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Mental health services in crisis

Penny Wright 25 Mar 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:15): My question is to the Minister Representing the Minister for Health, Senator Nash. An open letter signed by more than 70 mental health organisations was sent to the Prime Minister this morning saying that the funding uncertainty plaguing the mental health sector has now reached crisis point. Has the minister been briefed on the number of people who no longer have access to mental health services because of staff attrition and service wind-down caused by the government's failure to guarantee funding for vital programs?

Senator NASH (New South Wales-Deputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health) (14:16): I thank the senator for her question. Yes, I am aware of that, and the Minister for Health is also well aware of that. She is highly conscious of the need for funding certainty and is committed to working with the sector to make sure we have that front-line service delivery that we need. That is a matter for the consideration of the minister and I know she is hoping to conclude that deliberation in the very near future.

When it comes to mental health provision in rural and regional areas-and I know this is an area of concern for those on both sides of the chamber-there are a number of programs that the coalition government is already implementing to ensure we get the outcomes we want on the ground. We need only look at mental health services in rural and remote areas. We have got $16.7 million going out to around 200 communities across rural and regional areas that otherwise would not get services. Under the National Suicide Prevention Program we have $9.2 million-

Senator Wright: Mr President, on a point of order: I specifically asked the assistant minister whether the Minister for Health has been briefed on the number of people who no longer have access to mental health services as a result of the funding uncertainty. It was a specific question and I would appreciate a specific response.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Wright, you did ask that question and the minister said up-front that she and the minister are aware of it. I take that to be a direct answer to your question. The minister is in order.

Senator NASH: As I was saying in relation to the National Suicide Prevention Program, there is $9.2 million going to 23 projects predominantly in rural and regional areas to address what is a very important issue for people not just in rural and regional areas but right across the country. The coalition is well aware of that and currently has programs in place to address that. We will be working through the issues the senator has raised.

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:18): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I query whether the government actually understands the depth of this crisis. These organisations need to give notice to staff who may lose their jobs if funding is not renewed in the next few days. How many more days is the government going to make people wait to find out whether they will be out of a job and these services will be continuing?

Senator NASH (New South Wales-Deputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health) (14:18): As the senator would be aware, this funding agreement runs to 30 June. As I indicated in my first response the Minister for Health is very well aware of the need for certainty around these issues. I have to respond to the senator's comment that she does not believe the government fully understands the depth of these issues.

Senator Wright interjecting-

Senator NASH: I take that interjection from Senator Wright-of course we are. This coalition government is more committed to mental health in rural and regional areas and across the whole nation than we have seen from those opposite. For the senator and the Greens to say the government does not understand the depth of this issue is completely misleading. We absolutely do understand the depth of this issue and the minister will continue to work to resolve this in a timely manner.

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (14:19): The programs at risk here are literally life-saving services that in many cases provide support to people who may be considering suicide. Given that six Australians take their own lives each day and suicide is now the leading cause of death for young Australians does the minister agree that any loss to services could potentially have life-threatening implications?

Senator NASH (New South Wales-Deputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate and Assistant Minister for Health) (14:20): I reiterate for the senator that this is an issue that is being worked through at the moment. The minister realises the importance of this issue and is hoping to conclude the deliberations. It is the coalition government that is focused on mental health, particularly for young people. We increased to 100 the headspace sites, which everyone in this chamber would know have been so effective. Indeed, 46 of those sites are specifically targeted for rural and regional areas. I visited one of them just recently up in Coffs Harbour and they do a tremendous job. This government has a very real focus on youth mental health as a priority. With one in five people across the nation facing a mental disorder every year it is absolutely right that this issue is a coalition government priority particularly in terms of how it affects young people across the nation.

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