The state government's Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System has taken its first public submissions in Ballarat, as it seeks to discover and address major issues affecting communities across the state.
Established in February, the commission has been given broad terms of reference including how to best to support the prevention of suicide and mental illness; how to provide the best outcomes for those who are affected by mental health issues, both patients and families as well as support and emergency workers; and any other findings that strengthen and improve Victoria's mental health system.
Chair of the commission Ms Penny Armytage has a long history working in Victoria's public service. She was previously the secretary of the Department of Justice, a commissioner of Corrections Victoria and an executive director of operations for the Department of Human Services.
She has also been a partner a KPMG and a president of the Institute of Public Administration.
Ms Armytage told The Courier the commission is just starting to take public submissions, and its work will be defined by what the commissioners hear over the coming weeks.
It has been raised as an issue, and obviously as the ultimate human tragedy, people taking their own lives, it's a clear area of focus for us as the royal commissionPenny Armytage, chair of the Royal Commission.
"At this stage what we are doing in our royal commission is listening to people who have either had a lived experience of a mental illness, and are living with that mental illness; or they have a family member, or friend or colleague who may be impacted; or they work in the field or related fields," Ms Armytage said.
Ballarat's high suicide rate is something that has been brought to the commission as an issue to be dealt with, and Ms Armytage acknowledged the depth of concern which exists in the city about its continuing impact.
"It has been raised as an issue, and obviously as the ultimate human tragedy, people taking their own lives, it's a clear area of focus for us as the royal commission. At this stage, we are spending our time listening to people; we are not at solutions yet," she says.
Ms Armytage says the commission frames its approach with three basic questions: what is good about the mental health system; where there are gaps and what needs to be improved; and finally what are the key opportunities and priorities for reform.
The state government has committed already to accepting the RC's findings, and written submissions are being sought. More information can be found at rcvmhs.vic.gov.au
Victorian Legal Aid says country people are missing out on mental health services
Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) says one-quarter of its clients who present in criminal or family law cases have a disability or mental health issue - a statistic it hopes the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System will address.
Last year VLA's Ballarat office assisted over 450 people who identified as experiencing a mental health issue and needed legal assistance; 20 per cent of their clients with criminal law representations in Ballarat last year also said they had mental health problems.
Rowan McRae, executive director of Civil Justice, Access and Equity at Victoria Legal Aid says there is no question that mental health has an impact on justice outcomes in Victoria, and changes need to be made coming out of this new commission.
Things such as the Assessment and Referral Court, the Drug Court, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre - these opportunities should be made available to all VictoriansRowan Mcrae, Victoria Legal Aid
"We need a legal system that supports the choices people with mental health issues want to make, and offers them the chance of recovery," Ms McRae told The Courier.
She says the existence of therapeutic programs needs to be widely extended across the state, rather than being the province of city dwellers exclusively.
"Things such as the Assessment and Referral Court, the Drug Court, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre - these opportunities should be made available to all Victorians," Ms McRae said.
"Currently they are not, and these benefits should be shared, regardless of where people are based."
Ms McRae said the VLA had full confidence that he commissioners would listen to the consumers of mental health services, and the government would be held top account by the community if they didn't deliver on the RC's recommendations.
"We need to look at intersections: emergency services and crisis centres as well. Theses are currently under enormous pressure from overuse, and it has direct impacts on people's lives."