Opinion: Mental Health and the Cost of Living Crisis

Published in The Daily Telegraph, 22 December 2023

Despite the tinsel and carols, many won't be celebrating Christmas this year with their usual festive spirit; they will be purchasing what they can at the shops and making the most of being with family and friends. Others will be lining up at food banks when they've never had to do so before. We are also heading into the most stressful, isolating, and lonely time of the year for some people, as the Christmas period is historically a time when suicide rates disturbingly increase.

It is now nearly a year since Health Minister Mark Butler slashed the 20 Better Access Medicare-subsidised psychology sessions in half to the broad dismay of patients and clinicians. This is despite the Labor Government’s commissioned evaluation of the Better Access scheme having found in Recommendation 12 that ‘the additional 10 sessions should continue to be made available and should be targeted towards those with complex mental health needs.’

2023 has been a hard year for every Australian because of the Albanese Labor Government’s reckless decisions. In my Western Sydney electorate, the cost-of-living crisis is crippling families across the Penrith community. I've raised this issue time and time again in Parliament this year because Aussie battlers are not being heard.

It is so dire that mental health organisations are telling me that cost of living is now being reported by more than half of those surveyed as a key driver of distress. People without past mental health conditions are now increasingly being diagnosed as they struggle with increased financial challenges adding to their mental burden.

From soaring energy, fuel, and grocery bills to the squeeze of mortgage repayments due to relentless interest rate rises and a rent vacancy rate hovering just above 1 per cent, people can only worry about keeping a roof above their head rather than how they can get ahead.

After a year of waiting, where is the Minister’s reform agenda for mental health to deal with the widening chasms for access, and the need for better outcomes for Australian children, parents, and seniors in distress? 

The Minister held a forum in late January to discuss options with those who approved his prior decision to axe the sessions. He put a few million dollars into two lived experience bodies from that meeting.

No doubt last week’s mediocre announcement by the Health Minister was prompted by some self-awareness. He has assisted some great Australian mental health organisations in continuing their work. The funding announced included added support for digital health services, but that will only assist some people who are not in need of clinical care.

Instead of structured and impactful person-to-person clinical psychological support, the Albanese Labor Government has installed a Mental Health Advisory Committee. While we wait for the outcome of their review, so many Australians with chronic mental health conditions are going without the support they desperately need and cannot afford.

The people stuck in this quagmire are often the most vulnerable who are at the critical juncture between the dual cost of living and mental health crises, as a direct result of the poor policymaking in regard to both the economy and for mental health by the Albanese Labor Government.

Axing the additional 10 subsidised psychology sessions in a cost of living crisis means that the gap to access to mental health support is widening, especially for those with acute and complex needs. Providing access to 20 psychology sessions means that patients and clinicians have a real chance at treating serious mental health conditions and forge a real path to recovery. We cannot let this cost of living crisis mean Australians are not able to access the help they desperately need.

With the Albanese Labor Government failing Australian families, Butler’s mental health reforms have transformed the previous comprehensive mental health system into a shadow of its former self. In a year’s time since the Health Minister cut Better Access, the mental health reform agenda we’ve been waiting for has only delivered a few million dollars to a sector-led consortium and topped up funds for digital health within the clinical guidance framework of the previous Coalition government.

At the time Australians need support the most, mental health is not a priority for the Albanese Labor Government. Australians need real action and strong leadership to meet these challenges. I fought hard and rang the bell on this, which led to the Opposition Leader Peter Dutton announcing in his Budget reply speech that a government he leads will reinstate the full 20 psychology sessions permanently.

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