Psychologists are an underutilised resource for mental health

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Australia’s psychologists are not being used effectively in the treatment of mental illness, according to the Australian Psychological Society, the profession’s peak national body.

“This results largely from short-sighted, ill-informed government and non-government policies,” says Amanda Gordon, President, APS. “It contributes to the unnecessary suffering of the mentally ill and the waste of mental health spending as identified in yesterday’s report from the Mental Health Council.”

The sad fact is that today more than a half of Australians with a psychological disorder will receive no treatment – not just bad or inadequate or out of date treatment, although there is plenty of that around – but no treatment at all, according to Gordon. “They will just endure their mental illness, with adverse effects on those around them and loss of productivity to the community”.

“It has been an unedifying spectacle,” says Gordon, “watching the federal and state governments pointing the finger at each other over this situation, while both are responsible.”

Successive federal governments have refused to include psychologists’ fees in Medicare, despite being given evidence that doing so would most likely reduce the scheme’s costs. Many GPs say they want to refer patients for psychological treatments rather than repeatedly prescribing drugs, but without Medicare support many patients cannot afford the fees. Only in the last two years has the present government caved in to political pressure and included a very restricted set of psychological services in Medicare, tied up in so much red tape that GPs won’t use it.

State governments have adopted the policy of deinstitutionalisation, the correct recognition that the old psychiatric hospitals were little more than waste bins for the mentally ill, which should be replaced by strategies that keep the mentally ill within the community, as much as possible, helping them integrate with normal life. This can only work if the old institutions are replaced by adequate community-managed support to help the mentally ill adhere to their illness management plans and enjoy good quality of life. Governments have failed to provide adequate funding for the number of people who suffer from mental illness.

State governments are the major providers of mental health services and hence often employers of psychologists. They have embarked on penny-pinching programs of converting psychologists’ positions to generic mental health worker positions. Their apparent belief is that anyone with any vaguely relevant training can deliver effective psychological services. There is little, if any, real evaluation of the effectiveness of cheap mental health services, just claims of provision.

“Both federal and state governments, having been delivered this damning report, have a responsibility to act promptly to rectify the situation, deliver on funding initiatives and develop effective strategies to repair the damage,“ says Gordon. “An important component of such a solution is the recognition of the professionalism of psychologists and the effectiveness of psychological interventions.”

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For more information:
Elaine Grant
Communications Manager
Australian Psychological Society
03 8662 3300 or 0412 683 068
e.grant@psychology.org.au