Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP on mental health and supporting local services, particularly through COVID-19

31 August, 2020


 This is an important motion. We are all concerned about the mental health of our young people especially. There are four areas that I feel are important when we talk about headspace. It is important that we make headspace exempt from the telehealth requirement to have an initial face-to-face consultation. We need a national scheme for real-time data collection on suicide in general, and youth suicide in particular. We need a coordinated sector approach, bringing together health, departments of community and justice, education and local service providers. Finally, we need support programs that provide prevention and resilience.

I thank the member for Bass for providing us with the opportunity to speak on this important issue of youth mental health and suicide prevention. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank all the healthcare professionals who are working in this space. I acknowledge the work of larger groups like Headspace, Lifeline, ReachOut, SANE Australia and Beyond Blue but also the smaller local groups in my electorate of Warringah like Heart On My Sleeve, Gotcha4Life, The Raise Foundation, CatholicCare and Community Northern Beaches. These professionals are on the front lines. They're saving lives, but they need our support.

There's no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has hit our youth extremely hard, and they are feeling the stress and anxiety of that burden. The figures are sobering. The latest study to come out of the Brain and Mind Centre at University of Sydney predicts that, over the next five years, the prolonged economic impact of COVID-19 will result in a 30 per cent increase in the number of suicides by 15- to 24-year-olds. As a mother of teenagers, these statistics terrify me; as a lawmaker, they challenge me. What can we be doing better in this place to catch those kids before they fall through the cracks?

In the short time I have this evening, there are a couple of things I think we should focus on. The first is to make Headspace exempt from the telehealth requirement to have that initial face-to-face consultation. At our local headspace provider in Brookvale, workers have reported a dramatic increase in demand. But it's not just the numbers that have increased, it's the severity of the cases that are presenting. Dr Gilda Brunello, who works there, says there has been a shift from cases being mild or moderate to now being severe.

While talking with Dr Brunello, she also raised with me a significant problem created by the recent changes to telehealth, whereby doctors were now required to have had a physical consultation with their patient in the past 12 months. Prior to this change, they were able to access a patient remotely and develop a mental healthcare plan via telehealth. So the requirement of the face-to-face not only creates a very real health risk for the patient, the doctor and the support staff, but it may lead to delays in desperate kids getting the initial assessment they require. I also call on the minister to consider making Headspace services exempt from the requirement of that physical face-to-face consultation.

We need a national scheme for real-time data collection on suicide in general and youth suicide in particular. There's a lag—sometimes 12 to 24 months—in the reporting of suicides in Australia. It makes it incredibly hard for healthcare workers to identify and react in real time to local issues that may be contributing to suicide rates. I was pleased to see last week that the New South Wales mental health minister, Bronnie Taylor, announced the state government will fast-track their suicide register and have it up and running by October in New South Wales. This will allow police, health and justice agencies to access virtual real-time data on suicides to better target support services. We also need that coordinated sector approach, bringing together departments of health, education, justice and community with local service providers.

It's vitally important to support programs that provide prevention and resilience, not just focus on crisis care. Gotcha4Life, which operates in Warringah, is one such organisation. They say it is so vital to be able to engage with youth in the schools. We also have a program—Mitch Wallis from Heart On My Sleeve says, 'Connection to supportive relationships is the No.1 resilience factor associated with cultivating and protecting positive emotional wellbeing.' With that in mind, I want to end tonight by reminding all of us, but particularly our kids, that it's okay to not be okay. It's okay to be broken and to ask for help. And please, if you're struggling, ask for help.