A sane approach to health policy benefits all of us Print
Written by The Age   

The Age
March 23, 2006

In mental health terms, "asylum" is a sadly misunderstood word, most often conjuring images of 19th century madhouses, where people were sedated, restrained and left to languish until death. Such places were rarely sanctuaries, yet "sanctuary" is the word's true meaning. In its purest sense, an asylum is a place of refuge and shelter, somewhere that offers people respite from the difficulties of life, not permanent incarceration. It is therefore pleasing to learn that the Federal Government is taking seriously the need to look after citizens with psychiatric illnesses and has included in its plan for dealing with the crisis in mental health the idea of "safe houses".

The details of the plan are still sketchy - and are likely to remain so until they are discussed by cabinet next week - but some of the previewed initiatives are particularly welcome. Medicare will be expanded to allow mentally ill people to be referred to psychologists by their GP; there will be an expansion of rehabilitation services to assist people to rejoin the workforce; and "safe houses" will provide short-term accommodation for those left destitute because of their illness.

These are measures this newspaper called for in the wake of the February meeting of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG). At that time, state and federal leaders made significant progress towards tackling one of the most serious problems facing Australia - the increasing number of people with a mental illness. With about 20 per cent of the population affected, there was no escaping the need for a bipartisan, co-ordinated approach to the funding and management of mental health services. COAG responded by establishing an inquiry aimed at developing a blueprint for tackling the nation's mental health crisis and reporting by June.

The Prime Minister has been reticent about discussing details of yesterday's reported $1.5 billion package, although he has promised more money if the states "carry their share of it". In view of the co-operative approach agreed to just six weeks ago, Mr Howard's comment that the states "have got plenty of money; the states have got direct responsibility" seems unnecessarily inflammatory. But it may give a clue to the strange timing of the latest funding announcement. With the Liberal Party suffering election losses in two states last weekend and a Senate inquiry into mental health due to report next Thursday (and likely to be highly critical of government services), the Federal Government could well be trying to better its own position. It is to be hoped that there is more than opportunism involved in this announcement and that the states continue to work constructively to reinvigorate mental health services.