NOTE: This article contains discussion of mental health issues.
Mental health is still massively stigmatised in Australia but we’re slowly – glacially – getting better at talking about it. And if you’re struggling these days people will tell you to ask for help, and that is excellent advice.
Here’s the thing that people won’t necessarily tell you, though: getting help is a slog.
And not because therapy is challenging and difficult, but because getting access to mental health services in Australia. Is. A. Very. Very. Long. Process.
Let’s say that you’ve realised that you need help.
First up, good for you – it’s estimated that over half of the Australians with mental health issues don’t access any form of help at all, unless you count the criminal justice system which mops up a lot of people who really need treatment rather than punishment, but that’s a whole different rant.
You might ring a helpline, where a sympathetic person will tell you that there are services you can access. And that’s true, provided that you live in a largish city; if you’re in a rural or remote location then your options are far more limited.
Even in a capital city you’ll rapidly learn that getting help is generally a pretty punishing process which is made extra difficult if you’re already feeling burdened by depression or anxiety.
The author Anna Spargo-Ryan has written beautifully about the experience of feeling lousy and having to find the energy to advocate for oneself at each step in the system.
If you’re in urgent, at risk need then there are local crisis teams in many places to help you. But what if you’re not in immediate danger but feeling pretty awful?
You’ll need a diagnosis, which means going to your GP and doing the Mental Health Checklist (for which you’ll need to book a long session). Once that’s done, you’ll be able to access six sessions under Medicare.
Those sessions will not be free, but they will be subsidised. Under some circumstances you can get four extra ones after another GP visit, and another assessment.
The question can be asked “for most people with a mental health condition, will six sessions fix it?” And the answer is: probably not, but that’s what’s subsidised. What you need after that, you’re paying for.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: first you have to find a mental health provider in the form of a psychologist or a psychiatrist.
The former provides therapy, the latter provides therapy and can prescribe medication. They’re also more expensive and remember, you’re paying the gap between the Medicate rebate and their bill.
They’re also in great demand, which is why your GP will likely give you a list of numbers to call to check who is taking new patients. That list will very possibly be wildly out of date, which is why the staff at Oportos were friendly but ultimately unhelpful when I rang to see if their patient books were full.
But let’s say you’ve done your plan, you’ve been approved, and you’ve found a mental health professional that can see you. Great!
Best case scenario, barring a convenient cancellation, is that you’re going to be waiting for somewhere between six weeks and six months. And if you finally get in to see someone and feel like they’re not for you, you can find someone else, if you can find one – but that still comes out of that number of subsidised sessions.
Now, none of this should be taken as advice not to seek help – you should, you absolutely should.
And look, from personal experience I can say that help is helpful: find the right person and the right advice (and, in my case, the right chemicals) and everything can change dramatically for the better.
But a lot of people very reasonably leave their search for mental health assistance until they’re in acute distress, and the system is not well designed to provide timely help.
So think of this as a push to maybe act on things now rather than letting it get worse. You know, forewarned is forearmed.
And hey, we like having you around, and you deserve to be happy. Honest.
If you need to talk to someone, you can call Lifeline on 131114.