Mental Health, Politics and Bullshit

The federal government appears to be sidestepping any real responsibility for dealing with the complex issues of mental health in Australia.

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a radio interview with the Federal Minister for Health, Mark Butler. The show was the ABC RN Breakfast show hosted by Patricia Karvelas. I found myself groaning, almost in pain when Butler’s only significant concession to the massive human rights problem of mental health in Australia was a promise to set up yet another consumer voice organisation.

In my opinion Butler is just kicking the can down the road on the basis that he believes any worthwhile changes are going to cost a ton of money and the government is short of money at the moment so guess what, no significant changes. If we are lucky we might see a few deck chairs moved around on the Titanic. I have looked at this situation and spoken to a number of people over the past twelve months and I really can’t see any evidence that worthwhile government led changes  are likely to take place in the foreseeable future. As for setting up a federal consumer voice organization, I see it as a waste of time and money and essentially just another political public relations stunt.

I have looked at becoming involved in some of the existing government sponsored consumer voice organizations. They are invariably about people getting payed one way or another to produce impressive looking reports that say what the government wants the public to hear. One CEO of one of the better mental health consumer support groups that I spoke to was honest enough to tell me that they can’t advocate for what mental health consumers really want or need because if they did it would jeopardise their government funding.

In any case I don’t believe it is just about spending more money. To be sure, money does or will need to be spent at some point but the existing system is well recognized to be in such a mess that spending more money on it will just create a bigger more expensive mess. Since money is seen by government to be such a big problem, the first and obvious thing to do is to stop wasting money and fix some of the serious underlying problems that would cost little or nothing to fix. In some cases it would save the government a substantial amount that could then be spent on other areas of need with little or no change in net expenditure. The problem with this approach is that government would have to acknowledge and face up to some very large elephants in the room which could perhaps be called the Collective of Conservative Interests.

One example of the sort of thing that could be fixed without any significant expenditure would be compliance with United Nations and World Health Organization directives on mental health abusive practices and human rights violations. This might seem like a minor issue for the average Joe who is depressed because he has lost his job or something similar but I would suggest that the average Joe is standing on the tip of a very big underlying and dangerous iceberg. I believe that once some of these issues start to get addressed, benefits will quickly flow through to average Joe because it it these sorts of systemic issues that are, again in my opinion, the cause of most of this systemic mess.

There is now a fair amount of research evidence to suggest that the “appropriate” mental health practices and policies that our so called “experts” advise governments to take actually do more harm than good.  Current practices suppress symptoms but destroy lives. The situation is not too different from a century ago when people who were deemed to be mad were locked away from the public. Out of sight out of mind. The only difference is that today we make liberal use of chemical incarceration instead of locks and keys.

I can assure you from my personal experience that being chemically incarcerated is horrible and those who say that there is no other way or that we deserve this sort of treatment because we a mad should take a look at where these sorts of unethical and heinous mental health attitudes led to in Nazi Germany before and during World War II.

You don’t need a PhD in psychology to figure out that if someone has a mental health issue and you treat them badly or inappropriately it is not going to help their condition. This however is exactly what is happening in developed countries around the world including Australia.  Australia in fact is one of the worst offenders. Based on the state government figures that I was able to get hold of it looks like about 70,000 Australians are being subjected to Community Treatment Orders (CTO’s) each year and the numbers are growing.

Most of these CTO’s would be to force people who wanted to reduce their often massively over prescribed doses of medication or stop using it altogether to be injected with long term anti-psychotics. The effect of them typically lasts about 3 months. I’m told that if someone subject to one of these CTO’s complains, their dosage is often increased. If they object, state mental health workers accompanied by police come to their place of residence, hold them down, pull down their pants and inject them. Apart from the humiliation and trauma of being treated this way, many people suffer horrifically from the side affects. It is hard to believe that 70,000 Australians or even a small fraction of that number are mad enough or dangerous enough to warrant that sort of degrading treatment. 70,000 is nearly double the number of people in Australian jails.

It should be noted that any move to abolish these medieval practices doesn’t mean that thousands of people will suddenly be deprived of their medication. What it means is that people will have a choice of what treatment they want. The claim that thousands of people are too stupid or sick to know what is good for them is itself pretty “sick”. In order to make good decisions, people do of course need to be properly informed on a whole range of related subjects which is seldom the case at the moment.

I also recently listened to a podcast with Luke Grant and Dr Marjorie Collins the President of the Institute of Clinical Psychologists. In my opinion Collins is simply making a case to support her position as the head of a professional services union. If this assumption is correct then the agenda is probably more about power bases and money than delivering better mental health services to the public.

The Australian Psychological Society (APS) standard schedule of fees for a nominal fifty minute consultation is currently $280. The Medicare rebate is currently $131.65 or less than half. Collin’s bleating about the Medicare rebate being reduced from 20 sessions per year which was introduced as a short term covid measure, back to the original 10 sessions per year is irrelevant for a lot of people who can’t even afford the out of pocket cost for one session. Her other gripe about the government not spending more money on tertiary PhD level training for psychologists is another red herring. There is no evidence that higher qualifications produces better or more effective councillors in fact I have seen research evidence suggesting the opposite to be true. One of the biggest repeated criticisms I hear about psychologists and psychiatrists is that they don’t listen to their clients. This failure to listen closely indicates a lack of empathy which is probably the most important requirement of a good councillor. You don’t learn empathy at university. You are more likely to learn arrogance and in my experience there are some pretty terrible, well educated and often arrogant psychologists and psychiatrists around.

It is a pity that Collins doesn’t take more of an interest in lifting the professional standards of many of her qualified, well paid but underperforming colleagues.

These days medical students are staying away from psychiatry in droves and psychologists seem to have stepped in to fill the gap. Many if not most GP’s are now the primary subscribers of psychiatric medication. It is interesting to note that some medical practitioners interested in mental health now seem to be training in psychology rather than psychiatry.

Rather than trying to produce more psychologists that many people can’t afford, a better, faster and more viable solution would be to leverage their services. There are a number of approaches to doing this which have been tried in the past and have worked well. Not only do some of these alternative approaches have much better outcomes than traditional methods but they seem to be more cost effective, particularly when you look at long term results.  This is another reason why you would think governments would be very interested in looking at these approaches. Unfortunately you don’t have to look too hard for the answer as to why they don’t. It is pretty much the same reason why they don’t want to give those of us who are considered to be at least nominally mad, a voice.

I have recently been looking at a number of these alternative approaches. One of them is known as Soteria. It started in the US in the 1970s but was eventually trampled to death by elephants. It has however seen a revival in recent years mostly in European countries like Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary etc.

Here is a link to an interesting webinar if anyone is interested

Soteria Past, Present, and Future: The Evidence For This Model of Care.

There are numerous other approaches. All of them are built around peer-to-peer support communities with experienced competent professionals adding value.

Those of us who have experienced mental health issues know from our own experiences that you don’t just walk into a psychiatrist or psychologists office, have a few sessions, get fixed up and live happily ever after. More typically it tends to be a long and often lifetime journey with the inevitable back sliding along the way. What my studies of alternative approaches like Soteria etc show is that supportive communities with expert professional support can make this journey a lot faster, easier and much more cost effective compared to traditional approaches.

It is my vision that The Pink Panther Movement can help to build such a community with the online presence eventually extending and reaching out into the real world. I can see the possibility here of creating something new and uniquely Australian.

There is one thing however that I am certain about. If we wait around for the government to deliver something like this we will wait forever. They are too busy feeding the elephants.

We have to do it for ourselves.

It is most definitely doable but it won’t be easy. If history is any indication there will be fierce resistance from the elephant keepers. Our best defense is numbers.

There are about 5 million Australians at the moment with mental health problems. If you take into account the number of people such as families who would also be affected, this number probably at least doubles.  If only a tiny percentage of those people affected are willing to take on the initial challenge of getting involved in peer supported mental health communities there will soon be far too many people for the elephants to trample on and the political clout from those of us involved in these communities will be too strong for the government to ignore. You don’t need to do much but you do need to do something if you want things to change.

If you live in Australia and support this vision it takes less than five minutes to join up. Confidentiality is assured.

Another bonus is that by reaching out to support and help others, we also help ourselves. Some of us  may have already discovered this amazing but quite old healing concept.

It is called a caring and sharing community.

One comment

  1. I sympathise with the sentiments you express here. But I am not actively opposed to the creation of “yet another consumer voice organisation”. I remember there have been quite a few which are very weak though, so I think I can understand the frustration felt when these things fail so much, possibly due to the rotten roots or origins of these organisations. My idea is that the government can do whatever they want to make themselves look pretty, but it’s up to the consumers and invols themselves (such as you and me) to make their own organisation like this one and make it better and more prolific than the government’s.

    I also am very much in agreement with the idea that psychologists and other mental health-related professionals are usually bad at what they do. I have had numerous interactions with counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and other clinicians and they really are trained to be ineffective. It’s such a sad thing. Art therapy, sports therapy, music therapy, these are just some of the ways I am trying to bring sense to having any support at all from health and allied health professionals. What do you think? 🙂

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