Rob Mitchell and Steph Ryan.

By Colin MacGillivray

STATE and federal politicians in the Mitchell Shire and City of Whittlesea regions agree governments will play a key part in improving the area’s mental health outlook.

Federal Member for McEwen Rob Mitchell and state Member for Euroa Steph Ryan agreed funding for expanded mental health services and training extra mental health workers would be vital, both locally and across the country, as the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Both members are in opposition – Mr Mitchell with the Australian Labor Party and Ms Ryan with the Victorian Nationals – but each said they would continue to advocate to their respective governments for improved services.

Mr Mitchell said the pandemic had put a strain on the mental health system and more support was needed for people who were socially isolated or had lost income.

“The Black Dog Institute said the rates of psychological distress, particularly in young people, over the past 10 years has gone from less than one in five to more than a quarter of young kids,” he said.

“A Suicide Prevention Australia report talks about social isolation being identified as a factor in mental health and suicide issues … [and] there’s a link between unemployment or insecure work and mental health impacts.

“Lockdowns and the pandemic issues have really not helped that, and if you couple that with the amount of people who didn’t get support on JobKeeper or JobSeeker, it compounds it.”

Ms Ryan said mental health problems were reaching critical levels in Mitchell Shire and staff shortages were making it difficult for people to access help.

“The government promised to put a mental health practitioner in every school [but] I think most of them are unable to find somebody to employ,” she said.

“The Nationals have proposed two immediate changes that would deliver 4000 extra mental health practitioners into the workforce.

“The first is to allow provisional psychologists to work, which would free up about 2000 people. The second is to make a simple amendment to the mental health act to recognise trained counsellors as mental health practitioners.”

Ms Ryan said issues like workforce issues would take time to fix, but the government was capable of making immediate changes that could help people living in Mitchell Shire.

“In Mitchell we have a major issue in the fact that if you need mental health support, you are zoned to go to Goulburn Valley Health,” she said.

“That might be appropriate around the northern end of the shire in places like Seymour, where the flow of people is often more towards Shepparton than Melbourne, but it makes no sense for people in Kilmore to go to Shepparton instead of to [Northern Health].

“I’ve raised this in Parliament and asked the government to change it. It’s simply bureaucrats drawing lines on a map and the government not doing anything to change it.

“As a consequence, I think it makes it far more challenging for people to access the services they need on the ground.”

Mr Mitchell said the Federal Government could also make simple changes to positive effect, including more support for telehealth.

“The government supported telehealth services through GPs, but it was going to expire in 2020. Through the work of the opposition and the crossbench, the government extended the deadline again and again,” he said.

“They should make it a permanent part of primary health care. We know it works. From the time of Black Saturday we’ve known the importance of telehealth in mental health services.”

Both Ms Ryan and Mr Mitchell agreed mental health services were vital and state and federal governments needed to increase their support.

They encouraged people to keep accessing the services and reaching out for support if they needed it.

“The most important thing is never be afraid to pick up the phone. The first step on the journey is always making that first phone call,” Mr Mitchell said.

“Anyone who has gone through mental health issues will tell you that’s the hardest thing.

“So when we get people to make that phone call and take that first step, equally from the government’s side of things, we’ve got to make sure there’s someone there to listen.”