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Byron Shire
April 22, 2024

Funding needed to ensure effective mental health response following disasters like the 2022 floods

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The Upper House NSW mental health Inquiry sat in Lismore yesterday listening to evidence form the Northern Rivers community. Photo Aslan Shand

The Upper House NSW Mental Health Inquiry sat in Lismore on Tuesday 13 February to hear from a range of the local community as part of the inquiry into the equity, accessibility and appropriate delivery of outpatient and community mental health care in NSW. 

The speakers covered a range of issues from coercive control, to youth mental health and the failure of government to fund effective services that fit the needs of the Northern Rivers community. 

We can’t continue trying to get services that aren’t there or services that don’t fit the need of anybody,’ said former Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Commission of NSW amd General Manager at Inclusion, Flourish Australia, Fay Jackson.

‘Not only are they not fitting the need of people who need the services, but they’re not fitting the needs of the staff (providing those services) either. The staff are getting exhausted and mental health issues because of the models they’re working in.’

A key point raised was the limited workforce in the region that means that it can be hard to get the right people to where they are needed as well as the risk of burnout of workers. 

‘There is a lot of burnout (amongst workers). Given it’s a regional area, we have such a limited workforce… we’re all drawing from the same workforce trying to deliver services,’ said General Manager at Northern Rivers Women and Children’s Services, Kelly Bannister. 

‘Workers are working in three different part time roles in three different organisations – that’s quite common. It’s a huge problem.’

Joel Orchard from at Wardell CORE agreed saying that their ‘mental health team who are at six days a week are completely overwhelmed’.

Rolling disasters

The impact of the various disasters from the 2017 floods, 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, COVID lockdowns and then the 2022 floods have meant many in the community are just rolling from one disaster to another with little time to regain their footing in between. As a result young people’s ‘key stage of development has been severely affected by traumatic events and there’s just such a great need for that level of service that is going to find and support those young people that are going to end up in bad places,’ said Therapeutic Lead and Founder at Human Nature, Andy Hamilton.

‘The need is massive – that’s something I really want to emphasise. It’s massive in this region specifically.’

Greens MP and North Coast resident Sue Higginson. Photo Aslan Shand

Following the day’s hearing Greens MP and North Coast resident Sue Higginson told The Echo that the ‘north cost communities are ground-zero for the mental health crisis and the evidence that we heard at the hearing in Lismore was both tragic and inspiring’.

‘The human suffering across our region is extreme, but the stories of community led healing, support and recovery was nothing short of inspiring. However, what is overwhelmingly clear that these community led initiatives have really struggled to straddle the barriers imposed by the government and to get the funding support they need,’

Head of Operations at Human Nature, Jenny Parke said that, ‘The biggest challenge for us is sustainability. We are currently operating without any government funding. We are entirely philanthropically funded and yet we support some of the region’s most vulnerable young people. We implore the committee to consider these invisible young people. They’re those young people that are least likely to walk through the door of funded services such as Headspace, and yet they’re most likely to be requiring more costly downstream interventions and facing tragic consequences.’

Mandy Nolan. Photo David Lowe.

Ongoing funding needed

Local resident and federal Greens candidate for Richmond Mandy Nolan attended the inquiry and told The Echo that, ‘Even though the Northern Rivers has the highest suicide rate in the region it’s clear the money hasn’t been flowing to make a difference. Human Nature Adventure Therapy provide service to the most at risk 14-18 year olds with no government funding and asked for three year recurrent funding so they could focus on core business. 

‘Inaugural NSW Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Fay Jackson resides locally and spoke of the evidence based success of peer led services and the dire need for them in our community. Regional impacts that are a barrier to treatment include housing crisis and the lack of public transport options.

The need to have specific dedicated services for mental health to respond to emergencies instead of using police, paramedics and the emergency department was also addressed.

‘We have been flood impacted. We have the highest suicide rate in the state. We lead in housing unaffordability. We have more rough sleepers in some of our coastal towns than the city of Sydney. So where is the money?’

The inquiry has its final day today in Sydney. 

‘The inquiry will report in due course, but right now the government needs to create more secure and dedicated funding opportunities for community led organisations that are providing essential services and programs that the state can not,’ said Ms Higginso. 

‘Without funding, effective community led programs that are making a real difference, are heading towards a funding cliff that will leave people hurting more than they already are.’

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