In the depths of September last year, as Victoria weathered some of its toughest months of lockdown, Sale’s first dedicated mental health clinic finally opened its doors.
It was funded by the Federal Government as part of its response to a pandemic that had seen Victorian calls to Lifeline leap by 25 per cent.
The number of children presenting to hospitals with self-harm injuries was up by more than 30 per cent.
And while the clinic was established in the space of just a few frantic weeks, those staffing it say the need had been bubbling for years.
The Sale centre was part of 15 dedicated mental health clinics in the Federal Government program, which were designed to offer quick, free and easy to access mental healthcare for a year.
But mental healthcare workers say these clinics were needed before COVID-19 and there will continue to be a need for their services beyond the worst of the pandemic.
Leading academic Ian Hickie, who does not work with the new clinics, says these hubs are so critical, they should be permanently funded and immediately replicated right across the country.
He says his modelling shows “if you don’t do it it costs lives” but if you do fund this kind of care, you can save lives.
In Sale, in central Gippsland, the new clinic sits in what looks like a suburban house, but it is here in this modest building that patients are seeing help delivered in very different ways.
Yousuf Ahmad has been a doctor in Sale for nearly 20 years, and is the GP lead at the HeadtoHelp centre.
He says the new hubs are designed to fill some of what academics and clinicians call the “missing middle” in the country’s mental healthcare system.
What they are referring to is the gap between services provided by GPs in local medical centres and the acute care offered to those who are very unwell, in hospitals.
Dr Ahmad says people who need ongoing support for things like anxiety, depression and social stress, as well as those who are going through a crisis in their life, often fall between those two levels of care.
Professor Ian Hickie from the University of Sydney describes the issue this way.
Professor Hickie says these clinics could be a real “plank across the middle” but estimates Australia needs about 100 of them, spread out right across the country to reach the scale of services required.
Dr Ahmad says both patients and doctors have struggled with what he describes as the “fragmentation” of the mental healthcare system — where programs exist, but are not well known or easy to access.
Dr Ahmad says the new hubs aim to provide a range of services in one place.
The Sale clinic is made up of mental health nurses, psychologists, doctors, social workers and an occupational mental health therapist who all work together.
“People don’t have to see different practitioners and go through their story again and again,” Dr Ahmad says.
“We actually provide the services in a co-ordinated manner.”
It is what Professor Hickie describes as a “huge” shift away from people being treated by a single mental health care worker, to care that is based around teams of specialists working together.
But he says more still needs to be done with the clinics — saying psychiatrists need to be added to the teams working in the HeadtoHelp hubs, they need to be closely linked to acute care services and to make the best use of technology.
In Sale, Dr Ahmad’s patients often waited weeks for an appointment with a psychologist before the new service was created.
At the moment the clinic is offering same-day support for people who make contact.
Mental health nurse Shae Wilson has worked in Sale for the past 11 years.
Before the hub opened, it took patients three to four weeks to get an appointment to see her.
Now that waiting time is down to one week.
The HeadtoHelp hubs are funded for 12 months, but Dr Ahmad wants to see these clinics continue beyond September.
Professor Hickie goes even further, saying these clinics could have a “huge” impact if they were replicated Australia wide.
“This is real service innovation, this is the real McCoy,” he says.
Federal Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, says he is hopeful these new clinics “will be an enduring step forward for the mental health system.”
He says an independent evaluation of the clinics is underway.
In West Heidelberg in Melbourne’s north-east, Lara Jackson is the general manager of wellbeing and community support at Banyule Community Health, where a new HeadtoHelp clinic has been established.
She says she knew things were changing when she had a woman who had been helped by the clinic stop to thank the staff and let them know she felt comfortable to come back, if she required help again.
It was a small moment, but Ms Jackson says in years of working in the mental health care system, it was something she had rarely seen.
She has also noticed changes in how care is being delivered at the new clinics.
Ms Jackson says many of the families now coming through her clinic are struggling with financial stress and relationship breakdowns, with many people unsure how to access social services they’ve never needed before COVID-19.
“Especially when they are first coming in quite distressed, they’re needing help to understand what is available to them, so we can start to work on the income, getting food on the table, people’s safety,” she says.
“All of those things, people have needed help with before we can move into that psychological space and looking at the bigger picture.”
At the West Heidelberg hub, social workers have been able to co-ordinate with mental health workers to help get families back on their feet.
Ms Jackson agrees with Victoria’s then-minister for mental health, Martin Foley, who said last year that he didn’t believe the state’s mental health system was “fit for purpose” before COVID-19.
She says it still is a “broken system” with need for real change.
“In inquiry after inquiry after inquiry both locally and nationally, we have seen the underinvestment in that psychological aspect of our health and wellbeing,” she says.
Ms Jackson wants the Banyule HeadtoHelp clinic to be part of a changing mental health care system.
Ms Jackson knows 15 new clinics, while helpful, can’t fix all of the mental health care system’s problems.
But she hopes they can provide some of the answers.
Thank you for spending time with us on My Local Pages. We hope you enjoyed checking this story regarding “News & What’s On in The Gippsland Region named “Advocates call for ‘lifesaving’ mental health clinics in Victoria to be replicated across Australia”. This news release was posted by My Local Pages as part of our local and national events & news stories services.
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