Federation Chamber

Matter of public importance

I commend the government for its focus on mental health and suicide prevention.

Appointing Ruth Vine as Deputy Chief Medical Officer shows its dedication to tackling this condition that affects almost half of all Australians. Black Summer and now COVID-19 has seen rising levels of anxiety across the community. There is no better time to talk about mental health, and I thank the Member for Bass for her motion today.

There are 54 Headspaces across rural Australia, each providing a welcoming and safe space for 12 to 25 year olds to access holistic support. The Albury-Wodonga Headspace opened in 2015 after a 10-month community campaign after the tragic suicide of several young people. Annette and Stuart Baker were among the leaders of the campaign. They lost their daughter Mary after a long battle with an eating disorder, the mental illness with the highest mortality rate of all.

This groundswell of action continues to have a profound impact across my electorate. For the last seven years, we have gathered on the winter solstice, to shine a light on the darkest night and address the stigma of suicide. Thousands of people come together to share music, poems and speeches. It’s always freezing cold in QEII Square in Albury, symbolic of the pain and grief of families and friends of those we have lost. It is a moving and collective response to this devastating illness.

This year, we will gather online for the event, with speeches by Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, Lauren Jackson and performances from Angie McMahon and the Northern Folk. I thank the many sponsors for making this event possible, including Wodonga Senior Secondary College, Hume Bank, Smart Hospitality, EBA Hire and Kwik Kopy Albury.

The Winter Solstice came about from the suicide of a young woman suffering from an eating disorder. This heartbreaking and isolating condition is one of the most difficult to treat. And in rural Australia, we simply don’t have the services and support to adequately respond. Meryl Wilcox, founder of the North East Eating Disorders Carer Support Group wrote to me yesterday to share the reality of those in our region. She wrote:

Ongoing challenges…include access, affordability, equity, lack of trained health professionals, minimal services, no specialist care and lack of outpatients or day programs.

…In our rural region access to care is seriously low. Having to travel outside your hometown is a significant barrier and our nearest inpatient care is at minimum four hours away. This provides both sufferers and carers with increased financial, emotional and social costs.

Once discharged from inpatient care the sufferer is left to return locally to an almost non-existent system and then obligated to navigate recovery alone at such a vulnerable and critical time. Invariably this often results in relapse.

With her lived knowledge of local needs, Meryl has called for a creation of a local eating disorder coordinator; for day care services and programs based locally; and peer mentoring services. These initiatives will increase access and support and help individuals recover in their home environment. I strongly support them, and call on the Government to ensure access and equity for rural and regional sufferers of eating disorders.

Headspace is a fantastic initiative, but the disgraceful waiting time to access services has been a serious concern. The waiting time is after first seeking help one of the most high-risk times for young people. Last year 90% of Headspace centres reported ‘major challenges’ in meeting demand for services, with the main reason being workforce availability for mental health clinicians, GPs and private practitioners.

Rural health workforce shortage is a perennial issue which successive governments have failed to address. We see the real consequences of this each and every day. What works is training local practitioners to live in and work for their community. Charles Sturt and La Trobe universities in my electorate have a health focus but are facing an uncertain future. Losing them would be disastrous for our region.

I am thrilled that Albury-Wodonga Headspace will share in the $24.2 million allocated to reduce these wait times. But if we don’t have a workforce ready to meet the need, this well-intentioned funding might be meaningless. This need extends to places where Headspace does not exist, including Myrtleford where mental health services are provided to students at school.

I call on the government to connect the dots and invest in a rural workforce and ensure that rural and regional Australians have the support to address and overcome mental health conditions and live full and healthy lives.

[June 10, 2020]


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