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Opinion: Three ways we can improve access to timely, affordable mental health care

3 min read
mental health

A recent survey by Suicide Prevention Australia found 40 per cent of Australians reported cost-of-living pressures and personal debt has caused them elevated distress compared with August last year. In the same survey, frontline services ranked the rising cost of living as the biggest risk to suicide rates. This comes at a time when we’re still recovering from the devastating mental health impacts of the pandemic, causing many to experience isolation and uncertainty. Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows a 25 per cent jump in the number of people seeking mental health services last year compared with the same time pre-pandemic.

Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough affordable mental health support options that are easily accessible in order to cope with the rising demand for care. Our Medicare system can’t cope and many are left waiting too long to access care or face paying huge costs by going private, and even then, it can be hard to get in.

Data from the 2020-21 Productivity Commission found about 17 per cent of people living in NSW with a mental health condition delayed seeing a psychologist due to cost. At the same time, if people do choose to seek care, wait times for mental health specialist services have grown to more than six months in parts of the state.

It’s clear that we need to do more to address the lack of affordable and accessible mental healthcare, but how?

Fund innovative solutions

First of all, we need to think differently about how we offer mental health care to those who need it the most. There are social enterprise models that exist, like ours at Rough Patch, which helps lower-income clients only pay what they can afford, whilst still paying counsellors competitively.

Now is the time for governments (and philanthropists alike) to consider investing in innovative models to solve the very real mental health crisis we are living through. Otherwise, we will see a continued rise in long-term mental health issues and rising healthcare costs for the government.

Multi-disciplinary approaches to treatment

There are many highly-experienced counsellors available in the workforce that the government won’t approve for Medicare rebates. Psychologists are not the only answer to the mental health crisis; we also need counsellors, social workers, mental health nurses, occupational therapists and other mental health professionals to address the breadth of the problem. These mental health providers are also bringing different experiences and training to the table. Seeing a psychologist is not the right fit for everyone.

Increased wages/fees

Mental health professionals are highly trained, do an extremely stressful job, and hold a lot of responsibility. While the fees that clients pay are inaccessible for many, the costs of being a mental health provider are equally high, and wages are often much lower than the cost to the client.

It might seem counterintuitive to increase wages and fees if we’re trying to increase affordable care options, however, if we want to increase the capacity of the system by attracting people into the profession and making sure they stay, we need to make sure clinicians wages match the intensity of their job. This will ensure a well-equipped, mentally healthy workforce with longevity.

Mental health providers experience mental ill-health and distress themselves, and we need to pay them a wage commensurate with their training, responsibility and compassion so they can take care of themselves and in turn, take care of others.

If we can’t find a way to provide affordable, accessible care, it will lead to long-term mental health issues along with rising healthcare costs for the government. However, there are solutions, whether that be government funding for innovative social enterprise models or re-thinking the system so that we can increase the number of mental healthcare workers. We need to be thinking about mental health care as a prevention mechanism, rather than a stop-gap.

Related: NFP Leaders share workplace mental health commentaries

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Amber Rules is a psychotherapist, counsellor, group therapist, clinical supervisor and mental health trainer. She has lived experience of the impact and complexities of trauma and addiction in her family, and is a lifelong devotee of counselling as a means to healing, understanding, growing, and thriving. Amber founded Rough Patch to provide affordable counselling and mental healthcare services in Sydney's Inner West. Its mission is to destigmatise mental health conversations and make counselling more affordable and accessible to all.


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