Howard: states must match mental health pledge Print
Written by Annabel Stafford   

By Annabel Stafford
April 6, 2006

NINE hundred new personal helpers and mentors will be employed to assist the mentally ill with everyday tasks such as paying the rent as part of $1.8 billion in new Commonwealth funding to fix Australia's mental health system.

Prime Minister John Howard yesterday announced his Government would spend that amount over five years and $500 million a year after that on the package.

It includes expanding Medicare to allow more mentally ill people to see a psychologist on referral from a doctor, 650 new respite places catering for up to 15,000 families a year, and funding to help 6000 more young people with mental illness to finish high school and get employment each year.

Money will also be given to GPs and psychiatrists to employ mental health nurses, to counselling for people suffering from mental illness and a drug or alcohol addiction, to support services such as Lifeline and into increasing the number of mental health nursing and clinical psychology places by 600 a year.

But Mr Howard says the money is not enough on its own and has challenged the states to match the $1.8 billion with spending in the areas for which they are responsible: hospitals, prisons and supported accommodation.

With Mr Howard and state leaders meeting in June to produce a national package on mental health, the Prime Minister's announcement looks designed to force the states to the negotiating table.

None were committing to matching the Commonwealth yesterday but several made promising noises, including Victorian Health Minister Bronwyn Pike, who said she would not rule it out.

Mental health advocates and the Australian Medical Association welcomed Mr Howard's commitment, but said even if the states matched the figure it would be less than half what was needed to fix the problems in mental health.

Mental Health Council of Australia CEO John Mendoza said at least $1.5 billion was needed each year to fix the problem. Moreover the package did not include funding for halfway houses for those coming out of hospital or for dedicated youth mental health centres — initiatives the council has been calling for.

Still, Mr Howard said "if (the states) can get money of that magnitude into supported accommodation, and we put these resources in ... I believe over the years ahead we can begin to make a very big impression on this huge community problem".

Governments have faced growing pressure to act on mental health following high-profile scandals including the mistaken detention of mentally ill woman Cornelia Rau, the release last year of a major report cataloguing the experiences of the mentally ill and criticism from those usually supportive of the Government, such as broadcaster Alan Jones and the Coalition backbench.