The Prime Minister’s adviser on suicide prevention says Australia’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a masterclass on disease prevention that should be applied to mental health, using the same concept of staying ahead of the curve.

Christine Morgan said on Monday she was certain the federal government was committed to reforming the mental health system despite the mounting cost of its response to the summer bushfire crisis and COVID-19.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” Ms Morgan said. “That big reform agenda is very much on everybody’s minds.”

It was always difficult to get the government to invest in a benefit that was not going to be realised until the future, but the pandemic had shown how it could be done, she said.

“If I look at what has been done by governments across the spectrum of the response to the pandemic, then it’s a wonderful 101 tutorial in how to do prevention well. You want to stay ahead of the curve.

“That somehow has to become translatable across into our mental health space.”

Ms Morgan, who is also the chief executive of the National Mental Health Commission, made the comments on a podcast produced by Future Generation, a listed investment company that donates part of its assets to mental health and youth charities.

She said the sector had high hopes that the federal government would act on the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, which delivered its final report on June 31.

The draft report found the cost to the economy of mental ill-health and suicide was conservatively in the order of $50 billion per year.

Among its draft recommendations were early childhood screening for social and emotional development problems, more teacher training and outreach services in schools and reducing known suicide risks through measures such as following up with people who have made a suicide attempt.

“Effectively the productivity impact, the productivity cost, the years of life lost when you don’t do it properly measured in quantifiable terms, is so big that there is a compelling argument towards [prevention],” Ms Morgan said.

The report described a health system mostly focused on physical illness, with mental health “tacked on”. But there were many differentiating factors between the two, including that mental health tended to emerge in younger people, there was less awareness of what constituted mental ill-health and non-health services were key to prevention and recovery.

Ms Morgan said Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy – “one of the most balanced and non-panicked people I have ever met” – had done much to advance the cause of mental health by adding a psychiatrist to his “rugby team” of deputies, as he has described them. But she believed there needed to be a permanent chief psychiatrist or mental health officer.

“We need those who understand the intricacies and how to deal with the very severe illnesses, but also understand the challenges for those who are in a different part of the spectrum who don’t want to perhaps be labelled with a diagnosis,” she said.

❏ Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; beyondblue 1300 224 636.

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