Australia’s mental health funding has surged after coronavirus – so why is it so – Health News Today
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As federal and state governments unveil millions of additional dollars for mental health during the coronavirus pandemic, experts warn many still face an uphill battle to access services, with “far more people needing support and services than there are people to provide them”.
The latest funding injection came on Monday when the federal government announced $31.9m of additional support, specifically for Victoria, where stage-four restrictions will remain in place at least until 13 September.
However, many people are being forced to wait for weeks or months, a situation worsened by the pandemic creating a surge in demand.
Mental health experts and bodies in Victoria have welcomed the commitments – noting also an earlier federal pledge to double the number of Medicare subsidised mental health sessions to 20 – but point to a system so dysfunctional and fragmented it was already the subject of a state royal commission.
With the state still under harsh stage-four restrictions, politicians have acknowledged the probable impact of six weeks where Melburnians can go out to exercise only 60 minutes a day, cannot travel beyond 5km of their home, and most of the economy is shut.
A key concern is what is often called the “missing middle”, those who fall between the gaps. It includes people who need more help than they can access, but have not yet reached a level of distress that would require going to hospital.
“It is a growing middle sector because of the external environmental stressors that are going on at the moment,” said Prof Jayashri Kulkarni, director of the Monash Alfred psychiatry research centre.
Helplines such as Lifeline and Beyond Blue were “relatively easy to access” and had rightly received extra funding during the crisis, Kulkarni said.
Yet in general the opposite is true of access to a mental health clinician. Some experts say practitioners are often concentrated in wealthier suburbs or charge fees people cannot afford. Bulk billing practices are not widespread.
People can face long waiting times for counselling services, may be ineligible to access support at a community clinic, or be unable to afford – or struggle to find – a private practitioner.
Although some of the slack is picked up by GPs, the situation has got worse as demand for mental health care increased during the pandemic.
“The issue now is that simply there are far more people needing support and services than there are people to provide them in the private sector,” said Dr Kerryn Rubin, Victorian branch chair of the Royal Australian and New Zealand college of psychiatrists.
“So even people who previously would have accessed the private sector are struggling to do that because they can’t get an appointment for four, eight, 12 weeks, at which point in time often something that started off as a minor or moderate problem becomes a severe problem.”