Stem the rising tide of mental illness

MENTAL illness is a “sleeping giant” and last week internationally renowned advocate Professor Patrick McGorry was in the Latrobe Valley urging us all to help stem the rising tide.

World-leading mental health reformer and 2010 Australian of the Year, Professor McGorry visited Gippsland to speak with mental health service workers and deliver the 30th Len Falk lecture to the Australian College of Educators.

The tireless campaigner has fought to see mental ill health, of which 50 per cent of the population in transit to adulthood could expect to experience, destigmatised and elevated to the national agenda in the same vein as DisabilityCare.

He asked locals to “advocate for a better deal for everyone with mental ill health in the Gippsland community”.

Professor McGorry told of a vastly under-resourced system struggling to cope with a health crisis affecting four million Australians.

He said the neglect of young people’s mental health needs was akin to self-harm on behalf of the community.

“The paradox these days is that the physical health of young people has never been better but their mental health has never been worse,” Professor McGorry said.

He attributed the epidemic to a range of factors but said it was indicative of a society which had “lost its way” and that economic conditions in areas like the Latrobe Valley amplified the problem.

While around 10 per cent of young Australians were currently not engaged in education, employment or training, Professor McGorry said that number was “much higher” in areas like the Valley and the lack of opportunity for people to have “a meaningful life” contributed to both mental illness and suicide.

The latter, he said, was now the biggest killer of Australians up to the age of 40 years and should be widely reported by the media in the same way the road toll was.

With 2500 Australians suiciding each year, a figure 40 per cent higher than the road toll, Professor McGorry’s mission is to see conversation on the topic open up.

“This should be encouraged so people know what a big problem it is, and once people know, they will expect actions to be taken to reduce it,” he told The Express.

“There are so many preventable deaths.”

Professor McGorry, a driving force behind the establishment of the Australian National Youth Mental Health Foundation headspace, called on the Gippsland community to also advocate for new headspace services in pockets of Gippsland currently without them, saying too many young people had insufficient access to support.

The public health sector also required much better resourcing so it could better back-up headspace with more specialised care, he said.

Calling for communities to throw their weight behind a reform process that would create “a new culture of care” in a system poorly equipped to handle the influx of young people suffering mental ill health, Professor McGorry said “I challenge you all to make these views known” (to politicians).

He said young people were well-placed to contribute to services “culturally right for them” and he promoted a “positive mental health” model.

While recognising the importance of disability services, he said “disability is about one-tenth as big of an issue as mental health, but sadly in this election so far it has barely been mentioned”.

As an eminent academic who has published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers and reviews on the topic, Professor McGorry described himself as frustrated, yet still optimistic, about the status of mental health in Australia. The problem suffered from “a paralysis of (government) investment”, he said.

“Six per cent of the health budget is spent on it but it makes up 13 per cent of the burden… services aren’t overstretched, they are completely inadequate for the scale of the problem of mental health.”

A strong proponent of early intervention, Professor McGorry said the current system too often waited for mental illness to develop, then diagnosed it but failed to offer proper care.

“It would be like diagnosing breast cancer early but then not providing proper care – it’s immoral that this happens,” he added.

Having met with local service providers last week Professor McGorry commended the sector on its “open-mindedness” and efforts to tackle what was a “big problem”.