GPs say mental health complaints are now the number one reason for visits and are pushing for a new Medicare item number to allow them to counsel patients, which takes longer than the 20 minutes currently provided for.
Australians for Mental Health spokesperson Steve Michelson said cost and stigma were both factors in discouraging people from seeking therapy.
“We hear heartbreaking stories everyday from our thousands of members across Australia who can’t access quality mental health care when they need it,” Mr Michelson said.
“GPs continue to do incredible work in their local communities, but we know from people with lived experience that seeking help from a psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor can be intimidating, particularly when it involves taking time off work.”
He called for mental health to be made “a national political priority” to reduce stigma and “ensure a greater take up of mental health plans”.
The Medicare rebate for a psychologist session is $126.50 for a clinical psychologist and $86.15 for a generalist registered psychologist, but many practitioners charge more – leaving gap fees as high as $100 or more.
The AIHW report showed that 388,418 Australians saw a psychiatrist, which requires a GP referral and not a mental health plan, in 2017-18.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners chief executive Harry Nespolon said patients given mental health plans often presented in a distressed state after a personal crisis.
“Often the fact they’ve turned up and talked to someone is enough to make them feel better,” Dr Nespolon said.
“Seeing a psychologist is expensive, it can be inconvenient as you need to go multiple times … over a period of time, so the total cost can be high.”
The federal government’s Medical Benefits Schedule review has recommended that a new Medicare item number be created for “preventative” psychology sessions, and that the cap on the number of Medicare-rebated sessions be lifted from 10 to 70 in the most severe cases.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made mental health a key focus of his government, and has tasked Health Minister Greg Hunt with reducing the nation’s suicide rate.
The Productivity Commission is also conducting a review of the mental health system and probing how the $9 billion spent each year is allocated.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.