As we waited once more last week to hear if we would be coming out of lockdown, I was pleased to read some good news about one of the first temporary mental health "HeadtoHelp" clinics set up in regional Victoria by the federal government in response to the pandemic.
The ABC report focused on the Sale clinic, one of 15 across Victoria that are designed to fill what we refer to as the "missing middle" in our mental healthcare system. It's the gap between services provided by GPs in local medical centres and the acute care offered in hospitals.
Plans, or hopes, for such clinics had bubbled away for years but, like telehealth, suddenly their moment came during the COVID-19 pandemic and they were rolled out in just weeks - 6 of them in regional centres: Sale, plus Wodonga, Warragul, Sebastapol, Bendigo, and Geelong. What many people don't realise is that these clinics were established in just four weeks at the direction of the prime minister. In "normal" times, it would have taken at least a couple of years for them to be up and running.
It sometimes feels wrong to talk about the silver linings of a pandemic that has caused so much disruption and harm, but the creation of these pop-up mental health centres is one. Communities, interest groups and local councils around Victoria had long asked for such a model.
At Mental Health Victoria, we had championed them wherever we could, including to the Royal Commission into Victoria's Mental Health System which is scheduled to release its final report at a joint sitting of the Victorian Parliament next Tuesday. The need for such clinics was and is clear. Government data shows that Victorians with severe mental illness are routinely waiting more than eight hours in emergency departments before being admitted to a psychiatric care bed. This is not just a Victorian problem, it is one that plagues every state and territory.
We still have a mental health crisis in our country to deal with.
The HeadtoHelp clinics were funded by the federal government in recognition that Victoria's tougher and longer lockdowns were having a significant impact on mental health for individuals and communities. They acknowledged a worrying rise in self-harm injuries presenting to hospital, and a spike in the use of services like Beyond Blue, Lifeline and Kids Helpline.
The clinics are located at existing GP clinics and other community health sites and they support GPs by providing access to multidisciplinary teams of mental health workers, including psychologists, mental health nurses, social workers, and alcohol and drug workers. That means they can provide immediate support as well as pathways to long-term care. And a core aim is to provide an open and welcoming space for people to go to, which will also help to destigmatise mental health services. We know how important that is, particularly in rural and regional areas.
But the clinics have so far only been funded for 12 months. That's why we are currently urging the federal governments to not just keep these 15 Victorian clinics going, but to transition them into fully fledged adult mental health centres under a fast-tracked national program of more than 100 centres across the country.
This program, conceived and funded by the federal government before the pandemic, is aimed at funding permanent and much larger centres. And we are advocating that some of these clinics will be delivered by Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations and by LGBTIQ+ people, services and communities, who are more at risk of mental health issues and lack of access to services.
We all have big hopes that the pandemic is under control now in Victoria and more widely in Australia.
But we still have a mental health crisis in our country to deal with. The Royal Commission's final report will set out an incredible new vision for the state-funded part of the mental health system, and the Victorian government has committed to implement every recommendation. This will have profoundly positive benefits for hundreds of thousands of Victorians.
The federal government too has moved mountains during the crisis, including with the introduction of telehealth, funding to expand crisis services and the HeadtoHelp clinics. We have big hopes now that it will make its own historic commitment to mental health in the May federal budget.
Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria.
- For more details on HeadtoHelp, phone 1800 595 212 or visit https://headtohelp.org.au/