‘Big challenge’: Mental health reform needs to go beyond health system, Prime Minister says

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Ground-breaking data shows poor mental health and suicide costs the country $200 billion a year, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring Australia will have to make sweeping changes beyond the health system to fix it.

The long-awaited Productivity Commission report into mental health found many people were being treated too late or not at all, as patients and their families struggle to navigate the country’s overly complex mental health system.

Scott Morrison released the Productivity Commission report on mental health on Monday.Credit:Sarah Matray

Fixing the system and the way people interact with it will require a complete upheaval of the way mental health is currently treated, Mr Morrison said.

"It's obvious that we can't use the same template for a national mental health system as we use for a physical health system," he said.

"We need to go beyond government. We need to go far beyond the health system, and we need a whole of economy approach, whole of community approach, partnerships between all levels of government, sectors, organisations. All of us are involved in this."

The report estimated mental ill-health and suicide in Australia directly cost the country between $43 and $70 billion in 2018-2019. The cost of disability and early death due to it is estimated to cost a further $151 billion a year.

The Productivity Commission said implementing its 21 broad recommendations would create $18 billion a year worth of improved quality of life, and an extra $1.3 billion a year in increased economic productivity.

One in five people experience mental illness every year, and half of all Australians will be diagnosed with a mental health condition over their lifetime. In 2018, 2.4 million people over the age of 18 experienced high or very high levels of mental distress, Mr Morrison said.

Every year 65,000 Australians attempt suicide, and last year more than 3300 died by suicide, he said. Suicide remains the leading cause of death in young people.

"Of course it is a big challenge. The figures I have just shared with you are quite overwhelming, if you dwell on them for too long," Mr Morrison said.

"This is first and foremost a health issue, but health issues have very significant and serious economic consequences as well."

After already pouring more than $500 million into mental health services during the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister said the government was carefully looking at the report with "a view to action". It will develop a response by the May 2021 budget and potentially bring in other measures within the next six months.

National Mental Health Commission chief executive and suicide prevention adviser to the Prime Minister, Christine Morgan said she agreed with the Productivity Commission’s call for a national system that can reach people outside traditional mental health settings.

"In reality, where we live, learn and work in our communities is where we experience most of our mental health and wellbeing challenges," she said.

"This is where the system response needs to be met with the right levels of coordinated and affordable support and care, and a focus on early intervention and prevention."

The report, which runs to more than 1200 pages, was handed to the government on June 30 this year. The draft report was released in October 2019.

Opposition health spokesman Chris Bowen said the report was welcomed but it should have been released a long time ago.

"The government has said it will respond fully to the report in next year's Budget. That will be effectively 12 months after they received the report,” he said.

"We will support any measures the government takes and will hold them to account to do it more quickly, more urgently, because this is an urgent national priority."

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Beyond Blue's coronavirus mental wellbeing support service on 1800 512 348.

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