We shouldn't have to hurt ourselves to get the care we need

Date

Honor Eastly

Honor Eastly

Honor Eastly Photo: Supplied

Like many Australians, I have spent many years in and out of mental health services. I have taken what I can, been pushed along, moved aside, charged, and smiled at. I have complained to professionals that I can't afford about treatments that appear to do nothing, I have handed over my money, and I have walked out the door.

But now, I am angry. Because now, I am finally well enough to know how much recovery costs, and to know that early intervention is not only a more humane system, but a more economical one.

I, like so many others, have spent years tentatively accessing the mental healthcare afforded to me, hoping it will suffice, offer relief. Currently, the most feasible option for most Australians is a GP mental healthcare plan, a treatment that offers 10 subsidised sessions with a registered psychologist per calendar year. At under one subsidised session per month, this option is woefully naïve of the resources necessary to achieve good mental health and of the financial burden this leaves on many people. Because of this, many go without the care they need.

For me, I settled. Without adequate care, even with the support of my parents, I accepted that my life would be one bound to mental illness. I was chronically ill for many years, and resigned myself to it because the care I received showed me that there wasn't a better option. I have now seen this resignation worn by so many others, and on my weary days, sometimes I try it on for size. It is the result of many things; poor care, dismissed symptoms, being moved along each year by the system to start the story again. But for most, it is the emotional price of either lack of care or the unbearable cost of care, and with each passing year, it is harder to shrug off.

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This is especially true for young people, for whom mental illness and substance abuse disorders contribute 60-70 per cent to the burden of disease. Combined with this vulnerability, they are much less likely to be able to pay for private mental health care. Yet the current system also means that any low-income earners as a whole have to prioritise between their necessities, and their mental health, with a loss in either likely to contribute to worse mental outcomes. This puts mental healthcare in a dangerous place, as both a necessity and a 'luxury'.

In Australia, mental illness contributes 13.1 per cent to the burden of disease overall, costs the nation an estimated $20 billion each year in loss of productivity and participation in the labour force, and as of 2011, is the largest category for recipients of the Disability Support Pension at 31.2 per cent. 

Despite this, only 8 per cent of the healthcare budget is dedicated to mental health, falling woefully behind the average of other OECD countries at 12-16 per cent. Unlike other areas held back in treatment by advancements in medication, we largely know what treatment works. We just refuse people who are vulnerable access to them. This not only makes no humanitarian sense, but also makes no fiscal sense. 

Sometimes this happens over the course of years, until they finally get sick enough to reach acute psychiatric care, as I did last year. Yet even then, I was still ineligible for the government-funded version of the year-long program I needed, as I did not meet their benchmarks; i.e: I had not brushed with death enough or fruited enough scars to be considered. Such requirements, common to public programs and services, are in place with the knowledge their existence means turning away those who have no other option. Some will be forced to meet these benchmarks themselves, and further induce injury, just to access the care they need.

Our mental health system should give us hope, not condolences. But what's more, the health system should not discriminate against those with mental illness. If a physical illness was the leading cause of death for those aged 15 – 44, as mental illness currently is, we would be done with filling quotas and meeting benchmarks. It's time that mental illness was given the funding it deserves, and all Australians, regardless of physical or mental illness, were given the care they deserve.

Fortunately, we have a unique opportunity to change this. Right now, the government is initiating a review of Medicare, and are asking you to contribute your opinions. It will take you a minimum of five minutes, but gives room to get really stuck into the details if you feel so inclined.

You can complain about anything, and I urge you to, but as you may have guessed, I am keen for people to give feedback on their struggles with mental health services. As is so often the case with mental illness, we are left to suffer quietly. To do something about it we need to be loud and this is our opportunity. You are not alone, we are not alone, and right now, we have the chance to demand what is really needed.

Honor Eastly is a musician, writer and mental health advocate from Melbourne. To encourage people to submit to the Medicare review, she's giving away something special to those who complete the survey.

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