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Nation has failed on mental health, it’s time for action
There is only one exception to the general rule that if you are going to get sick then get sick right here at home in Australia.
For all those who whinge about our health system, I just don’t know a better one anywhere in the world. Since John Howard rolled over and saw the light, Medicare has enjoyed bipartisan support. While Labor runs successful “Mediscare” campaigns, largely based on the Coalition’s stand of quite some years ago, no Australian government would ever dare contemplate any serious attack on Medicare.
It is in the treatment of the mentally ill that Australia has been continually out of step. Our failures in this critical area of health policy can be traced back to the publication of the Richmond Report in NSW in the mid-1980s. David Richmond was a brilliant man who was in large part responsible, along with Michael Knight and John Coates, for the success of the Sydney Olympic Games. Richmond recommended the closure of the big mental hospitals and the building of community facilities to house and care for those who had some chance of being able to live in the community. It was a great idea, embraced by governments across Australia, but in practice governments did what governments always do.
Mental hospitals closed their doors almost overnight and huge savings flowed into Treasury coffers in all states. Sadly, while a few centres may have been built, there was no real commitment to ¬investing what was being saved by closing the hospitals into the spending side of Richmond’s recommendations. Many communities fought against the facilities being built in their backyards, but that was not an excuse to not fulfil the Richmond promise. It was merely a reason to look the other way from a difficult problem.
There were never enough acute beds for those suffering, or about to suffer, dangerous episodes. In the 1990s, I wrote a piece in the Women’s Weekly, then in its heyday. I focused on schizophrenia and I interviewed sufferers and their families. Ensuring that those afflicted stay on their medications is the big task. Too many sufferers start to feel better and think they can survive without their “meds”. That is when the trouble starts.
I recall one mother who had been threatened, along with her daughter, by her knife-wielding son. While it is true schizophrenics who hear voices are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, for those who do present a danger, history teaches us to tread with care. That boy had been ¬refused a bed several times at Sydney’s Manly Hospital.
More recently, a five-year-old boy who was allegedly murdered by his father, may still be alive had Hornsby Hospital had a bed for his dad. That man seemed to know he was deteriorating and had sought admission in the days before the alleged attack.
There is no blame to place on either side of politics. They are as culpable as the rest of us in being able to look the other way. Greg Hunt is the man with the responsibility today and I hope he puts this issue on the table when next he meets his state counterparts.