Academic calls for political courage to reform mental health

ALMOST 40% of Australians entering prison reported being told they have a mental health problem, and almost half the country's entire population will experience such issues during their life.

This was the stark verdict from Professor Allan Fels when launching the National Mental Health Commission's second report card on mental health and suicide prevention this week.

Prof Fels said mental health was a major "weak point" in both Australian society and the nation's health system.

He said it was "scandalous" that only 7% of the 340,000 people with mental illness and substance abuse problems were treated for both problems.

"These people have their lives cut short by an average of between 20 and 30 years, they are more likely to be in prison or homeless, and they are more likely to take their own lives," he said.

"People living with mental illness are over-represented in our prisons, in the number of police incidents and in the number of police shootings."

Due to what he called a "cycle of vulnerability", Prof Fels called for political courage to reform mental health and help some of the nation's most vulnerable.

He said the justice system, over-represented by people with mental health issues, also needed "significant reform".

"Incarceration and their treatment in prison often makes their mental illness worse and rarely treats their illness appropriately," he said.

"The warehousing of people with mental health and drug and alcohol problems is inhumane and makes no economic sense."

Prof Fels said every person with a mental health problem who came into "frequent contact" with the justice system, costed taxpayers about $1 million ever year.

The report card was only the second since the Commission was established by the previous government.

Prof Fels said it was time to "make a start" on systemic reform to improve the lives of Australians living with mental health issues.

"Last year, we called on governments to ensure that mental health funding they publicly announce is spent on mental health as promised, but we've seen no independent and transparent reporting on this," he said.

"Courage will also be needed to avoid tinkering with a disjointed collection of linear services and systems that have long been shown not to produce the outcomes people need.

"Success will rely on all levels of government, community agencies, and public and private services working together to make people's lives better."