10 October, 2018 by Dr Stephen Carbone, Director
Two prongs are better than one.
Mental health conditions are a major issue in our society. We all know someone who’s been touched by these conditions and we all know how distressing and disruptive they can be.
Research shows that people who experience a mental health condition are more likely to experience poor school performance, early schooling leaving, unemployment, homelessness, divorce, incarceration, and substance misuse compared to people without mental health conditions. These conditions are also linked to an increased risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers, and a reduced life expectancy.
The social and economic impacts of these conditions are equally profound. It’s estimated that mental health conditions cost the Australian community over $40 billion annually.
So what is Australia doing about this issue?
Over the last 25 years governments around the country have focused on increasing the affordability, availability, breadth and quality of supports and services for people affected by mental health conditions and they’ve made some headway. A greater number and proportion of people with a mental health condition are using GP, allied mental health and psychiatrist services than ever before.
But sadly we’re still chasing our tail. Despite the substantial increase in government (and personal) spending on mental healthcare over the last couple of decades, the prevalence of mental health conditions has not come down, our frontline services are still struggling to cope with demand, and many people continue to receive an inadequate and fragmented response.
Quite rightly, consumer groups, carer groups and those working in the mental health sector are calling for more reforms and for more funding for mental healthcare. While this is undeniably justified, there’s another solution that’s worth considering.
Mental health conditions are one of Australia’s National Health Priority Areas, a list that includes chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers. Mental health conditions and chronic disease have a lot in common – they’re complex, highly prevalent, can lead to disability and premature death and they’re costly – yet there’s a big difference in how we’re tackling them.
When it comes to chronic disease, governments recognise it’s important to invest in prevention and healthcare. Efforts to reduce smoking, increase physical activity and promote healthy eating operate in tandem with clinical services for diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Governments recognise it’s not enough to have one or the other. Yet when it comes to mental health conditions, prevention is barely on the radar, and governments seem to believe it’s only necessary to fund mental healthcare.
This inconsistency is hard to explain given the evidence that certain mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and some behavioural disorders, are preventable. The science is there but we’re simply not using it effectively. As a result, each year hundreds of thousands of Australians develop a potentially preventable mental health condition and the negative personal, social and economic impacts of these conditions continues unabated.
Prevention and mental healthcare are complementary – not competing approaches. It’s time for governments across Australia to recognise this and start investing in the prevention of mental health conditions. Just $1 on prevention for every $100 spent on mental healthcare would make a difference.