Make Aboriginal mental health a national priority: Commission

The National Mental Health Commission has called for the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be made a national priority.

(The following transcript featuring the NACCHO chair is from World News Australia Radio LISTEN HERE

NACCHO’s chairman, Justin Mohamed, says incorporating mental health as a target in the program would help better track progress.A full NACCHO response  to this report is being developed and will be released shortly.

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“We know that mental health and emotional and spiritual well being has a major impact on our communities, especially our young people. So we would welcome any form of targets or a position where the government can report back on how they are going with closing the gap, particularly in this field of mental health

In its first annual report card it has recommended the mental health of Indigenous Australians be added as a target to the Closing the Gap program to reduce early deaths and improve well-being.

The National Mental Health Commission’s first report card includes a feature on the emotional and social well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, in a bid it says to have the Indigenous community heard.

Commission member, and chairwoman of the Australian Indigenous Psychologists Association, Professor Pat Dudgeon, says the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has long been overlooked.

“I believe that Indigenous issues have been ignored, particularly mental health. It is only recently that we have brought it to the table. There is a gap in Indigenous mental health compared to non-Indigenous mental health. For instance, even though we are only 3 per cent of the population our suicide rates are twice that of the rest of the population.”

Up to 15 per cent of the 10-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non- Indigenous Australians has been put down to mental health conditions.

In its report the Commission says governments must combat the vicious cycles of disadvantage that make mental health issues in Indigenous community’s worse.

Ms Dudgeon says mental health cannot be looked at in isolation.

“Everything is all interrelated. So if we look at health that is related to mental health, and employment, social inclusion. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people still suffer racism in this country. We also have a history of colonisation that we have to deal with and reclaim our cultures. So that all compounds on the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”

The Commission’s report makes ten recommendations.

Among them that the mental health and well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders be included in the Council of Australian Governments’ Closing the Gap on disadvantage program as an additional target.

The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has welcomed the recommendation, so too the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), which represents over 150 Aboriginal community controlled medical services across the country.

NACCHO’s chairman, Justin Mohamed, says incorporating mental health as a target in the program would help better track progress.

“We know that mental health and emotional and spiritual well being has a major impact on our communities, especially our young people. So we would welcome any form of targets or a position where the government can report back on how they are going with closing the gap, particularly in this field of mental health”

The National Mental Health Commission says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders must be at the centre of thinking and decision-making on mental health initiatives and suicide prevention.

It also advises that training and employment of Indigenous Australians in mental health services must increase.

The Chief Executive of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, Richard Weston, says historically Aboriginal people have not had great experiences with the mental health system, so to breakdown barriers and build trust it is going to be critical to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people involved in the delivery of services.

“But we need Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are well trained and skilled, who can hold their own with other mental health professions. So we need good education and good training processes to ensure that the standard of care that we are able to provide to our people is able to meet the high level of need that is out there.”

Mental illness is experienced by nearly half (45 per cent) of the Australian adult population at some point over their lifetime.

Commission chairman Professor Allan Fels says people from all backgrounds are affected, and that in its future reports the Commission plans to focus on various vulnerable groups.

“We know that there are lots of issues, problems and system gaps and many different groups of people, such as people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, veterans, refugees, people with intellectual disability, those living with borderline disability disorders and others face very real challenges. In the years ahead we will work on additional areas requiring a special focus such as these as separate pieces of work.”

2 comments on “Make Aboriginal mental health a national priority: Commission

  1. COAG should commit today to mental-health targets

    by: Allan Fels
    From:The Australian
    December 07, 201212:00AM
    6 comments

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    LAST week, as chairman of Australia’s new National Mental Health Commission, I launched our first report card on the state of Australia’s mental health.

    A Contributing Life: the 2012 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention is a world first. It is already getting more people to talk about mental health and is, I hope, the start of renewed attention. After all, we will all either experience a mental health difficulty at some time, or be affected, as I am, by the experiences of someone close to us.

    Our findings show that as a country we are performing way below our potential and aspirations. The Council of Australian Governments meets today. The Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers must not squander the opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to mental health.

    Without leadership from the top and strong links between homes, jobs, education, health, family support and justice we will never give Australians the best chance to recover their mental health and live contributing lives.

    As a commission we are asking COAG to act now on the key findings and recommendations of our report card. Governments must be brave enough to set goals and targets for improving mental health and reducing suicide and be judged on their results.

    Without a set of national indicators and clear targets, that show Australia’s “mental wealth” – whether we are promoting wellbeing and preventing illness, whether people’s lives are improving – we will continue to limp along. If we can do this for homelessness and HIV, why not mental illness and suicide?

    These indicators and targets must be based on helping people and families to achieve contributing lives. They should be collected and reported on annually and have a lifespan, initially, of at least 10 years.

    As a commission we have firm ideas on what should be measured by our political leaders.

    During the next 10 years we should measure and set targets for reducing national suicide rates as an indicator of improving wellbeing nationally.

    We need to increase the meaningful employment of people with mental illness and increase the number in settled homes.

    We need to reduce exclusions or dropouts from schools and colleges caused by having mental health difficulties, and increase participation in all forms of higher and further education for people with mental health difficulties.

    We must not continue to waste our nation’s human potential. It still sounds unbelievable but people with a serious mental illness in Australia die on average 25 years earlier than the rest of the population. This is an unacceptable and shocking gap in health equity and quality of life and one we should all be committed to eradicating.

    We also looked at the mental health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Cardiovascular disease and mental illness are the two leading health problems, yet mental health is not included in Closing the Gap targets. COAG can remedy this omission today.

    On discrimination, we wish to see a year-on-year improvement in community attitudes to people with mental illness.

    On rights, we call for reductions in the numbers and proportion of people in prisons with mental illness and in the use of involuntary treatments, seclusion and restraint.

    Far too many people with mental illnesses are inappropriately detained in our criminal justice system and sometimes we use powers of compulsion when other more appropriate and effective approaches are open to us.

    Finally what really helps people is having good social and cultural relationships and networks, so we should be looking to see an increase in people reporting that they have these strong connections.

    These measures are collectable and measurable now. If we make a committed start, then within 10 years we can achieve irreversible changes.

    Not only will these indicators help people with mental health difficulties and their families, they will boost our collective sense of wellbeing.

    Australia is one of a number of countries interested in measuring and improving national wellbeing. If we were to adopt this approach, we would be at the international forefront with indicators and targets that matter to people’s lives. The paucity of good data internationally on mental health has been recently remarked on by the OECD and it and others are keen to see countries push for better data on outcomes outside hospital care, in employment, housing and social aspects of people’s lives. We can lead the way.

    Overseas, Australia is seen as a world leader in progressive mental health policy, but we fall down on delivery. What is the point of good policy intentions if we fail to deliver on our promises and we can’t measure results? We are a rich country and we need to find ways of using our economic strength to create a lasting legacy that improves and saves lives.

    I call on COAG to make that commitment today and agree to set a national set of indicators and targets for us all to aspire to and make a contributing life a reality. If we fail, we fail those citizens who need us most.

    Allan Fels is the chairman of the National Mental Health Commission.

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