Better Access: Yes it is

The evaluation of the Medicare-funded Better Access mental health initiative, released today by the Australian Government, shows that increasing numbers of people with moderate to severe mental illness are able to access affordable and effective psychological services that make a real improvement to their lives, says the Australian Psychological Society.

Prior to the Better Access initiative, people who had a mental illness such as anxiety and depression had few accessible choices for treatment, even though these disorders affect around 20 per cent of the population. Left untreated, these disorders impose significant personal, family and economic burdens on the Australian community.

Professor Lyn Littlefield, Executive Director of the Australian Psychological Society, said: "The evaluation now confirms that more people than ever before can gain access to psychological interventions in a non-stigmatising way through the nation's universal health scheme. Over two million Australians have now used these Medicare-rebated services, and the evaluation shows that 80 per cent of the people studied were experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress on referral. This level of access to psychological care could never have been achieved without harnessing the thousands of privately practising psychologists who provide services across Australia to support people with mental illness. Over 17,000 psychologists deliver care under the Better Access initiative and they represent the largest mental health workforce involved. The evidenced-based treatments they provide are shown in the evaluation to be highly effective on standardised measures of psychological distress, depression, anxiety and stress, which supports previous research in this area."

She continued: "The evaluation shows that the people who are being referred for psychological treatment are not those who have been disparagingly called the ‘worried well', but are people with severe symptoms and debilitating levels of stress associated predominantly with anxiety and depressive disorders. The research shows the initiative is reaching large numbers of people who had not accessed mental health care in the past. The findings confirm that these psychological interventions are effective, with people showing very significant improvement in levels of psychological distress at the end of their course of treatment."

"Even better are the findings that those people who are traditionally difficult to reach are increasingly accessing this initiative. The rate of growth in uptake is actually highest for young people and 20 per cent above the average increase for those people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or living in remote areas. This growth in uptake appears to be one the benefits of the destigmatised way in which people can access these services and the increase in GP awareness of service availability under Better Access," noted Professor Littlefield.

Professor Littlefield said: "Importantly, the analysis also shows that Better Access is a cost-effective way of delivering mental health care. The typical cost of a package of care delivered by a psychologist under the initiative is significantly less than previous estimates calculated for optimal treatment of depression and anxiety disorders. This initiative really shows good value for the mental health dollars."

 "Overall, the evaluation offers strong support for the Australian Government's investment in the Better Access initiative. This groundbreaking program has done more than meet initial expectations - it is now one of the success stories in mental health and one that is providing significant benefits to the millions of Australians in need of psychological support," Professor Littlefield said.

For media enquiries - or to request an interview with Professor Lyn Littlefield - please contact Judith Heywood or Karen Coghlan on 03 8662 3301.

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The APS is the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 19,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to peoples' lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.