Review : To Live Life to the Full: Mental Health in Australia Today.

The Australian Catholic Bishops Social Justice Statement 2020

The ideology of neoliberalism which has enthralled Western governments in particular for some three decades or so, has managed to redefine the meaning and purpose of society. Mutual attachments and obligations, the interdependence which provides the social glue in our communities, have been sidelined in favour of greed and individual self-advancement.

The Common Good as understood by Christian tradition is replaced by the private good of the individual, reducing the Common Good of society to the economic benefit accrued by those able to navigate and manipulate the market. The market contains society rather than the other way around. This is a philosophy that provides a cheer squad for greed, a venal economy based on the private accumulation of wealth and profit.

Not at all surprisingly, it is an ideology unfit for purpose when it comes to providing a healthy, safe and fair society. Health, education, community services and social ‘safety nets’ become afterthoughts in the pursuit of economic growth ideally in an unregulated market.

In so many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has caught us out and laid bare the broken social systems essential to providing a healthy, well functioning and genuinely just society. The Aged Care sector springs immediately to mind at this time, revealed now as a system broken from years of neglect and profiteering.

Mental health is another. Exacerbated by the pandemic, the inadequate provision of mental health services in Australia has been exposed, yet its failures have been flagged by Mental Health professionals for years.

In its Interim Report of November 2019, the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System stated:

“Poor mental health has become a pressing yet ignored health crisis. Mental Health services continue to fail to provide treatment, care and support to people living with mental illness, their families and carers, when and where it would offer the greatest benefit.”

It is timely then, that the 2020 Australian Catholic Bishops Social Justice Statement should focus on the need to construct a better, fairer, generously funded, flexible and needs-based mental health system. The Statement outlines the extent and impact of mental illness, pointing especially to the social determinants of ill health and the particular susceptibility of certain cohorts to mental illness – young people, the aged, prisoners, the homeless, survivors of domestic violence and those fellow Australians severely affected by natural disasters such as years of drought and bushfires.

Whilst Australia spends around $10 billion each year on mental health, the Bishops’ Statement echoes the sentiments of the Victorian Royal Commission’s Interim Report by pointing out that these services are disjointed, complex and difficult to access with far too many gaps for the mentally ill to fall through, especially the glaring dearth of services in what the Bishops refer to as the ‘middle ground’ between primary care and acute care.

Arguably the heart of the Bishops’ Statement is the clear and unequivocal advocacy for two groups for whom Australia’s mental health system has proved unfit for purpose: First Nations peoples and Asylum Seekers and Refugees. In not resiling from strongly criticizing the failure to deal with the mental health needs of these most marginalised groups, the Bishops’ Statement of 2020 maintains a clear line of sight with its many predecessor Statements which have highlighted the glaring neglect  of justice and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Asylum Seekers and Refugees in most policy areas. 

Observing that First Nations peoples are over-represented in key measures of disadvantage including access to mental health services, the Bishops’ Statement points out that the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls for greater participation and empowerment aimed at bringing values of fairness, truth and justice to Australia’s First Peoples. They pointedly note: “That call is yet to be answered in a spirit of national solidarity.” (pg.15)

The prevalence of the breakdown of health and high levels of mental ill health often leading to suicide or attempts at suicide by Asylum Seekers and refugees is attributed to their gross mistreatment:

“Detaining people in inhumane conditions and refusing them resettlement in order to send a message to people traffickers, treats vulnerable people as a means to an end. The damage done in the meantime has compounded their trauma and mental ill-health. The policy seems aimed at breaking their spirits, but it does the rest of us spiritual harm too.” (pg.16)

The numerous recommendations for the strengthening, or perhaps even, the rebuilding of the mental health system suggested by the Bishops’ Statement cannot be explored in detail here. But they include much increased and quarantined funding to better integrate service delivery across all related service areas such as general health, housing and social services, with particular emphasis on improved services for the most vulnerable groups.

Most importantly, the 2020 Social Justice Statement is a call to recommit to the principle of the Common Good, “attending to the good of all of us, without exception, paying special attention to those who are most overlooked, pushed aside, or fall through the gaps.” (pg. 14)

If people of goodwill were to choose this principle as the first criterion in deciding how they will vote, who they will do business with and how they will conduct themselves in society, perhaps we might at last hear the death rattle of neoliberalism.

Michael Yore, now retired, has held senior leadership positions in the Catholic Social Services sector for more than 30 years, including over 20 as CEO of Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service in Melbourne.

1 September 2020.

Photo A happy family. 3dpete. flickr, cc.

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