Mental health system teetering on the brink

3 minute read

So says the latest data. And almost half of young women have experienced a mental health disorder in the previous 12 months. Not good.

Australia’s mental healthcare sector’s ability to provide effective care is not improving and has the potential to decline even further, despite years of debate and buckets of money, a new report shows.

“Overall, we are not seeing an improvement in mental health and wellbeing for people in Australia over the past decade or more, and some are experiencing a decline in whole of life outcomes,” said the authors of the National Mental Health Commission’s National Report Card 2023.

“The data clearly shows that the rate of mental health concerns across our population, particularly for our younger generations, is a serious national problem requiring urgent attention.

Without appropriate focus on improving the determinants of mental health, including financial security, housing, and loneliness, Australia’s mental health has the potential to decline even further.”

There was some good news – progress was being made on key safety and consumer rights, said the report. The national rate of seclusion for people in public mental health hospital care was less than half the rate reported in 2009-10; the national rate of physical restraint in public mental health hospital care was the lowest since data was first collected in 2015-16; and there was better coordination of hospital and community care services.

But huge systemic issues remain.

“There are significant shortages of all professions in the mental health workforce,” said the report.

“In addition, a substantial proportion of people in Australia delayed seeing or did not see any mental health professional in the last 12 months due to cost in 2022-23 (19.3%).

“This rate was higher than previous years (2021-22: 16.7%, 2020-21: 12.0%).  

“We have not seen significant change in the proportion of consumers experiencing a significant improvement in clinical mental health outcomes following care from public mental health services, or the proportion of consumers reporting positive experiences of public mental health care.”

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In terms of measures of mental health, of greatest concern is an “alarming picture of mental health concerns among young people”.

The proportion of young women (16-24 years) with a mental disorder in the previous 12 months has leapt from 28.5% in 2007 to 45.5% in 2020-2022.

For young males that proportion has risen from 23.2% in 2007 to 32.4% 2020-2022.

Also of concern is a lack of improvement in social determinants of mental health, said the report’s authors. Some areas have even deteriorated.

“There are small increases in loneliness. There are also small increases in the proportion of children considered developmentally vulnerable in Australia. Despite employment rates being consistently high, financial hardship has also risen between 2006 and 2020,” said the report.

In a joint foreword to the report chair of the Commission’s advisory report Professor Ngaire Brown, and interim CEO Paul McCormack said:

“Overall, the data continues to paint a concerning picture of the state of mental health and wellbeing in Australia.

“The prevalence of people living with mental illness is at a record high and the determinants of mental health are either not improving or getting worse. We are also not seeing improvements in the system’s effectiveness in meeting demand or preventing distress.

“The latest data in this report strongly reinforces the need to act with urgency in addressing the needs of people with mental health concerns and ensuring the right supports are in place, particularly for our younger generations.”

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