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Acting CEO speech to MHFA Mental Health Month launch event

This speech was delivered by Corinne Dobson, Acting CEO of Mental Health Community Coalition ACT, at the Mental Health Foundation Australia Mental Health Month Canberra launch event on 1 October 2022.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

I would also like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the ACT, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples. I recognise their continuing connection to land, culture and community and pay my respects to their Elders, past and present.

I also acknowledge the individual and collective expertise of those with a lived experience of mental ill health. I recognise their vital contribution at all levels and value the courage of those who share this unique perspective for the purpose of learning and growing together to achieve better outcomes.

The Mental Health Community Coalition ACT is the peak body representing the community-managed mental health sector in Canberra. Our aim is to foster the capacity of the sector to deliver quality, sustainable, recovery-oriented services to support people with mental health issues and their carers.

We work in mental health policy development, workforce training, sector coordination, and initiatives to promote the critical role of community services in facilitating recovery and enhancing wellbeing.

We are also the Coordinators of Mental Health Month ACT, with funding from ACT Health. I invite you to join us a week from today at our community event in Haig Park, and also our online expo the following day, 9 October, where we have a huge range of talks and workshops happening, as well as networking and stalls from community organisations across Canberra.

I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about the community-managed mental health sector, and to reflect on this in the context of this year’s Mental Health Month coinciding the 30-year anniversary of the First National Mental Health Plan in Australia – what was regarded at the time as a landmark and world-leading policy reform.

When people hear the term ‘mental healthcare’, they usually either think about clinical services—psychologists and psychiatrists—or perhaps about acute hospital care. The often forgotten but nonetheless essential component is the community-managed mental health sector, which supports people with mental health conditions to live well in our community and meet everyday challenges when and where they need it most.

We provide services and programs to help prevent people from spiralling into mental health crisis, and pick people up after they have been in acute situations to help them along their recovery journey.

The importance of our sector – and the need for greater investment – has been raised repeatedly in inquiries, royal commissions, and numerous studies and reports on how to improve mental health in Australia. Indeed, it was a key pillar of the 1992 National Mental Health Plan, which identified the expansion of community-based mental health services as central to the process of deinstitutionalisation.

In 2020, the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Mental Health noted the original vision of the 1992 National Plan had not been fully realised, and called for generational reform to create a person-centred mental health system.

That is our strength, which is why the Productivity Commission called for the expansion of our sector as a priority, as “a crucial linchpin in supporting the recovery of people with mental illness and their capacity to remain active, connected and contributing within their family and community.” Being run by community-based NGOs, our sector can flexibly adapt to the needs of unique communities, families and individuals. These needs might range from prevention and resilience, crisis to ongoing recovery support, housing, employment and social connection.

The support our sector provides helps keep people with mental health challenges out of our over-stretched hospital system and is clearly the most cost-effective approach to treatment and care.

Sadly, community-managed mental health services across Canberra – and Australia – are experiencing intense and unsustainable pressures from increasing demand, complexity in people’s mental health needs, and chronic under-resourcing and understaffing. That means that too many Canberrans with mental health issues are missing out on the care and support they need to stay well in the community.

We want to see a mental health system where Canberrans can access support when and where they need it, without their mental health having to deteriorate to a crisis point before they get care and support.

To achieve this, we need increased investment in the vital community programs provided by our sector.

Mental Health Month is an important opportunity to raise awareness and think about what each of us can do to nurture and support the mental health of ourselves and those around us. But it can’t just stop there.

We also need to talk about the reasons why so many people experience mental ill health, what collective action we can take to address those drivers, and what needs to be in place to ensure people experiencing mental ill health have access to the services and supports they need.

It’s been thirty years since the launch of a national mental health reform blueprint that saw Australia embark on the deinstitutionalisation of people with mental ill health. It is time to re-assert the vision originally described in 1992, of a shared goal to enable people with mental ill health to wherever possible, live with dignity in the community.

So, I ask each of you here today, in whatever capacity you have, to help change the discussion on mental health in the ACT, increase recognition of the essential work of the community-managed mental health sector, and work to increase the capacity of our sector to help our communities stay mentally healthy.

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