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Holes in SA’s mental health system can’t be ignored any longer

Who steps up when people fall through the huge gaps in South Australia’s disconnected mental health system? Sharon Lawn explains why an injection of funds in next week’s state Budget is crucial to carers.

May 31, 2024, updated May 31, 2024
Carers are put under more pressure by underfunding of mental health supports. File image: Matthias Zomer/Pexels

Carers are put under more pressure by underfunding of mental health supports. File image: Matthias Zomer/Pexels

Right now we know there are 19,000 South Australians living with complex mental ill-health who are not receiving the community-based support they need to live well.

It is great that we have been talking about this and raising awareness. But in between the media articles and all the attention have we ever thought about who is filling this gap of support when we do not have the right mental health services in place?

I can tell you it is left up to people like me: the invisible magician working hard every day to provide the glue between systems that do not talk to each other, the repetitive storyteller who is correcting services that keep getting the story wrong. The Carer who is the liaison officer at 1am in the morning when the police or ambulances are the only ones who will come.

We – the Carers – are the ones who are doing all this while also trying to carve out a meaningful life for ourselves and those we care for.

If we can barely get the support right for our loved ones living with complex mental ill-health, how are we going to get it right for their Carers?

When the Unmet Needs Study was released, Health Minister Chris Picton said it was up to the Federal Government to help with funding the gap in services. So we waited to see what there was in the 2024 federal Budget: an investment of  $111 million in mental health and not in the places that would really help us. South Australians alone need $125 million.

Carers supporting family members or friends with mental health issues play a crucial role in our community, but they often face complex emotional, physical, and financial challenges that can lead to social isolation and their own mental health and physical health challenges.

The impact on their wellbeing is enormous, and they require significant support to cope with the demands of caregiving. Sadly the National Carer Survey in 2022 revealed that only slightly more than a quarter of Carers reported being asked about their own needs by providers of mental health services.

I am not surprised. If we can barely get the support right for our loved ones living with complex mental ill-health, how are we going to get it right for their Carers?

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And as we age so do those we care for. Complex mental ill-health often leads to complex physical health needs. Our lives are also filled with the daily management of the physical health costs of medication side effects, addiction, trauma, low self-worth and cognitive impairment. Our days can involve a litany of GP and specialist appointments such as cardiology, respiratory ailments, orthopaedic, ophthalmology, gastroenterology and sleep management to name a few.

Carers will always care for those they love. What worries me is while we wait for the Government to respond to the Unmet Needs Report with adequate funding, South Australians missing out on non-government mental health services – or psychosocial supports – we will lose sight of who is filling this significant gap.

The Unmet Needs Report highlighted the urgent need for investment in mental health services and we cannot ignore it any longer. It is time for the State Government to take action and invest $62.5m in the 2024 State Budget to begin closing this gap. Because the Federal Budget has left us behind.

When they fund the services we need, they will also be providing both practical and emotional support to Carers to help them cope with the demands of caregiving.

Addressing the unmet needs of people living with mental ill-health in our community requires urgent and immediate action. We do not have to wait. Premier Peter Malinauskas and his minister Chris Picton could start straight away with next week’s State Budget and not delay this any longer.

It is our collective responsibility – and a human right – to ensure that everyone in our community has access to the support and care they need to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

Sharon Lawn, the previous Mental Health Commissioner, is executive director of Lived Experience Australia.

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