Speech for the Beyond Blue ‘Don’t Beat the Bush’ program Amora Hotel, Melbourne
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16 May 2007
I would like to thank Jeff Kennet and Leonie Young for their kind invitation to attend this roundtable on one of Australia's most compelling current mental health problems.
Ladies and gentlemen, living on the land has never been easy. Not only is farm work extremely taxing in the physical sense, but farm families are also subject to the vagaries of the weather, of crop and livestock disease, and of natural disaster. It is a tough life that has gotten even tougher in recent years as our nation and our continent have descended into one of the most severe droughts in our history. For most of us, the drought is something that we think about when washing our car or watering our garden. For most of us, we are faced with the mere inconvenience of scrubbing down the family Commodore with a bucket rather than a hose. For most of us, we must deal with nothing more than limitations on our ability to irrigate our front yard bed of daffodils.
While we all are living with the effects of the drought, some of us are doing it far harder than others. Watching your white roses wither is one thing. But watching the farm that has provided your family's livelihood for several generations crumble into desiccation is something else entirely. Looking around as neighbour after neighbour is driven from the land by a looming tide of insolvency only heightens the sense of isolation and despair. The drought has devastated, not only the bank balances of Australian farmers, but their emotional equilibrium as well. And when the pressures of keeping their financial head above NO water are combined with rural isolation, the result can be disastrous. By any objective index ─ particularly suicide and depression ─ mental health concerns in the Australian bush are at a crisis point.
And it is a crisis that is exacerbated by those quintessential Aussie ideals that otherwise serve as the backbone of our national identity. By its very nature, the bush breeds self-sufficiency. The rural lifestyle is based on a value system that sees toughness, resilience and a willingness to give it a go as pre-eminent virtues. And they are. They are the virtues that have enabled us to build a prosperous nation out of a relatively dry and inhospitable continent. They are the virtues that have made our diggers such stand-out soldiers whenever we have gone to war.
But out in there in rural Australia when the sun goes down, and the mind is not distracted by the immediate task of ploughing, shearing or reaping, That 'suck it up and deal' culture can morph into one's own worst enemy. It starts when rural Australians don't even recognise the signs and symptoms of depression. And it continues with fear of reproach and social ostracism that accompanies anything to do with mental illness. For far too long, the mentally ill in our society save been stigmatised, their concerns have been minimised, and as a result they have been traumatised. And if you think that we have a problem in urban Australia with the public image of the mentally ill, imagine what it must be like in a little hamlet like Cloncurry in western Queensland. Multiply the fear of disgrace several times over. The prospect of becoming the topic de jour in the one local watering hole is one helluva disincentive to seek treatment, even if a person realises they have a problem.
So, ladies and gentlemen, that's the bad news. But the good news is that help is on the way. The Government not only recognises the issue of depression in rural Australia, but we are willing to put our money where our mouth is in the form of programs specifically targeted at this issue. Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am not going to send you into a coma through a dry recitation of figures that will make your eyes glaze over. But please indulge me while I mention just a few of the relevant program details that will shed a bit of light on the Government's willingness to grapple with depression in rural Australia. The ‘Don't Beat the Bush’ program is part of an additional $1.9 billion that the Coalition will be spending on mental health. I'm sure you are aware that this is the largest investment by any Commonwealth Government in this area. And it is long overdue.
Many aspects of this program will make a real difference out in the bush. For the first time, GPs and other healthcare workers will be trained to help diagnose and manage mental health in a community setting. This will make a real difference in rural Australia where dedicated mental health professionals might be many hours away. And last year's Budget targeted over $50 million towards enhancing access to mental health services specifically in rural areas. And this year you can add another $10 million over two years to fund a ‘Mental Health Support For Drought Effected Communities’ measure. This will provide counselling services where none existed before. It will also provide mental health education programs for medical clinicians and community leaders. Ladies and gentlemen, public awareness is an essential element in our campaign to battle depression. It involves not only recognition of the symptoms, but message strategies that will emphasise that there is nothing particularly scary or dishonourable about mental illness in general and depression in particular.
But, ladies and gentlemen, enough of all that. The Government has doing its bit to fund these programs. And I can assure you that there will be more to come. But the rest is up to us. To you and me, to everyone in Australia, to fight the stigma of mental illness, to treat those afflicted by it and to succour the families and loved ones of those who have fallen ill. But, ladies and gentlemen, I am just an elected official, a politician. And there is no better use of my time than to sit down, listen and learn from you, the true experts in the field. So once again, let me express my appreciation for inviting me to this most important round table. Thank you very much.
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