Australia’s Not-So Hidden Health Crisis

The Australian Counselling Association released a recent report outlining the mental and allied health crisis. The report is short, clear, direct, and worth reading.

Every Australian deserves access to mental health care – but sadly, that’s not the reality for everyone. It’s a simple fact that Australians who live in rural and remote areas have poorer health outcomes than those who live in cities, not to mention higher rates of suicide and self-harm.

CEO Australian Counselling Association, Philip Armstrong
Photo by cottonbro

The report details the effects of Covid-19, and the long term outcomes from bush fires, floods, chronic climate-anxiety, economic fall-outs from current and future global crisis and war, and the reality on the ground for most Australians is not represented by government on a fair dinkum basis.

In fact, in our opinion, we get the distinct sense that the government has been lying to all of us for a long time. The report from ACA highlights the social, health, and economic disparities that exists in rural and regional Australia.

But not only this, people in urban centres are getting a raw deal because the mental health and medicare-listed psychology services on the books exclude Australia’s now robust population of highly skilled counsellors and psychotherapists.

This exclusion leads to extremely long waiting lists and inappropriate services offered for counselling, specialist disability services, and many other specialised areas, by the current cohort of psychologists who are not trained in counselling nor in specialist disability services.

Photo by cottonbro

Issues contributing to the mental health crisis listed by ACA include,

  1. Excessive wait times for those most at risk.
  2. Pandemic ripple effects on children and families.
  3. Covid-fuelled pressures in the workforce.
  4. Mental toll of natural disasters.

As the research shows, there are over 4000 registered counsellors currently available to provide mental health care. Making their services available under MBS is one way to increase access to mental health care, particularly in rural and regional Australia.

GP Michela Sorensen, quoted by ACA
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya

ACA reports that “at least 4000 Registered Counsellors meet the current criteria for the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS), while a further 1000 could be eligible to register within six months.” Registered Counsellors and Psychotherapists are highly trained in counselling for practical solution-focused and person-centred outcomes.

Research suggests that the current listed Psychologists under MBS spend about 60% of their time on counselling, compared to only 30% on delivering mental health interventions (National Health Workforce Dataset, 2016). ACA argues that by pulling in Registered Counsellors, existing Psychologists can be freed up to focus on more complex mental health services.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko

The economic and social benefits of Australia’s MBS system incorporating Registered Counsellors is difficult to convey in simple terms because the range of benefits is quite large. ACA suggests that only 30% of Psychologists bulk bill, when the MBS was set up for the purpose of accessibility. ACA says that the vast majority of ACA members, who were recently surveyed, overwhelmingly support bulk billing of their services. This would immediately create access options for those in lower socioeconomic areas and make seeing a counsellor financially possible.

ACA says that mental health and suicide costs the Australian economy $220 billion annually – an amount that would be considerably reduced where improved access to support and early intervention was enabled. They compare this to the cost of 3000 counsellors working full time at $224 million. Considering the alternatives, the association is offering Australia a simple fix to a relatively complex problem.

Photo by cottonbro

This simple fix has been staring all Australians in the face for many years now. What governments are not telling you is that the ACA have been lobbying every government since they were founded back in the late 1990s. Politics, plain and simple, has prevented Registered Counsellors from being listed under government medicare access schemes.

The fix is as simple as amending that Registered Counsellors and Psychotherapists be added to the list of allied health professions in the Health Insurance (Allied Health Services) Determination 2014, which provides Focused Psychological Strategies under the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) Better Access Initiative (BAI).

A full copy of the pdf report can be downloaded with this link.

Featured image is from the ACA report “Australia’s Hidden Health Crisis”

Used with permission of CEO, Philip Armstrong, 23-5-2022.

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