Australia's mental health: Calls for more holistic approach to support as increased demand from COVID-19 puts strain on services' workforce

Mental health advocates are calling for all levels of government to have a more holistic approach to services to meet demand during the pandemic. Picture: Shutterstock
Mental health advocates are calling for all levels of government to have a more holistic approach to services to meet demand during the pandemic. Picture: Shutterstock

A coalition of mental health advocates has called on all levels of government to provide a holistic and integrated roadmap to improving services as mental health cases from the pandemic put further strain on the industry's workforce.

The Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA) on May 4 hosted an interactive livestream involving an expert panel to discuss the future of mental health services.

The discussion focused on the impact of COVID-19; lack of integration between government services; affordability, access and navigation; stigma and discrimination across all sectors of society; the industry's workforce not meeting demand; and, current and future strategies to improve services.

Among the three panelists during the CEDA livestream was Lucinda Brogden, chairwoman of the National Mental Health Commission, who spoke about mental health costing national productivity about $200 billion per year.

She also spoke about how the commission was developing new strategies - including the first ever plan for children's mental health and well-being - to address the growing cases from the pandemic's impact.

Ms Brogden said there was already "roadmaps" that can be followed to achieve a more holistic approach, including "evidence-based interventions that our clinicians and academics and those with lived experiences are jointly producing and the increasing access to data".


Headspace chief executive Jason Trewothan said the organisation had "created newfound understanding of the vulnerability and empathy for those experiencing mental health challenges" from the past 12 months.

"Not surprisingly, we found that 40 per cent of young people felt the pandemic has impacted their confidence to achieve future goals," he said.

"It (stigma) is probably a lot less than generations gone by but today, 74 per cent of young Australian still say there is a stigma around mental illness, which is why young people are looking to a safe and trusted place to seek help."

Mr Treworthan said the supply of the workforce was not keeping up with the demand for services.

He said a solution was to have a better connection between primary and specialist care and "not underestimating the family unit and how that can play a role in helping so many people prior to any mental health emerging".

Professor Allan Fels, Melbourne University professorial fellow and Mental Health Victoria patron, said governments needed to make mental health a higher priority than before.

In a March report, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that the volume of mental-health related pharmacy prescriptions dispensed spiked in March 2020 when the first restrictions were introduced, followed by a dip in April then a gradual uptrend in mid-December.

"This has been observed across all jurisdictions," the report states.

Lifeline data shows that in the four weeks to January 24 this year, it received more than 85,000 calls, representing an increase of 10 per cent and 21.4 per cent over the same periods in 2020 and 2019.

ACT Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson said the increased demand was expected to remain "beyond the pandemic".

"Following the bushfires and health pandemic we've seen an increase in Canberrans, particularly young people, reporting mental health concerns and accessing services," Ms Davidson said.

"People are complex and there is no one-approach-fits-all to address mental health issues. That's why the ACT Government is identifying opportunities to fund and implement a range of community-based and clinical services.

"It's also why we are working towards integrating supports, to ensure that people have access to care in their community and before crisis point."

ACT Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

ACT Mental Health Minister Emma Davidson. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Ms Davidson said the government had implemented a number of initiatives to ensure help was available to all Canberrans regardless of where they sit on the continuum of need.

"We need to be creative and identify opportunities to engage people with mental health issues who aren't otherwise engaging with services," she said.

"For instance, Safe Haven Cafes provide a community-based setting for people to drop in and access services and the funded Youth Navigation Portal will enhance online access to mental health supports for young people.

"This also includes the transitioning between different models of care to meet people's needs as they evolve over time and keep them connected to their communities, such as the recently opened Southside Step Up Step Down facility.

"There are also services to ensure no one is discharged into homelessness or without supports, such as the Gawanggal extended care unit, and to assist people at their homes or in their community - such as the Police, Ambulance, Clinician Emergency Response team."

Ms Davidson said the need for an interconnected system was across the country.

"Like every jurisdiction in Australia, the ACT can experience difficulties in recruiting staff. The ACT Government remains committed to ensuring our staff feel valued, safe and supported," she said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt in March launched a $15 million competitive grant round to improve treatment of debilitating mental illnesses.

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