SANE Australia has called for the roll-out of a properly funded, comprehensive mental health strategy.

Executive director Barbara Hocking compares this to what the ALP and Coalition have offered so far …

A national mental health strategy must be appropriately funded and implemented — ensuring that everyone who needs help for mental illness will get treatment and support as early as possible, for as long as needed, and in the community where they live.

We need the federal and state governments to work together more effectively, to ensure that this help is provided as seamlessly as possible. We need co-operation across government departments so that needs such as housing, education, employment and justice are tackled together, not in isolation.

And it is fundamental to acknowledge that investment in mental health services is an essential suicide prevention strategy.

So, what is on offer so far from the two major parties in the 2010 election?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced the ALP plan: a loose grouping of services under the heading “Mental health: taking action to tackle suicide”. It has a price-tag of $277 million over four years. This is welcome news.

However, the annual cost of mental health services is over $4 billion a year, so the new funds equate to a timid increase of less than 3% per annum — roughly equivalent to a CPI increase.

Tony Abbott, meanwhile, has announced that the Coalition’s “Real Action Plan” would commit $1.5 billion to mental health over the same period, concentrated on youth services and “800 mental health beds”. This is welcome news.

However, the major focus on beds betrays an outmoded hospital-oriented mentality, ignoring the fact that mental health services are overwhelmingly provided in the community, and this is where increased funding is also urgently needed.

The vast majority of people with a mental illness rarely go to hospital, and then typically for a few weeks only. It is day-to-day care and support in the community that is required more than anything. The impressive billion-plus figure is also not “new” money, but funds taken away from other health programs that the Coalition would slash, including GP services and the important e-health initiative.

Meanwhile, the Australian Greens’ “National Health Plan”, which calls for a Minister for Mental Health and $350 million annually for mental health services is welcome; however, more detail is needed on how the funds would be allocated.

Croakey has been running an election health policy series — go here to read more about how the parties stack up.