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Mental Health Day 2023

10 October 2023

It is World Mental Health Day on October 10th. In the past we might have called this an ‘awareness raising’ day. However, we could hardly call it that now. In Australia there is constant discussion of mental health, mental illness, mental distress, anxiety in schools, suicide, depression, environmental anxiety, screen addiction, loneliness, overdose, isolation, disconnection.

So, what should we do differently on this day?

Dig a little deeper perhaps.

The World Health Organisation is emphasising human rights in relation to mental health, using the phrase ‘mental health is a universal human right’. If we spelled that out a little further, we might say that access to an environment that is not inherently harmful to mental wellbeing is a human right, as is professional mental health support when we need it.

So, 1) a good environment, and 2) good services.

What then does a rights-based approach urge us to consider?

Firstly, it’s worth noting the we have a Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (2006) in Victoria, as well as the new Mental Health and Wellbeing Act (2022). When the rubber hits the road, it’s the legal frameworks that provide a mechanism to formally object if we think that either a person’s or people’s 1) environment or 2) level of access to services violates either of these acts.

In First Step’s world we would focus on stigma in the health sector (for decades people who use drugs have been turned away from services despite their obvious severe need), access to addiction medicine and other health services in prisons (did you know prisons don’t use Medicare?), access in the community to evidence-based harm reduction treatments such as methadone via GPs (it’s been a crisis for decades), and access to a transdisciplinary team for people with multiple co-occurring needs (particularly common with our most vulnerable community members).

And then there’s poverty, the ‘cause of the causes’ of mental distress.

Did you know that 50% of Melbourne prisoners come from the poorest 6% of suburbs? 40%+ have a mental illness and 25% are on psychiatric medicines. Regardless of offending, most First Step clients grew up in conditions of poverty, many in out-of-home-care (there are 10,000 kids in out-of-home-care in Victoria tonight, 20-25% are ‘whereabouts unknown’), most suffered childhood abuse and neglect.

Generally, in our community do the people I have described above experience 1) a good environment and 2) good services? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

According to the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020-22, 55% of people with symptoms of mental illness do not receive professional support. That’s a combination of lack of awareness, avoidance, lack of access to existing services, non-existence of appropriate services and combinations of the above. Regardless of the percentage breakdown, we clearly need to do a lot better.

Yes, it’s a matter of life and death, and it’s also a matter of human rights.

Patrick Lawrence
Chief Executive Officer