of being a voice for people who often feel that they're ignored.

"I am speaking to the mental health people in the old parties and I am going to keep fighting for this, to make sure that these good ideas that we've gained from talking to the experts, that they can have some traction, and that we can get these into good policy."

Associate Professor Russel Roberts, the chair of the National Alliance for Rural and Regional Mental Health, has welcomed the policy, which he says was developed through good consultation with mental health advocates, is comprehensive and well-designed.

He says he hopes to now see some commitments from the two major parties on rural mental health before the election, and he's critical of the funding that's been allocated to rural mental health until now.

"The Government said $2.2 billion [over five years] in the May 2011 Budget, but really, when you take out the money that had already been announced and stuff they'd taken from somewhere else, it was really $196 million of new money per year.

"Now for 4.4 million Australians who experience mental illness, that's about 85 cents per week, and most of that went to 15 to 25-year-olds, and almost all of it went to the major metros, so very little for important areas such as older persons, mothers and babies, youngsters... often by the time we get to the 15 to 25 age group, it's too late," he said.

"There's two things [that we're looking for from the major parties]: one is that rural mental health gets its fair share. That's all we're asking for, nothing special, just our fair share of mental health funding.

"Secondly, that [the major parties] talk to us about it. We're a bit of policy analysts in Canberra coming up with great ideas when they haven't even visited, haven't even got out of Canberra."

The office of Liberal mental health spokeswoman Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has not responded to ABC Rural requests for comment on the Coalition's mental health plans.

A spokesperson for Labor's mental health minister, Senator Jacinta Collins, gave a statement: "Labor has made mental health a priority for all Australians, regardless of where they live, and we know that mental health issues are significant issues in rural and regional communities.

"The Government's e-mental health initiatives help to extend mental health support across the country.

"For example, MindSpot is our free online 'virtual clinic', so anyone can access mental health care at any time, day or night, and '' is a mental health portal linking Australians to online services and referring them to local services if needed.

"Labor's e-headspace is also a great service, providing support to young Australians aged 12 to 25, through online access to counsellors and mental health care. This builds on our expansion of vital headspace centres across the country, including in rural and regional Australia, which will reach 90 locations by 2015."

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