Mental Health 'The Cinderella' Of Australian Medical Care, Expert Warns

Australia has had a mental health review every 30 months since the 1950's, but little is being done to actually update or reform the country's systems according to a leading expert in the field.

Over the weekend, coinciding with Mental Health Week, the federal government announced another review, asking the Productivity Commission to examine the impact of mental health issues on the economy.

John Mendoza, director of mental health and suicide prevention service ConNetica, was not thrilled.

Australia had held mental health reviews, on average, every two and a half years since the 1950s, but at most they've resulted in little action or change,  he said.

"It's been a pretty barren landscape in terms of sustained commitment to this area of healthcare," he told ten daily, singling out a few notable exceptions including a 2005 federal review and some work done under the Gillard government.

"We're spending record amounts, but big deal. That is still inadequate to respond to the demand in the community."

The government has announced a new review into mental health (AAP)

Mendoza called mental health "the Cinderella of Australian health care" -- "the one that never gets to go to the ball."

He said both Western and South Australia were already conducting their own reviews into mental health systems, in addition to the federal investigation.

"A review is a way of buying time. It's kicking the can down the road, pushing it past the next election," Mendoza said.

He detailed how a rolling series of reviews committed to by successive Coalition government meant Australia "won't see any actual decisions or funding until 2021."

"There will be effectively no action between 2013 and 2021," Mendoza said.

"It's more about political point-scoring and opportunism, rather than addressing systemic problems in system. You have a very complicated, confused, disconnected service system."

In an ABC radio interview on Monday, he was even more blunt.

"We know what the problems are," he said.

Speaking to ten daily, Mendoza said a series of reviews had called for money to be shifted away from acute response care in hospitals and instead invested in community resources to support better mental health instead of simply responding to emergency incidents -- recommendations which had been ignored.

Mendoza wants to see more community care and less spent on acute hospital care (AAP Image/Jeremy Ng)

"In NSW we're spending 55 cents in every dollar on acute care beds. It doesn't make sense, it’s dumb. it should be about 20, with the other 30 going to organisations providing community care, but that's not what we're doing," he said.

"We see the response to public concern about ambulance ramping, issues in public hospitals, cancer, and it drives governments to respond very quickly. But it’s more rare to see political leaders respond assertively to the extent of the problem we have in mental health.

"At the moment, in every state and territory, the mental health system is in crisis."

He outlined issues around strained resources, full beds and ballooning rates of distress.


"Staff are under enormous pressure, families are under great distress when they can't get help for loved ones in crisis. We're having 110 people a day admitted for self-harm to hospitals. These are indicators of a failing system," Mendoza said.

"We should not have that level of distress. Other systems around the world do not see these levels of crisis."

Mendoza also called for an overhaul in how mental health resources are deployed around public information campaigns.

"We should stop funding awareness campaigns. People are acutely aware that problems exist," he said bluntly.

"The issue is, when they seek help, the help isn't there or is pretty poor. We’ve got good awareness, and we can continue to do awareness through philanthropy."

"Scarce government money should be directed toward services right now. We should redirect that money into more useful purposes."