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NSW mental health crisis grows while Berejiklian plays blame game

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Upping the mental health services budget doesn't make up for the NSW State Government blaming others for its systemic public health failure, writes Fi Peel.

THE RECENT NSW Government announcement of a record $10.9 billion budget commitment to mental health services now appears to be a cash-filled sleight of hand as the truth behind the responsibility for fumbling our latest COVID-19 crisis is increasingly illuminated via media coverage of another Sydney airport biocontainment breach

As a re-emerging artist and mental health advocate who has found intrinsic recovery value in reacquaintance with the world of shared creative expression, of course, I am heartbroken that these essential strategies for optimal self-care have once more ground to a halt.

It is also difficult to hold the truth that as an artist, had I contracted this new Delta virus strain (following participation in community vocal performances just before the start date of the latest round of stay-at-home public health orders), my own arts engagements could possibly have become the subject of unwarranted media scrutiny. As seen by the myopic focus currently being targeted at individual frontline transport workers. 

Emerging reports that the NSW Transport Workers’ Union (TWU NSW) had been attempting since February to warn the NSW Government of the very scenario that has forced residents of Greater Sydney, Wollongong and the Blue Mountains to deal with the trials of lockdown once more, begs the still unanswered question of what went so wrong that the only solution remaining was to again restrict the most basic of freedoms afforded us.

Is it any wonder that the mental health of the wider public continues to falter when NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Government conveniently hide behind media subterfuge, whereby transparent ownership of responsibility is negated and blame liberally applied to scapegoated individuals? 

The State Government’s commitment – barely a few weeks old – to boost mental health funding, appears to have been duplicitously heralded. It offers hope with one hand but ruptures it with the other in this new round of restrictions — arguably to protect the apparent best interests of general public health.

That TWU NSW State Secretary Richard Olsen needed to call upon authorities to adequately address reports of potential gaps in the COVID-19 biocontainment net in the first place is concerning. That there has been blatant failure to act upon this alert in a timely manner, revealing governmental disregard for its own enforceable public health orders, is alarming. 

That this and other calls to tighten the implementation of existing laws have been apparently glossed over is negligent. That a limousine driver is primarily copping the media backlash for a systemic public health failure is horrific. 

That actions, which could likely have eliminated this latest COVID wave before it had a chance to leave the airport, were not prioritised (particularly following media reports of a COVID case contracted by a Sydney transport worker in December last year, which played a significant role in the Northern Beaches cluster and resulting Christmas lockdown), is infuriating.

Where was the State Government commitment to ensure that if placing the responsibility back on individual airlines and private contractors to mitigate the threat of another developing cluster, these small-time players – in the wider sphere of social responsibility – were supported to deliver streamlined transitions?

In a 17 June press release, TWU NSW stated:

'Flight crew transport vehicles (buses, vans and taxis) are not subject to a regulated hygienic cleaning programme. The TWU is also concerned that vehicles used may have been subsequently used for other activities.'

While privatisation is the legacy of the neoliberal flavour of this century thus far, surely in times of extraordinary circumstances, the responsibility for providing cohesive delivery of transport infrastructure remains in the hands of the only organisational structures that can ultimately straddle the public and private sectors in the interests of maintaining viable economic and social recovery?

It is sickening to consider how we are all now paying the price of rising anxiety regardless of any pre-existing mental health vulnerabilities. As yet another Gen-Xer disillusioned with what has become our toothless political mechanisms, it certainly has not assisted me. Indeed, it has burdened my own complex mental health management, grappling with another devastating failure that exposes the need to seriously address often-sidelined conversations regarding the real social determinants of mental health barriers.

When will the penny finally drop that the Government owes the public health a duty of care to take these kinds of warnings seriously, instead of playing the battered and tired political card of hiding behind a victim-blaming media frenzy? A tactic that allows this Government to slip quietly out the back door unnoticed while transport workers are fed to confused hordes.

Had the NSW Government taken heed and satisfactorily addressed these legitimate logistic concerns, hundreds of thousands of people across the most densely populated areas of our state might not have had their freedoms ripped from their slowly steadying hands. 

When the realisation sinks deep that a fraction of this funding could have been otherwise employed in innovative and preventative ways that would reduce demands on our already ailing mental health systems – rather than contribute to their increase – then perhaps we can begin to engage in realistic discourse regarding the rebuilding of societal futures that boost mental health wellbeing.

The latest flashy round of announced budgetary band-aids fails to conceal the gaping wounds that desperately need to be cauterised if post-COVID recovery is to be sustainable.

The awkward truth is that Gladys Berejiklian now holds in her hands a billowing public mental health crisis that is partly her Government’s own making.

Fi Peel works independently as a lived-experience mental health recovery specialist. You can follow Fi on Twitter @f_peel.

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