With a “deep sense of disappointment” Professor John Mendoza resigned as chair of the federal government’s National Advisory Council on Mental Health. And many others in the mental health sector share his abject lament.

Mendoza represents the “extreme frustration felt by the entire mental health field”, according to Australian of the Year and mental health campaigner Professor Patrick McGorry. Mendoza’s advice was constantly ignored, Lesley Russell of the Menzies Centre for Health Policy tells health blog Croakey, by a government that has shown a disregard for addressing the issue.

Croakey sought views from the leading voices in mental health …

Dr Lesley Russell, Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney:

The resignation of John Mendoza as the Chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health must send a clear message to the Rudd government, the Department of Health and Ageing, the health care community and the voting public that the status quo, where mental health is not a priority — is arguably not even on the radar screen — is no longer acceptable. We are talking about an illness that at some time in their lives will affect around one in five Australians, and yet the government can commit only $117 million (over four years) in new funds for mental health services in a bundle of so-called reforms costing $7.3 billion.

When our most committed advocates like John give up a crucial task in absolute frustration, it makes it very clear how lack of support and interest and any idea of strategic planning  or a vision for the future has undermined the effectiveness of the Advisory Council. As someone who served as an adviser to the council, preparing analysis and writing reports, I can readily bear witness to that. The efforts of DoHA staff to rewrite my reports, modify my language and conclusions, and then limit distribution led me eventually to refuse their funding. The last report I prepared for the council was done gratis.

My small contribution to mental health advocacy has been to analyse the data, highlight how little value we are getting from the costly blowouts in the Better Access program, and write increasingly biting commentary. I’d much sooner be working on building a better mental health care system for all Australians. So would everyone else, especially those individuals and families who live with the burden and cost of mental illness.

So let’s all join John Mendoza and send a clarion call to the Prime Minister and his cabinet (because mental illness is not just an issue for the health portfolio) — it’s time for action and commitment, not during the election campaign not after COAG has considered, not after 2011, but now!

Patrick McGorry:

There is simply no excuse for this since we have 21st century models ready to go and a set of practical recommendations from the NHHRC. We urgently need a commitment from both sides of politics to end the inequity in investment between physical and mental disorders accompanied by immediate investment from the present government in those programs which are not dependent on the major restructure of the mental health system that federal and state governments all acknowledge is required.

We must not delay this until late 2011. People’s lives are at stake. I am convinced if the government commits to this they will regain the confidence of the whole health sector and revive widespread support across the community who understand the importance of mental health in the modern world.

Sebastian Rosenberg, director of ConNetica Consulting and senior lecturer, Brain and Mind Research Institute, at the Sydney Medical School:

The establishment of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health was a Labor commitment dating back to the Beazley days. It indicated Labor’s support for new processes of engagement with sector expertise, including professionals, consumer and carers. It also indicated Labor’s appreciation that in government it would need to establish new and broader sources of advice about mental health policy and programs, beyond the channels provided by either narrow, vested interests or even by the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing.

The NACMH provided several important papers and briefs to the Rudd government, outlining suggestions for how to improve Australia’s struggling mental health system. By and large, as with several other high-profile reports from advisory bodies (the Prevention Taskforce, the Primary Health Care Taskforce, indeed even the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission itself), the NACMH’s advice has been politely ignored. John Mendoza’s resignation sheets home how much work there is still to do to effect the real, national mental health reform promised under the COAG of 2006 by Prime Minister Howard and Premier Iemma. The political landscape and faces may have changed, but the desperate plight of many people living with a mental illness remains.

Peter Fray

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