Pandemic's health legacy requires sector reform


31 January 2023

In a compelling opinion piece published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Professor Patrick McGorry has drawn attention to the urgent need for mental health reform in Australia.

The last few years have created conditions for a pervasive deterioration in Australians' mental health, with young people ‘the miner's canaries of society’, Prof. McGorry wrote.  ‘Now 39 per cent of 15–24-year-olds need some form of care for mental ill-health,’ with suicide remaining the leading cause of death among young people. 

 Meanwhile, data from NSW and Victoria shows an eight per cent rise in suicide deaths of middle-aged and elderly males in 2022. Prof. McGorry said suicide rates tended to rise after external threats such as the Covid pandemic recede, especially in times of economic stress.

Prof. McGorry calls for strengthened preventative measures and focusing on the ‘upstream’ socio-economic factors behind suicide, while creating stronger safety nets for those in immediate danger; primary care with highly accessible multidisciplinary one-stop shops within general practice and a mission-based approach to mental healthcare delivery are needed.

‘New systems of team-based multidisciplinary secondary care, including psychiatrists, are crucial to support GPs and primary care services,’ he added.

‘The success of this once-in-a-generation reform remains in the balance.’

In an earlier opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald, Prof. McGorry described the debate over the decision by federal Health Minister Mark Butler to discontinue the 10 extra Medicare-subsidised psychological therapy sessions under the Better Access initiative as 'a sideshow and yet another symptom of more fundamental underfunding and structural weaknesses in mental health care'. 

Prof. McGorry said primary care initiatives such as Medicare Better Access and headspace had improved access to mental healthcare for people with mild to moderate conditions, but the 10 extra Medicare-subsidised sessions introduced during the Covid lockdown period had exacerbated the problem of blocked access (to those mental health professionals who are eligible for Medicare rebates).

Prof. McGorry said the debate about cuts to Medicare-rebated sessions had served to highlight the unmet needs of those with persistent conditions for whom the primary care system is a pathway to specialised care.

Prof. McGorry wrote that ‘[Australia] currently spends about $11 billion a year to cover 5 million Australians with mental ill-health. For perspective, [Australia] spends about $30 billion a year through the National Disability Insurance Scheme on 500,000 Australians with disability.’ 

Prof. McGorry is executive director of Orygen, the centre for youth mental health at the University of Melbourne, and a former Australian of the Year.

Read the 9 January opinion piece.