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Meeting the mental health needs of Australians, no matter where they live

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 12 May 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (17:50):  I rise to take note of a response given by the Minister for Health, Ms Ley, to a resolution of the Senate of 3 March 2015 relating to the mental health of those living in rural Australia and their ability to access mental health services. I move:

That the Senate take note of the response.

Senator WRIGHT:  The resolution noted a study by Melbourne's Monash University, which showed that fewer people in rural, remote and disadvantaged areas accessed mental health services. The study also found that rates of severe mental illness are higher in the most disadvantaged areas and that those in wealthier areas access psychologists and psychiatrists up to three times as much as those in the most disadvantaged areas.

I have a deep interest in the mental health needs of people living in the bush, thanks to a rural mental health tour I embarked on not long after I was elected to the Senate. The tour spanned 24 Australian towns and 55 meetings. Overall I sat down with about 185 people, from Launceston in Tasmania to Caloundra, Townsville, Cairns and Innisfail in Queensland to Geraldton in Western Australia and many places in between. I learned a great deal from the people I met with, who were consumers of mental health services, carers, service providers and community leaders. After the formal consultation ended, I shaped my observations into a report, Voices and experiences, which focuses on some of the key issues that emerged throughout the tour. As part of the report I also came up with a number of recommendations, which then formed the basis of the Australian Greens comprehensive rural mental health policy.

We know that 30 per cent of Australians live outside major cities but have far less access to support than those in cities.

In fact, the figures show that when it comes to overall per person health expenditure, the most-remote Australians receive only eight per cent of the funding their city counterparts enjoy. Rural communities are the backbone of our nation; they are not only important to our sense of who we are in Australia and our history, but they are integral to our economy and, ultimately, to our survival. They help clothe us and provide food to sustain us. It is our farmers who are the custodians of our food future.

I am also conscious that people in the country face unique challenges that affect their mental health. There are the usual issues: unemployment, family breakdown and people struggling to make ends meet. But as well as these there are other unique rural challenges: droughts, floods and fires, the tyranny of distance and isolation. There are big challenges in terms of service delivery too: the difficulty of attracting the best and brightest to work in the country, funding shortages, trying to ensure the privacy of clients in small towns, culturally appropriate care and, once again, isolation and distance.

But rural communities are also innovative and self-reliant. Their responses to mental health challenges are often simple and practical. They know isolation is a problem, so they travel to meet people in their homes. They start community centres and neighbourhood houses to build resilience and support each other.

I came away from my tour convinced that addressing gaps in rural mental health services must be a priority. Implementing the recommendations of the Senate's 'hidden toll' report into suicide in Australia is a sensible place to start. The Nationals took this as a policy to the 2013 federal election, promising that they would implement these recommendations. Since then there has been no action on this urgent matter from the Nationals or their Liberal Party colleagues, in government.

The recommendations of the National Mental Health Commission's Review of mental health programs and services also offer practical, sensible ways of combatting issues identified in my consultation and highlighted in this recent Melbourne University study. Acknowledging that far too many Australians fall through gaps in services, it highlights the need for better coordination and integration and far more focus on the community based solutions that help people recover and function well and achieve concrete outcomes like work, good health and accommodation. There is no more time to delay, especially when it comes to rural Australia. Lives are at stake-years of wellbeing, functioning ,productivity, participation in the community and, in some cases, life itself.

As the representative for Farrer in rural NSW I am sure Minister Ley understands the vital issues facing country people.  I urge her to translate this knowledge into effective action that only she, as health minister, can take. I say to her: Minister, implement the recommendations of the 'hidden toll' report to bring down the suicide rate in Australia and particularly the disproportionate rate among people living in rural Australia. Get on and implement the recommendations of the National Mental Health Commission's review, to start to address our shameful record on meeting the mental health needs of Australians, no matter where they live.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted.


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