Mental Health (Review) Amendment Bill

23rd June 2016 

 Second Reading 

The Hon. J.S.L. DAWKINS (16:43): I am pleased to rise to speak on the Mental Health Review Amendment Bill 2015. This legislation has come to the parliament as a result of a lengthy review and consultation period by the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, going back as far as 2013. This was required by section 111 of the Mental Health Act 2009, and I was happy to participate in that process with the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist late in 2013. The review itself made 72 recommendations and the government has endorsed 65 of them. It was also interesting to note that the review found that the act only required amendment and updating, rather than a major overhaul. 

I note and support the comments of my colleague the shadow minister for health, the Hon. Mr Wade, particularly when he stated that there is broad sector support for this bill and that this has stemmed from a thorough consultation process. I do commend the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, firstly, under the leadership of Dr Peter Tyllis, and more recently Dr Aaron Groves, and the small but dedicated staff who undertook the review of the Mental Health Act 2009, as I indicated earlier. Certainly, it is a small and dedicated group. I will refer to them a little bit more later. 

I am grateful to my colleague the Hon. Tung Ngo for putting down some explanation about the role of the position of Chief Psychiatrist and his office. I would be grateful if perhaps more members of the government supported the Hon. Tung Ngo in getting to know more about that role and that body. I will demonstrate later the need for more resources to be provided to it. I would also like to put on the record that I am pleased that this bill has finally been brought before the parliament under the stewardship of the now Minister for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, the Hon. Leesa Vlahos, the member for Taylor in another place. Rather starkly, it never appeared under her predecessor. 

The member for Taylor’s genuine interest in and care about the field of mental health has been apparent to those involved in the sector for some time. This stands in stark contrast to the lethargy and disinterest in the needs of mental health services consumers and those who care about them whilst this important portfolio was under the watch of the member for Playford. I have particularly noted the concerns raised by the Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia regarding the lack of references to Aboriginal health in the guiding principles. I hope the minister will heed the suggestion of my colleague the Hon. Mr Wade to amend this bill to enable that inclusion. I understand that further conversations on that matter and others will be happening before this bill concludes in this place. 

The government has recently and finally established the long-touted Mental Health Commission. This was an election promise made by the Labor government in the last days of the 2014 state election campaign, but it has taken until now, not much more than a year and a half before the next election, to actually see the commitment properly fulfilled. We had an acting commissioner for a while. I think the Hon. Mr Wade outlined the limitations on the amount of money provided and the number of staff who have been appointed compared to what the promise was, and I refer people to the Hon. Mr Wade’s details on that fact. 

Significantly, what has been delivered has been quite different to what was promised in February-March 2014. I think this reflects again the disregard which the government, and particularly the previous minister, showed towards the mental health sector. I do hope that the new body, with the leadership from the new minister, will place a greater emphasis on the importance of services to South Australian mental health services consumers. While this bill and the commission are a step in the right direction, the reality is that the organisations which service the ever growing number of mental health services consumers day in and day out need more support and more services, not necessarily legislative change. 

As the Hon. Mr Wade has stated in this place, the delays experienced by mental health consumers in obtaining an adequate mental health bed when presenting at an emergency department is appalling, and funding must be allocated by the government in a way that will have a meaningful and positive impact on wait times and on the level of mental health services to consumers. One of the vital pieces of work that requires support is the compilation of the state’s next suicide prevention strategy, noting that the current 2012-16 strategy expires at the end of this year. I note that we only have a 2012-16 strategy because of the motions that both the member for Adelaide in another place and I put through the parliament in 2011. 

I do not wish to be accused of self congratulation, but my early work in suicide prevention brought a stony silence from the government at that stage, particularly the then minister, John Hill, who refused to put any state government money into suicide prevention work. We have seen some improvement, but I assure the government that we need to do far more. I am assured that the process for developing the 2017-20 suicide prevention strategy is underway. I do, however, remain to be convinced that adequate resources have been provided to the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist to ensure that there is no gap between the conclusion of the current strategy and the commencement of the next. 

It is important that we do not rely too much on that dedicated and small team who I described in the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, who are doing sterling work in rolling out the suicide prevention networks around this state, but to think that they can do all that work sufficiently to meet the needs of the community, and to also develop this next strategy, without extra resources, is expecting far too much from a very small entity within government. So, I will be watching the development and keeping a very close eye on when we are going to get that, and will continue to urge the government to provide adequate resourcing to do this important task. 

I say that in the sense that, as a result, I suppose, of my advocacy and agitation, the previous minister for mental health announced at the estimates process in mid-2014 that there would be a new position added to the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist to roll out the suicide prevention strategy, and in particular the networks. It took 15 months for that position to actually come to fruition—15 months! That was the sort of interest the previous minister had in suicide prevention or mental health at all. 

So, I say to the government: let’s not drop the ball. I am pretty keen and confident that the new minister will not do that, but she also needs to be backed up from within the great resources of the health department. She does not have a budget of her own; it all goes back to the health minister, who previously failed in this area. I do not want to delay the chamber greatly but one of the things, as well as obviously the legislative changes that have been supported by the mental health sector, that I see when moving around this state—particularly there is a greater movement in metropolitan areas—is community awareness about mental health generally but also the threat of suicide to our communities. 

With that there is an extraordinary willingness from unlikely sources within the community, whether they be sporting clubs, service clubs, church groups or a range of organisations that have not necessarily had as their core focus anything to do with health or mental health, or particularly suicide, who are now saying, ‘We actually want to be involved in combating this in the community.’ A lot of the work that they do does not cost anything—it costs in voluntary time but it does not cost the coffers of the government and the health department anything. What they do require is a bit of moral support on the ground for the work they do. I have given a lot of that moral support to particularly the suicide prevention networks and I have given it to other organisations in the general mental health field and also particularly to those who assist the families of people bereaved by suicide. 

However, I have not yet seen a great deal of effort on her behalf in that field, and I trust that we will because she has had some other matters to deal with. What I have not seen from any member of the government, the cabinet particularly, is that effort to go out and support on the ground those people who are doing that voluntary work. They are looking for it; they are looking for confirmation, some affirmation of the effort they are making. They get it from me, but I humbly say to the government that they are looking for someone from government to give them that support as well, and it has been extraordinarily absent. 

I must qualify that by saying that some of my greatest supporters in the work I do in suicide prevention have been from the Labor Party. I must say that I get great support in that area right across the parliament, but I am still just a bit gobsmacked that there is not more of that effort on the ground. I get emails every week, sometimes more than once a week, from the groups that are having activities in this field right around the state. We need more of them, and we will get more of them as the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist gets the time and effort to help get them established, but every week I get that. I cannot go to them all. I keep in contact with them and I go to them when I can, but I do not see any of that physical attendance or support from senior levels of government, so I urge government members to continue to put pressure on the government to make sure that that is changed. 

In conclusion, I thought I might just leave honourable members with some statistics from the National Mental Health Commission which highlight just how vital the delivery of effective mental health services is to all South Australians. That is, 45 per cent of Australians aged 16 to 85, which equates to approximately 7.3 million people, experience some kind of mental disorder during their life. In 2013-14, one in five Australians experienced symptoms of mental health issues. The need for more support, more resources and more effective policy, and as I have just said, more demonstration by feet on the ground, by physical presence at events from all levels of government, from all parties. It cannot be clearer. I am certainly happy to support the second reading.