Just 20 years ago, the federal government was perceived to have no role in mental health — it was seen as strictly states’ business. Fast forward to the 2011-12 budget and the announcement from Julia Gillard of a five-year funding commitment of $2.2 billion.

This was a significant win for a sector in tight financial times and one that had bipartisan support; after all, the Coalition claims credit for the government’s move — they argue Tony Abbott’s $1.5 billion pre-election pledge placed pressure on the government to step up to the plate.

But that’s just the start of the big noting when it comes to mental health reform — and the debate on how best to spend these billions has just begun. In the first of a four-part joint investigation with Inside Story, which kicks off today in Crikey and is titled Mind Games, health journalist and Croakey blogger Melissa Sweet surveys the long and often bitter road towards real reform.

Sweet examines why praise for the mental health package quickly dissipated — generating more negative than positive headlines — amid controversy around the Better Access program and the vitriol now aimed at advocates such as psychiatrists Ian Hickie and former Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry.

Health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett provides the most apt description of the post-budget bunfights to Sweet: “It’s partly just a function of what happens when you get a win. It’s like when a patriarch dies, and the will is read, and everyone starts squabbling.”

Read on as Crikey unpicks the family feud that’s only just beginning to heat up in the mental health sector …