Monday, November 8, 2010

Mental Illness

For a few weeks during the election campaign, the issue of mental health suddenly rose to the forefront of the nation's consciousness. Then, once the government was formed, it seemed as if that interest faded.

But the issue is about to be resurrected, as Australian of the year Patrick McGorry insisted when he spoke in Canberra over the weekend.


Professor Patrick McGorry spoke softly and humbly. “Labor has only got ten days left to show it will act on mental health. The opposition are about to introduce a bill on the issue. The government is about to become very embarrassed.”
Three of those days have already passed. Julia Gillard has done nothing apart from implementing a name change to a junior ministry. She has offered no indication that she understands this is a vital issue. Perhaps one of the few things that might help concentrate her mind would be seeing a demographic break-down which demonstrates this is a key issue in a number of marginal electorates, because it appears that only statistics such as these are relevant to modern Labor. During the election campaign Tony Abbott seized upon the issue of young people’s mental health and proposed a plan that would begin tackling the problem. Health Minister Nicola Roxon dismissed the urgent need. It was, she suggested, something the government would get around to in its second term. Reports could be commissioned, working papers delivered, and a road-map drawn up. It almost appeared as if Roxon thought that, with luck, actually dealing with the problem could be postponed until the party was in office for a third term.
Yet, as McGorry pointed out on Saturday at the Lionel Murphy lecture at the ANU’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, the size of the problem is already known. So too is the extent of the cost of mental illness to society and, critically, that there are ways of dealing with the disease. Nevertheless nothing’s been done. McGorry’s talk was focussed on one simple objective: getting better treatment for the mentally ill. There was little that was new except, perhaps, that bit about the potential benefits of Omega 3 (fish-oil) and its part in possibly treating the disease. However the issue that’s exercising the professor is the continued refusal of this government to deal with the problems of mental health or to pay it, apparently, anything other than lip service.
McGorry is absolutely not, it should be noted, critical of the Minister, Mark Butler. He’s the junior minister in the Aged Care portfolio who suddenly found out that ‘Mental Health’ had been added to his responsibilities when he was sworn in on the 14th September. McGorry’s met Butler on a number of occasions since the Minister assumed office and he’s certain that the new minister wants to devote himself to improving the situation for young, mentally ill people. But, so far, and after more than a hundred days of government, the offerings have been paltry. A name change for the ministry; the lumping of the oldest members of our society in with the youngest and most vulnerable; and a few palliative words.
In the meantime the toll directly attributable to mental illness has climbed until it is now well over double the road toll. McGorry insists these issues now represent more than fourteen percent of the country’s total health burden and it’s still growing. Yet mental health receives virtually none – less than three percent – of the funding devoted to researching medical problems. The services available to those suffering are haphazard and random. Some are caught, others, often the most defenceless, are left to fend for themselves.
McGorry spoke about a recent patient, a middle-aged woman. A precautionary mammogram had revealed a lump in her breast and the medical system had acted immediately. Within weeks she’d been operated on and was surrounded in the hospital with family and the cards, flowers and chocolates of those who wanted to wish her well. Shortly afterwards she was released. She had, supposedly, been ‘cured’. And yet, long before the cancer had begun to grow, a mental disease that was equally as dangerous to her life was incubating itself, both undetected and untreated. There were no cards and few friends around her in the hospital. After all, this is still incorrectly perceived as being, somehow, a shameful disease.
McGorry is focussed on one thing: getting help for young people. He didn’t begin to explore, publically, what is perhaps the most critical question in this field: what is it about modern life that sickens so many of our young people, making them unable to see any point in life? Surely there is something rotten at the very core of our society, and with its ethos, when an increasing number of children don’t want to be a part of it. Something has changed for the worse when the very meaning of existence is rendered questionable and meaningless for so many.
Only a small crowd of about a hundred people had gathered in the dim light of the lecture theatre to hear the professor speak. Then, the minute McGorry finished, he was instantly besieged. People – mothers, fathers, partners – begged for a moment of his time, hoping that, just perhaps, he could fit in a moment to help with their particular issue. If any further example of the unmet need was wanted, then this was it. The lights had to be switched off before McGorry could finally be bundled away, but there were still more people desperately importuning a word.
The final speech had been a vote of thanks, proposed by Barry Jones, AO, fellow of five Royal Societies, former minister, former National President of the ALP, and former member for Lalor (current representative, who other than Julia Gillard). Jones noted how, back in the 1970’s, the Labor movement had been galvanised by people with ideas. They were the prophets, people who fought to achieve change. Today, he lamented, the party had been consumed by managerialism. Political parties focus on returning the budget to surplus ahead of schedule: the real needs of real people are being left unmet as everyone worships the idols of economic growth and consumerism.

The ‘trimmers’ are in charge. The new badge of ministerial office should be a tape measure, draped around the shoulders. The focus later today will be on the marvellous savings that the government has managed to make to keep the economy growing. Extra money will be devoted to infrastructure. And, in the meantime, the convoys of mentally injured people will continue travelling on their way. The suffering will not stop.

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