No filter: being honest about our mental health crisis

Originally published by Overland Literary Journal.

My grandmother suffered from a rare, congenital kidney disease. An incredible woman blessed with intellect, fierce independence and a biting wit, she also suffered depression for much of her life.

In the latter stages of her life, I have no doubt that both depression and her failing kidneys coalesced against her. When she became so depressed that it pushed her into psychosis, her kidney condition meant she was unable to be prescribed psychiatric medication. Instead, doctors put her through electroshock therapy.

My grandmother passed away when she was just 45 years old.

Her twin sister – also cursed with the same physical affliction but without mental illness – lived with the assistance of dialysis for another decade.

Anecdotally, this illustrates the disastrous impact of mental illness upon one individual’s physical health. But my grandmother is not an outlying case study.

There is a 14-year gap in life expectancy between Australians with and without a mental illness.

Depression is linked with a 67 per cent increased risk of dying of heart disease and 50 per cent more likelihood of dying of cancer. People with mental illness are more likely to make unhealthy lifestyle decisions such as seldom exercising, eating poorly, smoking, or abusing drugs or alcohol.

Mental illness has now reached epidemic levels in Australia. Almost half of us will experience it at some point in our lives. One in five Australians has had a disorder in the past year.

Not only does this mean a large portion of the population wakes up suffering, it also takes a massive toll on human life. Suicide is the leading cause of death for millions of Australians – of all people aged between 15 and 44.

‘Suicide rates have become a king tide,’ psychiatrist Patrick McGorry said at the National Press Club in June, ‘more than double the road toll.’

Eight to ten Australians succeed in taking their own lives every day, and another 180 people will attempt to do so. As McGorry told journalists in Canberra, ‘awareness and rhetoric won’t fix that’.

Given the scale of this public health problem, it is truly bizarre how little funding goes to mental health. In 2013, the federal government spent $2.9 billion on HIV/AIDS but only $23 million for suicide prevention. Funding for suicide prevention was also dwarfed by that for heart disease and prostate cancer.

It is hardly surprising, then, that while the death rate from these other illnesses fell significantly in the decade to 2013, the rate of suicide deaths increased by a fifth.

Yet, despite these facts, the Turnbull government is quietly defunding mental health services.

The Coalition is dismantling youth mental health service Headspace and services for young people with psychosis, hYEPP. These are life-saving suicide prevention programs for young people that have saved thousands of lives. The outgoing CEO of Headspace, Chris Tanti, has warned that the Turnbull government’s reform ‘might spell disaster’.

Particularly perplexing about the Coalition’s inaction is that mental health is a whole-society issue. Whilst more prevalent amongst disadvantaged communities, mental illness impacts people from all walks of life.

Moreover, mental illness has hugely detrimental consequences for the economy. It leads to more sick days and lower productivity. Whilst mental illness costs upwards of $49 billion per year in lost workplace productivity, the government of jobs and growth has refused to address this systemic problem.

The 2016 election campaign helped boost mental health as a priority on the political agenda. Mental Health Australia lobbied parties across the political spectrum. The Australians for Mental Health campaign called on politicians to #EndThisMadness.

Mental Health Australia wrote to party leaders demanding a reduction in national suicide rates, improvements in the physical health of people with a mental illness, an increase in employment rates for mental health consumers and carers, improvements in mental health consumer and carer participation and choice, and maintaining current overall levels of investment in mental health while ensuring that capacity to deliver services is not reduced.

In the last days of the election campaign, mental health came to the fore. The Coalition promised a new National Suicide Prevention Strategy. Labor committed to reducing the rate of suicide by half over the next decade. The Greens said they would meet targets for reducing suicide over the next 5, 10 and 20 years.

All of these were based upon expert recommendations from the National Mental Health Commission.

Political commitments are a good first step in the right direction. Government and opposition must now work to ensure that these are followed through: people’s lives depend on it.

Already, however, the South Australian opposition is pleading with the state government to save mental health beds jeopardised by Commonwealth funding cuts. $20 million cut by the Turnbull government last year has led to the closure of 44 beds in Adelaide and Mt Gambier.

100 patients with serious mental illness were stripped of treatment in Queensland after federal funding ended in June.

To have access to adequate healthcare is a human right. As Australians, we are blessed with a world-class healthcare system that is subsidised by Medicare.

But the stigma towards mental illness has prevented millions from accessing proper treatment for far too long. We must urgently and earnestly address this crisis.

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