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Estimates: money for mental health research?

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 22 Oct 2014

Mental health research

Senator WRIGHT: It is about mental health research generally. I am interested in how much money has been allocated to mental health research in the Medical Research Future Fund.

Ms Flanagan: There are probably two parts to this. The National Health and Medical Research Council can probably give you an indication about what sort of money has gone into mental health research in terms of the program they run. Part of the question I think you were asking earlier on today was around what might happen with the Medical Research Future Fund. We are currently discussing with the minister a proposal of how the draw downs from the Medical Research Future Fund would occur and that will need to be agreed to by cabinet. There will need to be some assessment criteria about how to prioritise the draw downs of the Medical Research Future Fund. As I say, that is being discussed with the minister and ultimately will need to be agreed to by government.

Senator WRIGHT: That has not been decided yet?

Ms Flanagan: No, we are still coming up with the methodology and what sort of governance arrangements and advisory arrangements there might be around how to actually use the funds out of the Medical Research Future Fund.

Senator WRIGHT: Earlier today I was asking questions about the freezing of indexation as a budget measure across various programs, including programs in the Department of Health, some of which were mental health programs. The figure I was advised of was about $20 million worth of money. I was advised that the savings were going into the Medical Research Future Fund. I was asking whether or not those savings from those mental health programs would be devoted to mental health research, but is there no way that I can be told that at this stage?

Ms Flanagan: Just to be clear, the savings are going into the research fund. It will gradually build a $20 billion. What will occur is that that $20 billion will be secured and it will actually be the draw down, the investment return, on the $20 billion that will be actually used for research. For example, next year I think it is estimated that if the fund managers-the Department of Finance is setting up the fund and there will be fund managers-do a good job in investing this money, the estimated draw down from the fund to be used for research is around $20 million. That will build the time to hopefully be around $1 billion a year.

Senator WRIGHT: So the prediction is it may be around $20 million next year as it builds up?

Ms Flanagan: Yes, so that would be the total from all of the savings that are being invested.

Senator WRIGHT: There are a couple of aspects to my question. One is that, in terms of the burden of disease of mental health, I have been told the figure is about 13 or 14 per cent, and yet the proportion of the health budget given to mental health is about seven per cent. So there is a common view that the funding for mental health is about half of what the burden of disease is. There are always concerns about the underfunding of mental health treatments and programs. Among many, there is also an acknowledged dearth of research funding for mental health as opposed to other conditions and other illnesses, and yet it has a huge effect on productivity and certainly on morbidity and so on. To what extent will those sorts of issues be taken into account when determining how that fund is going to be allocated?

Ms Flanagan: These are discussions that we are having at the moment with the minister in terms of how you might set priorities. One of them may be looking at the burden of disease as one of your criteria against which you would say we need to allocate a particular amount of funding. There could be many things that would be chosen in terms of priorities. If there is a particular industry in Australia that is nearly there in terms of finding some sort of a breakthrough, would it be worth investing money in that? Those are the sorts of things that the minister, as well as government, will need to decide on in terms of setting how the fund will draw down.

Senator WRIGHT: The other aspect of that question is that it would seem to be a bit of cold comfort for people who have current issues in relation to mental ill health that would benefit but whose needs may not be met because of the freezing of that indexation over a period of time. With the freezing of the indexation, the savings are going into a fund and there is no guarantee that they will end up getting any benefit from it in terms of the money being allocated to mental health research.

Ms Flanagan: The freeze has happened right across whole of government. It was a whole-of-government decision. It has impacted not only mental health programs but many others as well.

Senator WRIGHT: I understand that. But I am talking about the fact that it is people with mental ill health who may be missing out, and this is a fund in relation to health research. Potentially, they could get a benefit or they may not. I think you also mentioned that the National Health and Medical Research Council may have some further information they could provide to me about mental health research. Is that right?

Ms Flanagan: Now that I have said that they can, I hope that that will be true.

Senator WRIGHT: We will see. They may not thank you for that! Professor Anderson, I am just interested in knowing if you can give me any figures or take on notice to provide any information about the extent of funding in the NHMRC budget that is going to mental health related research.

Prof. Anderson: I can. There has been some publicity in the last couple of days, so I have been looking at the figures just to make sure. Around 60 per cent of our total funding goes on the national health priority areas, and the proportion of that is pretty much lined up with the burden of disease. So mental health funding is number 3 after cancer and cardiovascular disease in terms of the national health priorities. We would like more applications. Only 10 per cent of our applications are for mental health.

Senator WRIGHT: Did you say 10 per cent?

Prof. Anderson: Only 10 per cent of applications and about 10 per cent of funding. So it is proportional to the requests for mental health research. Having said that, we have put special effort into some capacity building in mental health research over recent years, with a $26.2 million special package a couple of years ago. That was to build centres of research excellence, a couple of targeted calls for research in early intervention and, because we were concerned about leadership and capacity building in the sector, we have given two very large fellowships-the largest fellowships we give-especially in mental health, and all of that is rolling out. That is only two or three years old, so it will take a while to build capacity.

We have done a couple of additional priority areas in recent years, one on suicide prevention in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I have already mentioned the two large fellowships named after John Cade who, as you probably know, was the Australian discoverer of lithium as a treatment for depression. I could give you a breakdown of the various areas of mental health on notice if you like.

Senator WRIGHT: I would appreciate that. Thank you. Can I just check this: the suicide prevention funding, would that be something that you would characterise as being mental health funding?

Prof. Anderson: It was. It came as a call for help from what we call Principal Committee Indigenous Caucus, who are the Indigenous people on all NHMRC principal committees. They were worried about the causes of mental health problems in Aboriginal communities and wanted some very applied targeted research undertaken.

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