The mental health sector is a highly controversial area of the national health system, with repeated calls for a system overhaul so far falling on deaf ears.But the mental health system was again thrust into the political spotlight last month after a campaigner for better treatment for mentally ill young people was named the Australian of the Year.
Victorian man Professor Patrick McGorry is a youth psychiatrist and an advocate for early intervention for young mentally ill people. He runs the Orygen Youth Health Services and is the director of Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, Headspace.
Prof McGorry waded into controversial waters by describing detention centres for asylum, seekers as ‘factories for producing mental illness’. He is critical of mandatory detention of asylum seekers and wants them to be allowed to live in the community rather than being sent to detention facilities. He also called for radical change to the country’s overall mental health system, saying it needed greater funding. “Out of the shadows, beyond the silence, we can achieve a new deal for all us of in Australia with mental illness.”
Prof McGorry’s comments come as health experts warn that the Rudd Government will fail to meet its target of slashing homelessness by 50% by 2020 because it’s failing to acknowledge the role mental health issues have in fuelling the issue.
Some hope that Prof McGorry’s calls; combined with an upcoming mental health conference; could set the wheels in motion for change to the system.
The conference is being held by the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses (ACMHN) in March. Titled Knowledge, Strategy, Vision: Nurses leading Primary Mental Health Care, it will be held in Canberra on Friday March 19 and Saturday March 20, 2010.
While the full speakers list is yet to be finalised, the conference will explore the current and future roles of mental health nurses in primary mental health care. It will also explore innovations in primary health care across Australia and look overseas for learnings in nurse-led primary mental health care.
The conference will also offer insights into how the industry can further develop models of primary mental health care delivery and advance the roles of nurses in primary health care.
The conference program includes a panel discussion by a group of mental health nurses on establishing and running mental health practices, followed by a session on how established practices have maintained and expanded their practices over time.
Opportunities for the expansion of nurse roles will also be covered, along with a look at the development of primary health care nursing in New Zealand.
ACMHN CEO Kim Ryan says the conference has been held annually for the past three years and aims to bring together mental health nurses working in various sectors. Around 100 people normally attend the conference, but it is hoped this year will attract greater numbers than previous years. “This conference gives nurses a voice. It creates an opportunity for there to be a dialogue and networking opportunities so the sector can see where mental health fits within the wider primary health care sector into the future,” Ryan says.
Mental health nursing is one of the most difficult areas of nursing to work in, but also one of the most rewarding, she says. “This is one of the few areas of nursing where you have the opportunity to influence a person’s whole life. A cardiac nurse, for example, affects that one area of their patients’ life, but mental health nurses have to think about things like dealing with the family, who will feed the dog while the patient is receiving care, how the patient gets paid and all other aspects of their patients’ lives.”
The mental health nurse workforce recognise the importance of setting the agenda in terms of their rather than having it set for them, Ryan says. “This conference is giving them a voice and enabling a dialogue around the future of mental health and where it fits within the primary healthcare system.”
Political representation has also been invited to attend the conference, with Ryan saying it can be difficult to get information from the government about the future of the national mental health system. “We’re hoping this will also be a chance to hear about policy development that we wouldn’t necessarily hear about otherwise.”
ACMHN figures suggest there are around 14,000 mental health nurses working in Victoria, but due to nursing registration systems in place it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact number. The average age of a mental health nurse is 47, compared to 45 for the average age of a clinical nurse, Ryan says.
Meanwhile, according to the Mental Health Council of Australia, a report for the Victorian Government estimates that mental illness led to about 4.7 million absentee days a year, 80% of which was due to mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety. This equated to about a $660 million yearly loss to the Victorian economy alone. This roughly equates to over 18 million absentee days Australia-wide every year, with the average cost
to employers estimated at more than $9,000 per annum for every worker not seeking treatment for depression or anxiety.
And yet sadly, around two thirds of people with a mental illness don’t receive any treatment over a 12 month period. Statistics suggest that between 30% and 75% of all homeless people have a mental health problem, with experts suggesting non-clinical assistance is needed to help people with tasks such as applying for benefits, organising medical appointments and budgeting and paying bills.
For more on the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses (ACMHN) conference, to be held in Canberra on Friday March 19 and Saturday March 20, 2010, go to - www.acmhn.org
By Nina Hendy