Page 4139 - Week 13 - Tuesday, 15 November 2005

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A critical component of a comprehensive mental health strategy in a community is an effective primary response capability. The evidence suggests that, while early intervention for a person who is showing signs of mental illness is important, there is very little data available on the extent to which early intervention is playing the role it should. The Mental Health Council argues that programs that provide early intervention are critical both for interrupting the establishment of mental illness and in reducing the burden of the disease.

Of course, such programs need to work within the existing range of health settings and they need to use risk-assessment tools to assist with the identification of important behavioural indications of emerging problems, such as anxiety, withdrawal, social inappropriateness or poor socialisation. There are many community-based services that have the potential to assist in identifying at-risk families and children who may be showing signs of the development of some mental health issues. These services include infant, child, and family welfare centres, schooling systems, general practitioners and other primary care settings.

I am particularly aware of the incidence of mental health concerns among younger people, especially young adults. The Mental Health Council has obtained research from the Australian Infant, Child, Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association in which the association estimates that between 14 per cent and 18 per cent of children and young people aged between four and 16 experience mental health problems of clinical significance. I find it staggering that almost one in five of our children and young people are likely to experience mental health problems of clinical significance. The association put the figures at 217,000 young people aged between 12 and 17 years in 1998 who would experience these types of mental health problems. What is going on in our communities that is leading to such outcomes? This is a really serious issue, but it is a subject that should be discussed in depth on another day.

Early intervention takes on a critical imperative in the light of this research. Bricks and mortar are not the answer to dealing with young people who are suffering the effects of early exposure to mental illness. More appropriate responses, and responses that are likely to prove more timely, involve the referral of these young people to appropriate programs and services that have the potential to reduce the establishment of their mental illness.

There is so much more that I could say, but I will leave that to my colleagues and to another time. I want to conclude by emphasising that the recent announcement on mental health activities by the ACT government appeared to leave unanswered some critical issues relating to the delivery of mental health services. I am not denying that appropriate facilities are part of a policy of coherent and comprehensive approach to mental health policy. What I am highlighting is the way in which this announcement by the ACT health minister has been portrayed as the answer to the mental health needs of the ACT.

Expertise outside the ACT department of health indicates that the approach of the ACT is only part of the answer. Does this announcement by the ACT government reveal a lack of thinking and coordination both within the ACT health system and between the health system and other expert organisations based within the community on the optimum ways to tackle mental health matters? It would appear so.

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