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31 October 2019

Matter of Public Importance – Mental Health

Today this is a really serious matter of public importance, and I am quite disappointed already by the attack on my colleague because I thought she was very respectful.

We are here to make sure we govern and do the best we possibly can with the money that comes into the state for the people who need it. I would like to begin by acknowledging the challenging environment that the carers and the sufferers of mental illness endure as we speak.

This is probably one of the biggest things that comes into my office: people who are struggling with mental illness come into my office, they are trying to navigate the system and they are at their wits end.

Now the member for Oakleigh may have read a lot about mental health, but for at least 15 years of my nursing career I was at the front line of mental health, so I think I will spend a little bit of time just sharing how challenging that environment is.

I have not actually practiced for four years, but what I have seen in those four years whilst in my office, seeing what is happening from people coming into my office and telling me about the wrestle they have with the system, is that it has got so much worse.

If you have got a mental illness, it is really important for you to be able to access support: psychologists, mental health professionals, nurses and drug and alcohol support sometimes depending on the situation—not always but certainly sometimes there are very complex clients as we used to call them.

What we need to do as a society is give the supports that are necessary. We have got this current government who spend a lot of time talking about how much they care and about how much they are prepared to do, and yet as it says in an Auditor-General’s report which I have here:

The Royal Commission into Mental Health will undoubtedly highlight many areas for improvement across the system. However, the need for planning and investment to meet demand is already known …

That is actually what I have been finding on the front line. For us to wait and to have this current Labor government saying, ‘We care so we are going to find out what is going on’—as the Auditor-General says, we should not await the recommendations of the royal commission. There is so much already known, and:

Further delay will only amplify the problems the Commission seeks to address.

Already I have been on two inquiries, and both those inquiries, the autism inquiry and the perinatal inquiry, highlighted a problem in the mental health system. This is what I saw when I worked with CAMHS—the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services teams. Now I did not work with them—I was accessing the services for clients—but they were at their wits’ end. In Warrnambool and in Portland—Hamilton is in the member for Lowan’s electorate but in the catchment I was working in as a health professional they were the services I was trying to access.

Staff are under enormous pressure and they cannot take extra clients. That is what we saw in Warrnambool a couple of weeks ago when a young man wanted to be admitted to a facility for mental health support and they just did not have the capacity to take on board anyone else.

So he went into a shop and started opening up products and said, ‘Call the police, I want to be arrested’. He was then unable to get, even when arrested, a bed and facilities. We see that in the articles that are in the paper.

There was one just last week about the Thomas Embling Hospital where we have got people in prison for up to a year waiting to access mental health support.

I actually had many a client steal a car, set fire to their apartment and do all sorts of extraordinary things to get help.

They would even say to me, ‘Roma, I just need to get in the pen for a while, because that way I won’t kill myself’. This is extreme.

I have got a 16-year-old daughter and she tells me about kids—not at her school now and not where she was in school last year—who are cutting themselves. I had never heard of that.

Twenty years ago, and when I was at school I had never really heard of self-harm. Munchausen syndrome has just come from the back of my mind from my training days. We all knew about that, but we did not see it in kids. You did not see it in the ways we are seeing it today. Principals are telling me about this.

We are seeing suicide rates of 3000 a year—the highest reason for death in young people. I was reading an article by John McGrath, a former Member for Warrnambool, who had a son who lost his life to suicide. John says that 3000 people are dying every year from suicide.

That is eight people a day. Now I know for a fact that the GPs in Warrnambool that I talk to—and obviously I have worked with them for many years, so I know some of them fairly well—just say to me, ‘We are just throwing our hands in the air’.

There is a massive load of evidence. This is what the reports of the autism inquiry, the perinatal inquiry and I am sure many other reports that the Auditor-General referred to tell us that there is no point in waiting, that there are plenty of actions we could be doing right now.

This is what is so disappointing about what the member for Oakleigh said, because it was not the member for Lowan who was saying that the work has not been done, she was actually quoting out of the Auditor-General’s Access to Mental Health Services report from March 2019, which says the 10‐year plan outlines few actions that demonstrate how the government will address the demand challenge that the 10‐year plan articulates.

That was what she was talking about. It is not her opinion, it is actually the Auditor-General’s opinion.

I really find it hard to hear this government constantly telling me how much they care. Get out there on the street and look and talk to the people, because you only have to scratch the surface and this proclamation of care is very scant in evidence that backs up that there is actual demonstrable actions. Actions in government is often about providing resources, and those resources have been severely cut.

Their own budget shows us that in 2014 there was $123.4 million going into mental health community support services, and that has been reduced in 2018–19 to $98 million. That is a 20 per cent cut. The client support units cut were by 50 per cent by Labor from 2014 to 2018.

When I was training there was a facility called the Brierly Mental Hospital. Brierly was our mental health institution. It was an institution, and I am not advocating for one minute to go back to institutionalisation days because there were clients there that should never have been there. Young men who had PKU, phenylketonuria, which is what you get from consuming Coke or other products when you have a gene that some people have and some people do not; it is that prick kids used to have on their heels but do not have any more.

They grow up and are mentally affected by the PKU that they took in. Anyway, there were kids like that, there were Down syndrome children who had no place there and are a much better in the community like we are doing today.

However, there were 200 beds in that facility. There are now only 15 accute mental health beds in Warrnambool, and five of them are for aged care.

We have a new facility, It was originally funded under the Napthine government, and the Labor government have continued with that facility, but there is a mother-child unit that, if you have got postnatal depression or some mental health issue and you have got an infant, you can actually go to that facility.

The resources, the funding, have been built to house that situation, but they cannot access it because there is no funding for that.

So here we have got a facility, and I do not know if they have actually got the funding now—I need to check—but for 12 months it has sat there without the ability to be utilised for what it was intended. So these are the sorts of things that the government are missing the opportunity for.

What we have got is a community in my part of the world, and I am sure right across Victoria, who are saying, ‘We can’t wait. Why is the government saying we’re going to wait till the end of a royal commission? We are going to do things’. And they are.

They are doing things like the Nurturing Room at Warrnambool East Primary School, which is really helping settle children who were traumatised so they can actually go into a learning environment, and the Big Life program, which is addressing the issue of children at school who have suicidal tendencies or are self-harming. The community themselves are actually asking for support.

There is even the Standing Tall project. This demonstrates that the schools are saying, ‘We actually need to put an environment of support around our kids before we can educate them,’ but the government just does not come to the party and recognise that mental illness and mental health need more funding to be able to put those supports around people.

I will never forget a young man, who is now dead, who was found on the side of the road about five days after he died because nobody helped him. His mum begged me—absolutely begged me—to help her support him, but we could not get her the support, and he died. That mother to this day leaves a mark on my life, because we need to do more.