'Dysfunctional' mental health system needs boost in wake of pandemic: experts

Experts are warning the current mental health system is ill-equipped to respond to a forecast 30 per cent spike in mental illness in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, calling for a boost to services, similar to the response provided for COVID-19 patients.

Psychiatrist Ian Hickie, co-director of the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre, said the "dysfunctional" public mental health system, in which patients cycle in and out of emergency rooms, was not equipped to respond to the crisis.

Former Australian of the Year and psychiatrist Patrick McGorry said there was "no shortage of solutions" to the crisis if decision-makers were willing to treat mental health with the same seriousness as the physical health challenge of the coronavirus, which sparked more than $2.4 billion in federal funding.

"What we're asking for is the same sort of response and they did for COVID-19, in other words, beefing up the health system to deal with it - the equivalent of ventilators and [intensive care unit] beds, but in much more community-based responses," he said.

The Morrison government this week appointed psychiatrist Ruth Vine to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee in a signal it is taking seriously the mental health risks of the pandemic, which experts warn could result in a 25 per cent increase in suicides.

As national cabinet deliberates its coronavirus mental health recovery plan - to be unveiled on Friday - modelling by Professor McGorry's Orygen predicted an extra 370,000 Victorians would experience mental health disorders as a result of the pandemic in the next two years.

Professor McGorry, one of a group of experts advising the federal government, said this represented a 30 per cent increase and a similar pattern could be expected across the nation as Australians were impacted by job losses, economic uncertainty and isolation.

"There will be a very big wave of need for care ... that will be sustained for several years," he said.

He called for investment to boost an already "overwhelmed" mental health system, saying: "There is a huge sense of urgency around COVID-19; why can't we have that in mental health?"

Professor Hickie said governments should enlist the private sector to help respond to the mental health crisis and contract private hospitals to deliver services to public patients.

He pointed to the federal government's deal with private hospitals to deliver services if needed to help treat COVID-19 patients, saying: "I want to see the government do that immediately in mental health".

Suicide Prevention Australia chief executive Nieves Murray called for the creation of "safe spaces" where Australians could go for mental health support without having to attend hospital emergency rooms, and for Centrelink staff to be trained in suicide prevention.

Australian Private Hospitals Association Michael Roff said the sector was open to working with governments to help with the pandemic's mental health response, saying private hospitals had capacity to take on "an increased role".Ad

"A lot of people don't have private health insurance and can't get treatment in the public system," Mr Roff said.

He said there was "a need for public and private to work better together" but this had been hampered by "a reluctance from any of the public sector funding bodies to loosen their purse strings".

Australians with health insurance can access mental health services as in-patients in private hospitals instantly if they upgrade their cover, under rules that require funds waive the waiting period on a one-off basis for members who need treatment.

Comment has been sought from federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.


This article was originally posted on The Sydney Morning Herald here.

Orygen and The Brain and Mind Centre are current Hearts and Minds beneficiaries.


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