Senate debates

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Matters of Public Interest

Mental Health

1:29 pm

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise today to speak about an extremely important issue throughout Australia, particularly in rural Australia, and that issue is mental health. There has been a severe drought in northern New South Wales, many parts of western New South Wales and huge areas of Queensland, and it is not a good wet season in many parts in the Top End in the Northern Territory and Northern Queensland. It does take its toll on people. We have seen, especially in the cattle industry, cattle being forced to be sent off to market in very poor condition, unfortunately with some not even strong enough to make the journey in the transport.

I want to talk about this very serious issue of mental health, which I was reminded of in recent days with the tragedy of the partner of Mick Jagger from the Rolling Stones and what he would be going through now. What a terrible outcome it is when people seem to have lost hope. I have been told—and make no mistake about it, I am no mental health expert, a doctor or whatever—from good source that mental health is actually an illness. It is like catching a cold or the flu. The pressures get you down and you become ill—and it can be cured.

It is a sad fact of life that approximately 2,000 Australians take their own lives every year. Men are four times more likely to die from suicide than women. Farmers, unfortunately, have twice the suicide rate of any other occupational group in the country. Last month an article in the Australian newspaper suggested that 16 farmers had taken their own lives across rural Queensland in the past year. Although there are more farmers in NSW, statistics show that from 2000 to 2009, a total of 239 farmers in both states, Queensland and New South Wales, took their own lives, with 147 of those deaths occurring in Queensland and 92 in NSW. I have been told by wives that they wonder if their husband will return from the paddock that evening. The wives and children are constantly on edge, not knowing what their husband and father is thinking as he stares out at the dry landscape, and of course as the bills keep mounting in the office.

There is no shortage of groups in the mental health field—beyondblue is probably the best known. There are many community groups and government-funded groups. There is also the Caravan of Hope which was funded by Rotary and is run by the Salvation Army in north-west NSW. The Caravan of Hope pulls up to a farmhouse and the counsellors sit around the kitchen table over a cup of tea and have a yarn with the farmer and his wife. Sometimes it is just the words of encouragement that can make all the difference.

But today I want to talk about a program called SCARF, which stands for Suspect, Connect, Ask, Refer, Follow-up. SCARF has been developed by Farm-Link, which is run under the University of Newcastle's Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health. A few weeks ago, the Farm-Link coordinator, Meg Perceval, from my home town of Inverell, came to my office here in Canberra and introduced Professor Prasuna Reddy, director of the University of Newcastle's Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, and Mr Trevor Hazell, director of Community Programs.

The SCARF program is innovative and is achieving a number of Australian firsts. It is the first program to:

(i) target a specific rural audience;

(ii) take a truly primary prevention approach to suicide prevention with a focus on health and wellbeing;

(iii) translate the interpersonal theory of suicide to the rural community and clinical audiences;

(iv) evaluate its impact using externally created and previously validated scientific scales to measure changes in stigma and literacy of suicide as well as mental wellbeing for participants; and

(v) provide a comprehensive evidence-based time-economical program accessible to both community and clinicians.

The first half of the SCARF program focuses on physical, mental and social wellbeing. Participants are given evidence based information about the state of health in rural Australia and how diet, sleep, exercise, a sense of meaning and purpose, social interaction and the role of one's physical environment all impact on all dimensions of health. The interpersonal theory of suicide is then introduced, which gives three critical factors for why people die by suicide. The SCARF action plan—Suspect, Connect, Ask, Refer, Follow-up—for helping others is then presented in both the clinical and community versions of the program. Relevant factors are taken into account and there is room for discussion and interaction, for example, about how a banker may have a conversation that perhaps is normally out of their comfort zone or how a GP may quickly assess underlying problems regardless of what the person has presented with.

What makes SCARF unique is the wide cross-section of people it encompasses. The program is delivered to agribusiness bankers, livestock agents, agronomists, those working in natural resource management, animal health and veterinarian services, employment agencies, accountancy firms, financial consultants, human support agencies and the general community. These are the people and organisations who have a close affinity with the farming sector.

Next month the program will be delivered to rural financial counsellors from across NSW at their state conference. The demand for SCARF continues and Farm-Link is currently piloting a feasibility study in partnership with Lifeline to test a train-the-trainer model with the view of the training becoming more widely available across NSW, and hopefully Australia in the future. With further future funding a more comprehensive train-the-trainer program will be able to be developed and implemented.

Farm-Link also continues to deliver the clinical version of SCARF to general practitioners and mental health service providers to ensure that they are better able to identify, assess and manage mental health issues in their patients. With the community SCARF program aiming to increase help-seeking and referrals from community members, the clinical training focuses on clinicians being able to heed this call and provide quality care, supporting them in areas known to have a higher suicide rate. Again, further future funding could see the expansion of this much-needed clinical training. Farm-Link is accredited through the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine to offer continuing professional development points to attending general practitioners. The SCARF program has been taken to many parts of northern and north-western NSW and just today it is being presented at the Landcare Adventure at Glen Innes in the New England area.

The Australasian Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health does a lot of work in mining communities, and they say that each year, one out of every three men and women in the mining and construction sector will have a mental illness. Depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder, social phobias and alcohol- and drug-related problems are all ingredients of mental illness.

The federal government is doing something about the mental welfare of regional Australia, and this is very pleasing. The Minister for Agriculture, Mr Barnaby Joyce, has done an outstanding job delivering a $320 million drought package, and of that amount $10.7 million will be set aside for the delivery of social support, because both Minister Joyce and Prime Minister Abbott understand the impact that drought has on the mental health and wellbeing of farmers, farm families and communities. Minister Joyce was born on the land, he has lived all his life in regional Australia, he is back on the land in New England and he does not have to read about the plight of farmers, as his Labor predecessors had to because they never got out of the city. Minister Joyce could walk into any saleyard, onto any property or into any farmers' meeting in Australia and be warmly welcomed because those on the land know he is one of them and he understands their issues. Minister Joyce, when he became minister, immediately set about restoring hope in rural Australia, visiting and talking to those on the land. We had the disaster of the banning of the live cattle export trade by the previous government, which put so much stress and financial pressure on so many. Thankfully, those wounds are now being repaired.

Just in the past week there has been a significant announcement by my colleague the Minister for Veterans' Affairs, Senator Michael Ronaldson. The minister has announced the establishment of a new prime ministerial advisory council with a renewed focus on mental health. Senator Ronaldson said one of the four pillars of the federal government's plans for veterans' affairs was to tackle mental health challenges facing veterans and their families, especially following the draw-down of troops from Afghanistan. That group will comprise experts in mental health matters, including the veterans community and representatives of the Australian Defence Force. Those who go to war for their country, even if they do not see active service, can be confronted with scenes most of us could not imagine, and they need all the support they can get when they return. We need to ensure they get back on their feet and into family life and the community as easily as possible, and I applaud Minister Ronaldson for his announcement.

As health minister in the Howard government, Mr Tony Abbott introduced the Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative in 2006. This $1.9 billion initiative was Australia's largest ever mental health boost at the time and provided for the establishment of headspace. The coalition government will deliver more efficient mental health research and services. Eighteen million dollars will be provided over four years to the mental health provider Orygen to establish the country's first National Centre for Excellence in Youth Mental Health. More broadly, the coalition will ensure that existing resources in the mental health sector are being targeted as effectively and productively as possible. To do this we will task the National Mental Health Commission with assessing the effectiveness of existing mental health programs to ensure waste and duplication are minimised. This assessment will drive a genuine evidence-based approach to future policy with a focus on productivity and on what really works.

Today I have concentrated on the husbands, the fathers and the sons—the male side of the family. We should never forget that the wives, the mothers and the partners also need support so they can be strong, because life is a partnership and mental health is not a stigma.