Mental Health Awareness Alone is Not Enough

Wednesday was World Mental Health Day and the whole past week here in Queensland was Mental Health Week. I saw my friend on Wednesday night, he was carrying some cupcakes with a little paper tag sitting on the icing that said ‘World Mental Health Day’ that his workplace had given him. I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that a soggy piece of paper on a cupcake could go some way towards addressing people’s mental health issues. He proceeded to tell me that, depressingly, just last week this same workplace refused to allow a permanent worker to reduce their hours in order to look after their and their family’s wellbeing. The cupcakes, while delicious, were nothing but empty symbolism.

Empty symbolism is something we see far too often in discussions around mental health in Australia.

Don’t get me wrong: awareness is great and all, and the impact stigma and discrimination can have on people’s lives is significant and real. But at the end of the day, what we desperately need is a properly funded mental health system.

‘Awareness’ can be incredibly frustrating for people who are struggling with their mental health, who have built up the courage to seek help only to find that they probably can’t access the services they need.

This raises another issue around our mental health funding in Australia. Free, accessible and appropriate community mental health services are few and far between in Australia. Far too many people are left with the only option of presenting at emergency for mental health crises (where there may or may not be beds available), that for some, could have been avoided with access to community mental health care.

Our mental health system also fails far too many people with severe and persistent mental health conditions. In the transition to the NDIS - which is a whole other, incredibly broken, kettle of fish - we are seeing what little funding community mental health support services had rolled into the NDIS. This particularly true in Queensland, where the Labor state government has many shiny plans but little actual funding on offer. It is incredibly concerning given that at least 160,000 Australians who need ongoing support for their severe mental health conditions will not be eligible for the NDIS.

So given all this, perhaps I can be forgiven for my cynical attitude towards acts of empty symbolism on yet another awareness day. Yes, we can do far better around de-stigmatising and normalising mental illness within our communities and workplaces. Yes, we can do better at caring for one another. But unfortunately, for many people struggling with their mental health, this alone is not enough. Australians desperately need properly funded, free and universal mental health services.

We’re a wealthy country- we can well and truly afford to do this. It is political will that is lacking not resources. If politicians made their mates in the big end of town pay their fair share in tax, we could afford properly funded, free and universal mental health services for all Australians. Unfortunately, they seem much more interested in patting themselves on the back for attending another mental health awareness event.

Nicole Laffoley is a Brisbane-based political organiser who has recently decided to go back to her roots in community services. She is interested in radical political economy and  transformative social policy.

Photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash