Why we need to fight cuts to improve mental health

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Almost half of the Australian population will experience a mental health issue at some time in their life. Around 3.2 million adults per year have a mental health problem, which is about one fifth of the population.

As people struggle to keep up with increasing cost of living pressures, mental health issues are on the rise. However, state and federal governments are cutting mental health services. Only one third of the people with a mental health issue are able to access the services they need. There is a drastic lack of resources being put into this important area of health.

Mental health is often a life and death issue. Six Australians take their own lives every day – more than 2000 people per year. People with a mental illness live on average 25-32 years less than those without. This is due in part to poorer living conditions and medications that have health risks.

The Gillard government has been forced to pay lip service to the importance of mental health but underneath her compassionate facade lies a political ideology that is incapable of seriously addressing the issue.

Mental health services are suffering

One of the results of both State and Federal government’s attempts to maintain budget surpluses has been cuts to the public sector. Mental health services, which have never been properly funded, have been attacked heavily. Basic care has been left underfunded while there are next to no resources available for early intervention strategies. The system currently relies on feeble bandaid solutions.

Reports from Western Australia reveal many suicidal people are falling through the cracks. The services that do exist are finding it impossible to meet demand. The congested public hospitals are often forced to release mental health patients too early, and in some cases individuals are being refused care. Unfortunately Western Australia is not the only state where people are losing their lives due to the underfunding of mental health services.

In Queensland $16 million has been cut from the state mental health budget. The Barret Mental Health Youth Facility is planned to be closed down with no replacement. This facility already has a massive waiting list and turns young people away regularly. According to The Age newspaper some young people have committed suicide after being refused help.

In New South Wales some people with mental health issues are being forced to pay for their own care. Those in prison have up to 80% of their bill paid for out of their own superannuation fund. If they are able to make a recovery and reach retirement age, they will be left reliant on the woefully inadequate government pension.

In Tasmania $14 million has been butchered from the State budget. This includes large numbers of bed closures in the mental health wards of hospitals, as well job losses amongst mental health professionals.

In Victoria, $5 million in federal funding has been cut from essential drug and alcohol services, which has resulted in 50 job losses. A further $1 million per year, over three years, has been cut from regional community health centres.

Community health centres are increasingly refusing to take on new clients and are ending sessions prematurely due to staff shortages and high demand. Instead of addressing issues at an early stage, those with more serious mental health concerns are attended to first. This is only storing up more problems for years to come.

Nationally the Gillard government has slashed funding to the Better Access Program. Introduced in 2006, this program provided up to 18 free sessions with a mental health professional. If more sessions were required, then they could be gained after obtaining another referral. In 2011 the Labor government cut the amount of free sessions to 10 and as of February 2013 it will only be 6. Once these sessions are up, no more free sessions can be obtained.

With community health centres overloaded, and private mental health professionals charging extortionate rates, there aren’t many options available to people seeking mental health support. Figures show that the unemployed and low-income earners are more affected by mental health issues than those on larger incomes. Continued underfunding and privatisation of mental health services will only serve to widen this gap between the mental health of rich and poor.

Behind the cuts

Every year reports say the same thing: More services, a stronger focus on early intervention strategies and more funding is required. So why is it that both state and federal governments are doing exactly the opposite?

In short governments are increasingly seeing healthcare as a commercial enterprise as opposed to a basic service that should be afforded to all.
There has been a shift away from providing public healthcare through tax revenue towards a user-pays system whereby ordinary people are expected to both pay taxes and then also pay for health services themselves.

Services that have already been paid for out of our taxes are being sold off to the private sector. Once in private hands we are often asked to pay high prices for substandard services. Overall the marketisation of healthcare, and cuts to funding, has helped pave the way for a mental health system that is in crisis.

While we should oppose the idea of profiteering from people’s health problems and fight for more funding for healthcare, the ultimate solution is to address the root causes of mental health issues. At base the structure of society itself gives rise to a myriad of health problems.

For example, in recent years the cost of living has increased substantially. Housing, utility costs, food, transport and all of the other necessities of life are costing us more than they ever did before. At the same time wages and welfare payments have struggled to keep up with inflation.

Those that have been able to keep their heads above water have often only done so by working long hours or getting themselves into significant debt. Rising unemployment has particularly affected young people, and even those in work are likely to have low paid and insecure jobs. This puts people in a precarious position and naturally makes them feel worried, stressed, anxious and uneasy about the future. These pressures are having huge impacts on people’s mental health.

In every instance we see a system that puts profits before all else. Our wages are kept low so that our employers can make more profits. Our rent and mortgage payments are kept high so that the landlords and bankers can make even more money. At every turn we are being asked to pay more out of our meagre earnings while a tiny minority at the top profits at our expense.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of putting profits first it would make much more sense to produce things on basis of human need.

Instead of the main pillars of the economy being in the hands of private profiteers, public ownership could dominate and wealth could be distributed more equally. Rather than a tiny elite sitting in company boardrooms making decisions about every aspect of our lives, democratically elected bodies could decide. And instead of the anarchy of the market dominating we could implement a sustainable plan of production to ensure resources go to where they are most needed.

This type of society – a socialist society – would use the wealth that is created to feed, clothe and house everyone as well as to provide people with secure jobs on decent wages. Instead of some of us working long hours while others are underemployed we could introduce a 35 hour week without a loss in pay to share out the work. These measures would dramatically increase our standard of living.

Rather than the rich getting richer at the expense of the rest of us, wealth would be used to provide good quality services including all types of healthcare.

For the mental health sector that would mean guaranteeing everyone access to free services, as well as putting millions of dollars more into research. This would help us find better solutions for serious mental illnesses.

Due to the changed material circumstances in a socialist society we would see a massive decrease in depression and anxiety, and other mental health issues people face. This doesn’t mean that all mental health problems would be eradicated overnight but as conditions improved, and services increased, people would inevitably feel less pressure, more secure and happier.

Not only would this type of society undermine the conditions that lead to mental health problems but it would be more equipped to provide early intervention support and proper assistance to those with more serious and long term issues.

The task ahead is to fight against the privatisation of health services and against cuts to the mental health budget. At the same time however we need to link these struggles to the need to build a new type of society where people’s needs are met and their health is prioritised over profits. Mental health workers and community activists have a big role to play in this fight.

The major parties have no interest in either increasing funding to mental health or building a different type of society. They are committed to the capitalist system and represent corporate profit making interests as opposed to the needs of ordinary people. The policies that both Labor and Liberal governments have implemented over the years have only worsened the problems we face.

We need a radical break from the major parties and from the status quo. Only through struggle will we win better living conditions and better mental health services. But at the end of the day only through changing the economic and social system will we be able to truly address mental health issues in a serious way.

By Socialist Party reporters