Motions: Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Ms SPENCE (Yuroke—Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Minister for Community Sport, Minister for Youth) (15:31): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak about Australia’s first royal commission into mental health as well as the Andrews Labor government’s historic investment in this space. At the 2018 state election we made a promise to Victoria, and that was a promise to fix a broken system that we know has failed so many. When we were given that great privilege of being returned to government we got straight to work on fulfilling that promise. The royal commission was established within 100 days, and from the outset we committed to implementing every single recommendation that it would go on to hand down. In the two years that followed, the royal commission received 3267 submissions, from people with lived experience of mental illness to experts in the field and the wider community, and the extent of this interest really reflects the importance of this issue right across the community.

Locally in my electorate of Yuroke this is no different, and at that time my Yuroke Youth Advisory Council in 2019 decided to look more closely at this issue, and they undertook a local survey that looked at issues such as awareness, stigma, education, resources and reach-out options. The youth council then compiled all of their findings, and they prepared what became one of those thousands of submissions to be considered by the royal commission. I am really proud of the youth council for the work that they undertook there and for making sure that part of our local story was shared with the royal commission. I also know that members of the youth council were really pleased to have their work acknowledged in a response that was received from Penny Armytage, the chair of the royal commission.

Moving forward, when the interim report was released our government was quick to respond and to begin implementing the initial nine recommendations that had been handed down. This interim report really shone a light on how the system was failing Victorians, and it provided us with a pathway forward. In early 2020 the Andrews Labor government announced $19.5 million for the delivery of the interim report’s recommendations, and then a further $868.6 million was committed in the 2020–21 budget. This included funding to deliver new public and acute treatment beds, address critical workforce shortages, support the rollout of critical suicide prevention programs, provide tailored services for Aboriginal Victorians and strengthen engagement with Victorians with lived experience of mental illness in the sector.

The royal commission conducted the second half of its inquiry during a period of what was great struggle for Victorians. COVID-19 filled the lives of so many with uncertainty, isolation and unprecedented stress. As we know, people lost their jobs, their sources of income. They became increasingly concerned about keeping a roof over their heads and putting food on the table. They were distanced from friends and relatives, and too many loved ones were lost to the virus. Education was disrupted, plans were put on hold or thrown out of the window altogether. So recognising the acute impact of COVID-19 on people’s mental health and the immense pressure this was placing on the service system, our government has committed more than $200 million to mental health supports over the lifetime of the pandemic to date.

While the government pushed out announcement after announcement to support Victorians at their time of greatest need, the royal commission was getting on with its work. In many ways it is really fortunate that the inquiry encompassed the experiences of Victorians during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns; otherwise its work may already be out of date. Instead it accurately reflects the current state of our broken system and the mental health status of our population at one of our most challenging of times.

When the royal commission’s final report was handed down in March of this year it received widespread support from all corners of the community. That morning, that memorable morning when the Parliament sat in the Royal Exhibition Building, we were solemnly reminded of the extent of the damage that our broken system has caused. We heard from a couple of incredibly brave Victorians with lived experience of mental illness who stood to represent the countless many that have been failed by the system. Amelia was one of them. At the age of 22, Amelia had endured an unthinkable and unnecessary amount of hardship in attempting to treat and manage her mental illness. She told us that when she asked for help it felt like there was nothing there. She felt abandoned by the mental health system when she needed it most. The few services that were available to her were not suitable for young people, and she was denied a hospital or psychiatric bed for days after having attempted suicide. Unfortunately what we know too well is that not everyone makes it through these circumstances and these experiences are totally avoidable. That is why we need a new mental health system, one that puts people with lived experience of mental illness at its heart. People like Amelia are hopeful that this can be achieved.

As the Minister for Youth I hear every day about how desperately we need this new system and about how young people need to be front and centre of the work that we do to improve their mental health outcomes, both now and into the future. Unsurprisingly mental health emerged as the top issue for young people during the public consultation that I ran last year to inform the development of a new whole-of-government youth strategy for Victoria. There were over 2000 submissions received during this consultation, and there are many parallels that can be drawn between the youth strategy work and that of the royal commission, because every young person could share a story of someone’s struggle with mental illness, whether that was a classmate, a colleague, a friend—or for far too many it was their own.

One in four young Australians experience a mental health issue every year, and in diverse populations that rate is even higher. Too many young people simply are not getting the support that they need. So as recommended by the royal commission, our government will implement a dedicated service stream within a new universal system that puts young people with lived experience of mental illness at the helm of leading, informing and evaluating programs and services to make sure that care and treatment are accessible, appropriate and ongoing, a system that meets the diverse and intersecting needs of young Victorians from all backgrounds and locations, because no single Victorian is the same, varying widely in cultures, in ethnicity, in sexuality, gender and identity, in residential location, in ability, in personality, in experience. They each need to access a mental health system that is suited to them.

We know that actions speak louder than words, and the 2021–22 budget follows through on our promise to rebuild the mental health system from the ground up, committing Australia’s biggest ever single investment in mental health, totalling $3.8 billion, to implement the royal commission’s recommendations. The royal commission demonstrated the importance of intervening early and preventing mental illness from escalating to a point where acute services are needed. Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of our children and young people is our best bet to preventing bigger problems down the track, and that is exactly what we are doing.

I would like to thank the commissioners and the expert advisory committee, which was chaired by Professor Patrick McGorry, who is also the executive director of Orygen Youth Health. But our biggest thanks go to the thousands of people with lived experience of mental illness and all others that contributed to the royal commission’s inquiry. We are indebted to you, and you will be at the centre of everything we do from here on in. Work is well underway, and there is no doubt that this Labor government is committed to fixing what is broken. We made a promise to you, and we will keep that promise.