Second reading: Victorian Collaborative Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing Bill 2021

I rise to speak on the Victorian Collaborative Centre for Mental Health and Wellbeing Bill 2021. This bill will launch the collaborative centre as a new entity—an independent body corporate that will connect lived experience, leadership, innovation in service delivery and cutting-edge mental health research to form part of the foundational architecture of the transformed system.

Now, I will always support initiatives that assist our state’s desperate need for better mental health services, but it is also my hope that this does not become a city-centric centre for bureaucrats. Given there isn’t any information in the bill on where the centre will be situated, or there is no funding in the budget to make sure this occurs, and given that the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System concluded two years ago and this initiative was the first recommendation from that royal commission, I find it disheartening it has taken this long to be able to put this legislation forward, which is clearly so urgent because we need to get services on the ground right now—not in another two years, when more planning is having to take place. We need services now, and in the regions it is absolutely desperate.

We need more health professionals. We need more mental health beds. We need more services and funding, because those waiting lists are far, far too long. My hope is that the government understands that this centre needs to have a very big regional footprint.

I want to begin by reading what somebody sent me via my office. I get a lot of calls to the office from a lot of desperate people wanting some assistance with their mental health—getting services—and their mental illness, and there is a significant difference between mental illness and mental health. When we have a medical emergency, when somebody has a diabetic episode or a broken leg, we see that as a health emergency.

When somebody has a mental illness breakdown, we do not have the same emergency services and people are left in desperate situations. I just want to read this one because of the lived experience aspect of this centre. My hope is that this really does get embedded, that we use people’s lived experiences. My constituent writes:

Today I am writing to express major concern for the mental health services in Portland. As a person experiencing the receiving end of these services, I can assure you that they are lacking. My whole youth I have been through multiple mental health plans, services and experiences. As soon as I turned 18 I was forced to leave the CAMHS—

which is child and adolescent mental health services—

as I was at the time now an adult. They encouraged me to seek additional help for adulthood, with absolutely no guidance, referrals or information.

So suddenly I am an adult with no support, still suffering mental illness with no place to turn. My GP referred me to Headspace Portland, where the referral was rejected on the grounds of my complex needs and them not being equipped to deal with my mental illness—so another year with no public mental health support. Bring on the start of 2020. I experienced another trauma. At this point my GP would not rest until a service agreed to take me on.

Again, Headspace could not facilitate my needs. The adult mental health services through South West Healthcare finally agreed to take me on, and now at the start of 2021, and not hearing from my worker in a long time, I received a phone call to tell me they are too full with patients as I am no longer acute, meaning not at risk of harming myself or others, so therefore I need to find another service. I cannot afford private counselling, and the 20 free sessions from Medicare due to coronavirus just isn’t enough. The services I am talking about are my only options, and they aren’t even an option for me now.

I hope by reading my experience you are able to understand just how hard it is to get consistent support, let alone support in general. I know myself I am not the only one in this position. Portland does not have enough mental health support, Portland does not have enough mental health workers, and right now I do not have access to the help I desperately need. I feel forgotten by the government.

I feel forgotten from the mental health services. Please think of us not coping, especially on top of COVID-19. We need help. There are a lot of mentally ill people suffering at the hands of the lack of funding and support. We, as the community, are seeing no improvement. If anything, it is getting worse.

That is really powerful, and it summarises exactly the situation in the regions. This young girl from Portland is over 4 hours from the city. That goes to my point about making sure the regions are given support under this initiative.

Just this week I met with Nicky Trussler, who is a social worker with 20 years of experience who started Possum House, a private organisation that receives very little, if any, government funding. She points out that many of the children, who we must start with—not leave them to get to adulthood and then have a problem that we have never really addressed—need to be serviced young.

We have not got the services to do that, so she started this service, and it assists children through play therapy, which is a proven therapy and completely makes sense when you think about it: children are much more comfortable with play and drawing than they are with talking. It completely makes sense, but because it is not the accepted technology—counselling is usually through speech and talking in the adult world—she does not get the funding through government to assist.

It is these sorts of lived experiences, these sorts of organically grown from the bottom up experiences that are happening in the regions that need to be looked at by this centre so we can embrace them. As Nicky said to me:

The last thing we need is another layer of mental health that is not offering therapy and is not actually going to help the kids in our regions.

There are so many teachers who have contacted me, but right now Michelle Kearney, the principal of Bayview College, comes to mind and the amount of conversations I have had with her about the challenges children are facing, and as an independent school she gets nothing.

The teachers are left to try and deal with children who are in stressful situations, having mental health issues or mental illness challenges. It is not the role of a teacher who has already got a very full workload. It beggars belief that the private members bill that the member for Lowan attempted to introduce into this house a couple of weeks ago, which would have unlocked 4000 extra mental health workers and could have had an immediate effect, has been ignored by this current government, because it fits perfectly within this initiative and would have given something immediately, which is so desperately needed.

I look at the actions of the nurture room at Warrnambool East Primary, which Michelle Bickley-Miller, the principal, and Robyn Ledin, Tania Billington and Meredith Anderson were integral in beginning. Children, who are often traumatised, start the day in a special nurture room that brings them into a space to be ready to go back to the classroom and begin their day—a fantastic initiative which I have witnessed. It is a powerful, powerful program. We have got people like Matt Murray, who runs Hiit Nation in Warrnambool.

Having seen the need for men’s support services in our region, he started a program called Grab Life by the Balls, and he funds the resources needed for this support group out of his own pocket. These are people who are doing things because the need is so great. We should be taking them and looking at them, and this centre gives us that opportunity.

I have too many people to mention here today—mums who often call me and say, ‘My daughter is in a desperate situation’. The amount of conversations I had over the 15 years I worked in community health where GPs would say to me, ‘Roma, there isn’t anywhere I can refer your patient to’. I would say, ‘But they’re suicidal’, and they would say, ‘We understand. There is nothing’.

We are in a position now, and it has been going on for way too long. This royal commission finished two years ago, and even when it started we knew there were things that needed to be done, like workforce planning. I do not understand why with the many, many, many years we have been in this situation, and now with COVID just making it even worse, it has taken this long to get to here. I support the concept; I just want to be absolutely clear that it must be a statewide program. It must not be a city-centric bureaucracy; we must get more therapy to people—hands-on help.

Again, I think what I would say in my final comment is we have so much need for more professionals. Access to services in the regions is so dire. I hope this is not forgotten and that the centre will work towards getting more hands-on workers on the ground, rather than taking up valuable resources that will just be tied up in another bureaucracy. It must be that people are able to access people with mental health qualifications.

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