Mental health support welcome but system reform still urgently needed

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM; the College) acknowledges the significant investment in healthcare contained in the Australian federal budget, as the country continues to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from it.

“This pandemic has demonstrated the crucial importance of having well-resourced and functioning public health systems, and we welcome commitments on specific initiatives, such as doubling the number of Medicare-subsidised psychologist visits, investment in mental health outreach support services and ongoing investment in hospitals,” said ACEM President Dr John Bonning.

While the individual investments are welcome and we appreciate the government’s commitment to providing mental health support, the College notes a lack of structural and systemic reform initiatives and major new announcements.

“Individual measures outlined in the budget will be helpful, but these will not on their own address the major crisis currently facing mental healthcare in Australia,” said Dr Bonning.

“With the COVID-19 pandemic having exacerbated many of the serious issues contributing to patients in mental health crisis becoming ‘stuck’ in emergency departments, sometimes for days at a time, following initial assessment and treatment by ED staff, it is more urgent than ever to find solutions.

“An ongoing lack of appropriate alternative care options in the community, particularly out of office hours, remains a significant issue,” said Dr Bonning. “Systemic and resourcing issues creating delays in admitting mental health patients to hospitals or more definitive care are issues requiring urgent attention.”

Last month the College released the Nowhere else to go report which examined the factors contributing to Australia’s mental healthcare crisis. It contained a comprehensive set of recommendations to help improve care for members of the community seeking mental health support, and address unsustainable pressures on hospital emergency departments.

“The College appreciates the significant financial burden and disruption the COVID-19 pandemic has presented for governments, but the pandemic’s impacts are also precisely why it is all the more urgent to find structural and systemic solutions, particularly where mental healthcare is concerned,” said Dr Bonning.

“With the government indicating it will have more to say about mental healthcare when it releases the Productivity Commission report into mental health ‘in coming weeks’, we hope to see further progress on long-term, sustainable measures which provide genuine and lasting improvements for patients experiencing mental health crisis and their families.”

Background: ACEM is the peak body for emergency medicine in Australia and New Zealand, responsible for training emergency physicians and advancement of professional standards.

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