At least 11% of people in Australia right now have mental health issues severe enough to cause high or very high levels of psychological distress (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005). That means that, if you are in a room with 20 other people, it is likely that at least 2 of them have a mental health issue. You might even be one of them!
What is “psychological distress“? Related words are anguish, pain, suffering, hopelessness, torment, anxiety, dread, grief and sorrow. Severe levels of these can lead to disruption in your life’s normal activities, including work, study or friendships, and can make life literally unbearable.
A major issue in Australia is that many people (one source says 60%) who experience such distress in their daily lives, do not receive appropriate treatment. This could be for a host of different reasons, such as the social stigma surrounding mental disorders, beliefs that one should be able to cope without external help, or restricted access to mental health care services. It is this last reason I wish to discuss.
In 2006, the Australian Government introduced the Better Access to Mental Health Care Initiative, designed to streamline the process of screening for mental health issues, and to provide appropriate therapy for people who need it most. It was also designed to promote a team-based approach to mental health, facilitating referral pathways between various mental health specialists. General Practitioners have received basic training in mental health assessment and management, which has greatly increased the number of patients who are treated for mental health issues.
In addition, Medicare rebates were given to mental health professionals for the delivery of these services, greatly reducing the cost of therapy for clients. Although I’ve only given a very succinct overview of this initiative, overall it has been positive for Australians with mental health issues and their families.
However, Medicare rebates are capped at 12 sessions per year or 18 for very severe cases. This, in many instances, is vastly insufficient for many people, who really need weekly sessions over a number of years. One would hope that, eventually, more sessions would be subsidised, so that they could afford to receive the treatment they need.
Good news! (or not?)
Early in 2011, a thorough review of the Better Access initiative was conducted, reporting that it had been very successful. Surely, such a report would indicate that an increase in budget was the way to go…
Shortly after, in May 2011, the Labor Government unveiled its new budget for mental health in Australia. To the dismay and shock of tens of thousands of Australians, one of their “improvements” to the better access initiative was to reduce the number of Medicare-covered sessions from 18 to 10, without any exceptions allowed!
You may have heard a slightly different story on the news, because the politicians behind this absurd decision are very careful to highlight that the change is from 12 sessions (the previous minimum) to 10 sessions (the new maximum), completely ignoring the fact that so many Australians were using 18 sessions a year before and found it insufficient.
This also flies in the face of overwhelmingly convincing research evidence, that shows that even the simplest forms of mental health issues require at least 20 sessions to lead to long-term benefits and reduce the risks of relapse.
What can I do about this?
- Learn as much as you can about the issue. At the bottom of this article is a list of websites to look up
- Download the Position Paper to present to politicians, then contact the office of your local MP, send them a copy of the document, and request an interview to present the issue. Make you sure you’re full bottle on the topic first, the aim is to convince them to use their voice to vote against this outrageous move from our government.
- You can also sign an online petition, join the facebook group and vote on getup.org.au. Click the images below to participate.
- Ben Mulling’s blog (the author of the position paper and the facebook group, and one of the leading figures in this fight against the budget cut)
- News release on the budget cuts
- Australian Government website describing the Better Access Initiative
- General Practitioners’ website describing the Better Access Initiative
- Medicare Cuts Penalise Mental Health Patients, Australia (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Budget Cuts Will Deny Effective Treatment To People With Serious Mental Health Disorders, Australia (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Worse access to mental health care! (http://www.psyber.net.au)