The funding committed to mental health in the May Federal Budget is a substantial and welcome relief for crisis and support services buckling under the weight of demand. The crucial next step we continue to advocate for lies in an expression we all know well: prevention is better than cure, writes Ben Bartlett, Director of Government Relations and Communications at ReachOut Australia.

In this year’s Federal Budget, mental health services received an extra $2.3 billion in funding, a significant and long-overdue investment. Most of the funding will be directed towards expanding treatment services, especially in aid of suicide prevention.

This investment is the first phase of the Federal Government’s response to the findings of the 2020 Productivity Commission’s Mental Health Inquiry Report and the 2020 National Suicide Prevention Adviser’s Final Report. Both reports found serious, systemic issues in preventing and managing mental ill-health in Australia. It also follows the 2021 release of the Royal Commission’s report into Victoria’s Mental Health System, which found the system had “catastrophically failed” to live up to expectations.

Some of the investment addresses surprising gaps in Australia’s mental health system. For example, $298 million is being directed to ensuring every Australian who has attempted suicide receives care after they leave hospital. There is also $202 million in funding earmarked for workforce training, as the frontline struggles to keep up with demand in a regular environment, let alone during a pandemic.

Digital mental health services also received a boost, with $111 million allocated to help meet the growth in demand for online counselling and support. This investment means organisations like ReachOut, Australia’s first digital mental health service, can support young people and their parents who wouldn’t otherwise access support, a cause we have championed for more than 20 years. We saw a 35% increase in demand for services last year – a clear indicator that the digital environment is a space Australians, especially younger Australians, are comfortable and willing to seek help in.

Importantly, $107 million has been allocated to preventing mental ill health in vulnerable and higher-risk groups, such as First Nations communities. Support for initiatives such as Gayaa Dhuwi and Lifeline’s culturally appropriate, 24-hour call line, can be life saving for our Indigenous communities. Rates of suicide in Indigenous communities are double that of the rest of the Australian population.

Shifting the focus to prevention

Sadly, instances of common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression are continuing to increase, which indicates the system isn’t working as it should. Suicide continues to be the main cause of death for Australians aged 15 to 49 years old. Further, half of the mental health conditions Australians experience emerge by age 14, with devastating consequences. This reinforces the case for early intervention – research shows one in 10 young people aged 12-17 years old will self-harm, one in 13 will seriously consider a suicide attempt, and one in 40 will attempt suicide.

While this Budget is a huge boost to the sector and having certainty of funding is enormously important for not-for-profit organisations like ReachOut, we will continue to advocate for greater investment in prevention and early intervention. A system predicated on preventing mental ill-health from reaching crisis point isn’t just good for people but would take the pressure off acute clinical services, and save billions in the long run. In 2018/19 alone, the annual cost to the economy of mental ill-health and suicide in Australia was estimated at $70 billion.

We do not know the full impact of COVID-19 yet on the nation’s mental health, and there is still a long way to go before life is back to ‘normal’. However, with young people reporting a decline in their ability to carry out daily activities in 2020 and more than a million accessing our services already this year, we can say with certainty that the mental health impact will be substantial and ongoing.

Keep pushing for change

The full benefits of the mental health investment announced in the Federal Budget can only be realised if gaps and overlaps between the Commonwealth and state and territory governments’ responsibilities are resolved. For example, following up with a patient after a suicide attempt requires coordination between Federal and State-run services and these connections have traditionally been fraught with challenges. There is a National Agreement in the works to deal with these systemic issues, but the real test will come in implementation and there is a lot of work to be done yet.

While no reform or funding boost is ever going to be perfect, it’s difficult to overstate its significance for a sector fighting to provide the mental health support that improves and saves Australians’ lives. We are encouraged by the Government’s moves and the national conversations underway which work to shift the dial, and put mental health high on the Federal agenda – where it belongs.

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