NOTE: This article contains discussion of mental health issues.
It’s a good thing that people are getting serious about mental health. Or at least, talking about getting serious about mental health seriously.
But until we actually see some improvements to Medicare’s coverage for people seeking help then we should assume that talking about it is all that’s going to happen.
Think of it this way: say a large population of Australians are trapped in a room full of snakes and the federal government of the day announces that they’re serious about reducing the unacceptable and tragic incidence of snakebite.
And then that all of the solutions they suggest are about incentivising not being bitten by snakes, or starting a conversation about why snakebites are bad, or at best providing funding for an online snakebite crisis line for people who need to talk about the venom that’s travelling through their bloodstream.
And then when finally someone asks “hey, how about we get the people out, or at least remove the more aggressive snakes from the room?” they’re accused of politicising the issue, or pointing out that this would blow out the budget for the Department of Snakes And Other Bitey Reptiles, and that we need to snake within our means.
That’s kind of where we are with mental health. Everyone agrees that suicide is a huge problem, especially among young men, and that people are struggling to access limited help under the current system.
And yet, the government is not saying – for example – “Medicare will now cover unlimited access to mental health services, and there will be an active attempt to bring more services and health care professionals available to those that need them” – a move which would immediately and directly help people and go some way to addressing our national mental health crisis.
At the moment if you need mental health services Medicare will provide subdidies for six sessions with a psychologist in a single calendar year.
If you need more – which for people in crisis is a given – it’s possible to get another four if your GP OKs it. After that, it’s up to you.
This doesn’t cover the full cost of sessions – sessions typically cost between about $200 and $600 and Medicare typically covers about 60 per cent of that depending on the length and nature of the consultation – and there’s definitely a wait ahead once you’ve found a doc that can see you. Psychiatrists don’t have a limit, but they’re more expensive.
In a big city that might be as little as four weeks. In a smaller ones, three to six months. In rural or remote areas, it’s telehealth or nothing.
And it should be pointed out that the government is spending record amounts on Medicare and mental health. Of course, since the population is constantly increasing and health is getting more pricey, that’s a great way of making it sound like progress regardless of whether actual service provision is getting better.
And there’s no way of discussing mental health without acknowledging that government decisions strongly impact people’s ability to cope.
We know that poverty and mental health are connected. We know that LGBTIQ+ youth are bullied and commit self-harm at a higher rate. We know that people subjected to domestic violence suffer higher rates of traumatic mental abuse.
So if a government is cutting services to women’s shelters, programmes like Safe Schools and engaging in a “robodebt” system where Centrelink recipients are forced to prove they don’t owe the government money, it’s as though the government are actively releasing more snakes into the room.
There are enough snakes. It’s time to desnake the place – and there’s an obvious first step staring us in the face.
If you need to talk to someone, you can call Lifeline on 131114.