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Media silent on funding to improve mental health supports through lived experience

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Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler announced a multi-million dollar funding boost for the mental health sector (Screenshot via YouTube)

A recent announcement of the Albanese Government's funding for mental health lived experience has been met with silence by the mass media, writes Fi Peel.

ON MONDAY 30 JANUARY, the Albanese Government announced the investment of $8.5 million ‘to support those with a lived experience of mental health to shape the policies and programs that affect them’.

This included $100,000 to ‘establish a regular stakeholder forum to increase transparency, accountability and partnership with the sector’; $900,000 to Lived Experience Australia to ‘continue its work to lead lived experience research and build the capacity of consumers and carers’; with the remaining $7.5 million to ‘establish and operate two independent national mental health lived experience peak bodies — one representing consumers and the other representing carers, families and kin’.

The announcement from Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler and Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Emma McBride, in tandem with the Mental Health Equity and Access Forum in Canberra on 30 January, has been welcomed with open arms by lived experience leaders, advocates, academics and peer workers.

But while the announcement that there would be no extension to the additional ten Medicare sessions under the Better Access initiative in December of last year resulted in a flurry of media coverage, you can almost hear a pin drop when surfing the net for the media response to Monday’s $8.5 million dollar drop.

Apart from two digital independent news articles – one in Medical Republic, the other in Croakey – and a Radio National interview from Natasha Mitchell with Rachel Green, CEO of SANE Australia, there are media crickets in heralding what McBride argued as a significant step in placing “people with lived and living experience at the centre of decision making”.

Even the surprised cadence of a seasoned journalist like Mitchell in announcing this decision to “engage people with lived experience in the development of policy and programs” while contextualising the tone of her interview with Green, highlights a telling gap between the importance of this landmark moment in mental health reform and the public understanding of why.

These kinds of pregnant pauses speak of gaps in understanding between dominant public discourse and the reality of evidence-based research that informs the media cycles at the centre of the storm. Like the Better Access public debate, which refused to acknowledge the rationale for the decision not to extend additional Medicare access to psychology sessions to the Australian news reader, highlighted clearly by Butler himself.

Even the glaring absence of reference to Butler and McBride’s announcement or acknowledgement of the lived experience contingency present at the Mental Health Equity and Access Forum last week in the Australian Medical Association (AMA)’s statement last week about attendance provides a stark testament to why the funding is so desperately needed.

It is not only a sad indictment on media responsibility that announces great leaps or setbacks in the current sociopolitical landscape but fails to engage robust conversation into why this information should be considered worthy of the attention of the Australian consciousness. It reflects the sad history of governmental processes to date that have silenced voices at the centre of horrific human rights abuses.

This recent slow correction of course is a result of the monumental effort of lived experience advocates lobbying to even be permitted access to the bridge, the need for consideration of our perspectives in recharting the course of mental health reform widely acknowledged for more than a decade.

In a recent Independent Australia article, Simon Katterl succinctly states:

‘The exclusion of people with lived experience from these policy debates is an indictment on the state of policy design in Australia.’

As reported in The Guardian:

‘Annual reports from Victoria’s Mental Health Complaints Commissioner (MHCC) showed that in the seven years since [the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System] was first established in July 2014, it received 14,160 inquiries, of which 12,470 were complaints.’

Wherever raising voices as a result of self-advocacy and individual advocacy falls on deaf ears, the question of why is resoundingly answered.

As we now begin to set the sails for the next leg of the mental health reform agenda voyage, with lived experience now formally installed at the helm, discussion arising from the Equity and Access Forum so aptly summarised in a recent post from Emily Unity (and slightly expanded) sets the compass points on the map:

  1. Not just psychologists: Psychologists can’t help everyone in every way. We need multidisciplinary teams of peer workers, social workers, nurses, digital supports and communities. Teams to learn from and with in filling the gaps in the system and upscaling the workforce.
  2. Support the supporters: When there are so many people that need help, who is helping the supporters? Burnout rates and vicarious trauma is high among professionals. We need to build supports and communities to bolster our existing workforce.
  3. No more Band-aid solutions: There’s an old saying that “prevention is worth a pound of a cure”. We can’t wait until someone is “bad enough” to take action. We need early intervention and to prevent challenges before they worsen. We need to heal outside of hospitals.
  4. Declinicalise and decolonise: Mental health support systems rely on diagnostic criteria that exclude many people. Human experiences are complex and we rarely fit into neat little boxes. We need to consider holistic supports like Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing.
  5. Intersectional inclusion: We need to understand the systemic inequalities that affect mental health. This includes how they overlap, intersect, catalyse and colour each other. We need to include intersectional expertise and listen to lived and living experiences.

Chair and Executive Director of Lived Experience Australia, Professor Sharon Lawn, conceded that while the funding was unexpected, “it signals an appreciation by the Government of the quality of the evidence that has come from our projects that have clearly elevated and strengthened the lived experience voice to government”.

LEA’s research and capacity-building focus is only a small element within the wider work of establishing the validity of lived experience voices, with the National Mental Health Commission now turning its attention to shaping the long-awaited consumer and carer peak bodies.

As one single voice among the multitudes who understand exactly why this news is groundbreaking, my fervent hope is that this leadership shift towards elevating the lived experience voices now at the helm holds fast, as we recalibrate the compass to true north in co-creation of equitable mental health reform.

Fi Peel (they/them) works independently as a lived-experience mental health recovery specialist. You can follow Fi on Twitter @fi_peel.

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