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‘A single, simple, unified system’: Greg Hunt unveils plan to fix mental health

The government is spending $114 million on the initial eight adult mental health centres, which will operate under a similar model to youth drop-in service Headspace.

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Experts warned the centres would be “full as soon as they open” when Mr Hunt announced the initiative in the April budget.

“Australia’s mental health system needs to be better integrated,” Mr Hunt said, promising to work with the states and territories through a national partnership to better coordinate services “from prevention to treatment to recovery” in a “single, simple, unified” system.

The approach would help remove barriers to treatment among people who “don’t necessarily know where to turn to, in the way that they know they can turn to their GP”, he said.

He said negotiations through the Council of Australian Governments would be “a two-year process” to ensure that a “genuine partnership” was reached.

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“It is not something we want to impose,” Mr Hunt said.

“Of course, some of the states are carrying out their own work and that includes the Victorian royal commission into mental health which will bring their views.”

Mr Hunt flagged that he would be pushing the states, which are responsible for hospitals, to open dedicated youth mental health units in “as many places as possible” to separate young people from older patients.

The minister said this was needed to address what he described as the “number one factor” in mental health problems among children: trauma, including physical abuse.

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“I say this on behalf of a close family friend who has been through an agonising process,” he said.

The government is also developing a national children’s mental health strategy, led by child mental health experts Professor Frank Oberklaid and Professor Christel Middeldorp.

Mr Hunt, who has been tasked with helping Prime Minister Scott Morrison achieve his goal of reducing suicide rates, said his mental health plan would be rolled out in parallel with the Productivity Commission review of the $9 billion spent annually in the sector by governments.

He said the two processes were “complementary” and that the commission, which is due to report by mid-2020, would give particular attention to the issue of mental health in the workplace.

“The workplace is one of the great opportunities for support in mental health,” he said.

Former Australian of the Year and psychiatrist Pat McGorry welcomed Mr Hunt’s pledge to improve services for adults, but said the mental health centres should be “a backup system” and that investment was still needed to ensure that primary health networks had enough clinicians.

“We also need that model to back up Headspace, which is very trusted with young people flooding in to get help – but in more complex cases, there isn’t really a next step, except for the mental health unit.”

Professor McGorry said building the architecture for a better system would enable Australia’s mental health sector to rival the performance of its treatment of physical health, “which it doesn’t at the moment”.

He said culture and workforce issues also needed to be addressed.

Mr Hunt also announced on Wednesday a three-year $90 million Inter¬≠generational Health and Mental Health Study through the Australian Bureau of Statistics to obtain up-to-date data on Australians’ mental health.

Mr Morrison has made mental health a key focus of his government and last month appointed Christine Morgan as Australia’s first National Suicide Prevention adviser.

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