Urgent reforms needed to fix ailing mental health system

Australia’s public psychiatric system is experiencing a slow and painful decline, with the mental health system critically under-resourced and health professionals facing unsustainable pressure.


This was the message from Professor Gordon Parker, UNSW Sydney Scientia Professor of Psychiatry and Founder of the Black Dog Institute, when he launched the 2019 Australian Mental Health Prize at UNSW.


The prize, now in its fourth year, recognises Australians who have made outstanding contributions to the promotion of mental health or the prevention and treatment of mental illness.


“Australia is a global leader in many areas of mental health including community awareness, public advocacy and innovative service delivery, but the tremendous pressures faced by mental health professionals in the public sector need urgent attention,” says Professor Parker.


“I see so many young psychiatrists enter the public sector with a genuine commitment and wish to help those with serious psychiatric problems but who become profoundly disillusioned,” explains Professor Parker. “Psychiatrists and trainees in the public sector often go home after shifts unable to find a bed for someone at high suicidal risk. They see patients who need close observation prematurely discharged or patients who are discharged into homelessness, rather than public housing.”


Professor Parker said it was not uncommon in public hospitals for there to be 10 to 30 people waiting for an acute psychiatric assessment each morning – people who are suicidal – but there aren’t enough beds.


“The system is under enormous pressure and the result is that many of our psychiatrists are over-worked and overwhelmed and end up leaving the public sector.”


Acute mental health disorders are the leading cause of emergency room delays with many patients waiting up to six days in emergency rooms for a bed to become available.


Professor Parker says this is partly due to an overhaul of the mental health system in the 1970s, which sought to move hospital-based care from psychiatric hospitals to the general hospitals and have a rich set of community homes and facilities to support those requiring on-going close care.


“Closing those psychiatric hospitals was necessary but the infrastructure wasn’t established to ensure a viable and supportive community, which would then lead to fewer people with a mental illness requiring acute assessment and making sure appropriate housing was available for patients.


“By the time we recognise how serious the situation is, I am concerned we will have passed the tipping point and it will be too late to make the significant changes necessary to turn things around.”


Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty, acting head of the UNSW School of Psychiatry, agrees with Professor Parker’s concerns and believes it is more important than ever to publicly acknowledge the individuals who are working tirelessly in the field of mental health.


“The mental health sector can be a demanding and difficult area to work in and it is vital that we acknowledge and celebrate the important work that’s being done,” says Professor Brodaty. “Mental illness is something that affects our whole community, and the Australian Mental Health Prize is a valuable way to highlight progress being made.”


Professor Parker said it was important for those working in the mental health sector to recognise the progress our colleagues are making in research and advocacy to drive real change and improve patient outcomes.


“We must recognise and acknowledge those individuals who are making headway in the area of mental health,” concludes Professor Brodaty. “We encourage clinicians, health professionals, community groups and individuals to nominate the people they feel are making a real difference in the area of mental health research, advocacy or service delivery for the 2019 Australian Mental Health Prize.”


How to nominate

To nominate someone for the prize, please provide their CV and 200 words outlining the work being undertaken and how it is making an impact. Nomination forms can be obtained from: https://www.australianmentalhealthprize.org.au/


What are the criteria for the Australian Mental Health Prize?

The Prize is awarded annually to an Australian who has made outstanding contributions to either the promotion of mental health, or the prevention/treatment of mental illness – in areas such as advocacy, research or service provision. (Nominations of individuals who were previously nominated, but were not finalists, are welcomed).


Who is involved with the Prize?

The Prize has been established by a group of eminent Australians in partnership with UNSW. Chaired by Ita Buttrose AO OBE, the Prize Advisory Group comprises: Professor the Hon Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, Judy Brewer AO, Lucy Brogden, Jack Heath, Professor Patrick McGorry AO, Jessica Rowe AM, Sophie Scott, Greta Bradman, UNSW Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty AO, UNSW Scientia Professor Philip Mitchell AM, UNSW Professor Valsamma Eapen and UNSW Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev AM.



30 August: Applications close

Mental Health Week 6-12 October: Announcement of six finalists

26 November: Award ceremony and announcement of winner


30 May 2019.