Assistant Minister McBride – press conference in Alice Springs – 5 June 2023

Read the transcript of Assistant Minister McBride's press conference in Alice Springs about Head to Health.

The Hon Emma McBride MP
Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
Assistant Minister Rural and Regional Health

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EMMA McBRIDE, ASSISTANT MINISTER: I'm so pleased to be here today in Alice Springs with Minister Lauren Moss and, John Boffa, the Chief Medical Officer of Congress. I am pleased to be announcing a significant mental health and suicide prevention investment in this community. $11.5 million co-funding between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Governments to establish two new services in the Alice and for surrounding communities.

These services will be an adult Head to Health, and also a Kid's Hub. The Government has invested over $600 million nationally to set up a network of Head to Health services and we're pleased to be able to be working in genuine collaboration with the local community to make sure that what is established here is co-designed with the community, informed by First Nations lived and living experience, and is what works well, is integrated with existing services, and is very cohesive.

We know that the mental health and wellbeing of people right around Australia is a top priority for communities and we know that working with communities in a genuine co-designed, informed by lived experience, leads to the best outcomes for people and communities. I'm so pleased to be here with the Minister Lauren Moss from the Northern Territory, this is something that we have been working very closely together on and intend to work with Congress and with others in the community to make sure that it is what works best for the Alice and for surrounding communities. We're very pleased to be able to now have a network of 61 Head to Health services for adults across Australia, 12 of those are up and running.

What we've seen with the real benefits of those is flexibility, that in each community whether it's in Geelong in Victoria, Townsville, in Queensland, or Launceston in Tasmania, is that each Head to Health service is different. It's been co-designed with the local community to work with, lived and living experience, existing services, and community representatives to make sure that it is the right fit for that community. That's what we intend to do here in the Northern Territory. That's what we will be doing and we're so pleased to be able to be making this announcement here of $11.5 million for an adult service that will be in Alice Springs and also a kids hub for children 0 to 12 and with these services, someone will be able to come without a referral, without a prior appointment, and free of charge. We know they're some of the biggest barriers to people being able to access care close to home, affordably, when they need it.

These services may be staffed by psychologists, Aboriginal Health workers, peer workers, people with lived and living experience. Our intention is to make sure that every Australian, wherever they live, can get quality health care close to home, and I might now hand over to the Northern Territory Minister Moss.

LAUREN MOSS, NT MINISTER FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND SUICIDE PREVENTION: I think this is a really exciting day for Central Australia but for the Northern Territory as a whole. Certainly in the bilateral agreement that we have with the Australian Government, we're able to deliver much stronger mental health services for Territorians. As Assistant Minister McBride has already said, we do expect that the model here in Central Australia for the kids Head to Health and also for the adult Head to Health will be completely different than what you see in other parts of Australia. Completely different to those on the East Coast and completely different to that in my own community of Casuarina.

It is really important that these services, that we expect to be operational by the end of 2024, are done in consultation with the local community. We'll be working really, really strongly with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress but also other First Nations organisations and representatives from across the region, other mental health and health services across the appropriate services, and that we're fulfilling that need that we all know is there, not only in the Territory community but across Australia, for people who need that extra support, who might need to walk in and talk to somebody, who might need to get a bit of extra advice or treatment. This is a really excellent way for people to begin that journey.

So we couldn't be happier to be working in partnership with the Australian Government on this and of course, with Congress and others here in Central Australia, and I'm very, very excited. It would be great to be back and actually opening these services and being able to talk more about what they look like as they shape up with the community. And I might hand over to John.

JOHN BOFFA, CENTRAL AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL CONGRESS: This is a really welcome additional investment in mental health, but particularly child mental health. As we know, child mental health is our future. In the last decade or so there's been growing awareness of just how important it is and particularly emotional regulation, self regulation, and impulse control. It's incredibly important that we work with children from a very early age, to make sure those skills are developed if they haven't developed in the way they should because really lacking emotional regulation, lacking impulse control, is potentially a lifelong disability and we know we can make a big difference with effective services to improve those really critical skills that young children have that are really the underpinning attributes that help to prevent mental illness.

So if you've got good impulse control, good emotion regulation, you're much less at risk of becoming addicted to alcohol and other drugs, develop depression, anxiety and mental illnesses that we know are prevalent in adults. If we get in early, we can do a lot to prevent these things. We know in our region, we've got a very significant number of children who are suffering from trauma. We've got the AEDC scores that tell us just how disadvantaged children are. We've got a lot of new things happening now. We've got a service that's now enabling us to assess a lot more children for neurodevelopmental disorders. We've also got the NDIS and other things, but we do need additional resources to make sure that we have access to effective and cheap care. It's no good assessing and diagnosing what you can't treat. It's unethical.

So it's important that we have this expansion that we're seeing in the Head to Health, child mental health in particular, because in a remote area like this, we need the resources and the infrastructure to make sure we're able to employ the therapists that can work with children and to implement the programs that we know make a difference from a very young age. This is an area which is now really getting to be number one on our agenda to make a difference in. In the old days we were more worried about physical health, those sorts of things. They're still important, but now the overriding important issue is this. Child mental health is fundamental and if we get that right we will actually make a big difference in preventing some of the things that happen even in early adolescence as young people drop out of school, get on drugs, get on the streets, we can really make a difference with these sorts of initiatives. So we really welcome this from both Commonwealth and Territory Governments a joint initiative, particularly the investment in child mental health, but also the extra investment in adult mental health. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: So this is obviously a collaboration. Will be based out of Congress? Talk through a bit of the mechanics of actually where this will be placed? How it's going to work? Of course, it's got a bit of ranging capacity with the two different programs. What does that actually look like in terms of the practical application?

MOSS: So in terms of how this service delivery actually looks, that's something that we need to do in co-design with organisations like Congress and other First Nations representatives and the community. So, for example, you know, in Casuarina, in the northern suburbs of Darwin, that is a centre where you walk in and there's various treatment rooms and it might look very different to how you might choose to deliver services here. So we do need to work through that process. We obviously want to make sure that this is something that can be widely accessed for people who might not be in town, as well. So we'll work through what that looks like. But absolutely the intention is that people will be able to have those appointments without needing to book, that they can have that connection to a whole range of different health professionals, Aboriginal health workers, psychologists and others. So we'll develop what that looks like in conjunction with the sector and with the community.

JOURNALIST: So there's obviously multiple different services, you're mentioning that it's going to be a co-design process and also collaborative with other services, not just Congress. There's $11.5 million there. How does that sort of work in terms of broadening the capacity? It sounds like you'd need a bunch of different types of practitioners actually stationed here to welcome those walk in appointments. What does that actually look like in terms of how many more people you'd need to hire?

MOSS: Look, in terms of the projections of the workforce, to run those services. I don't have that top of mind today. But obviously, the workforce around mental health services is a challenge for us in the Northern Territory as it is everywhere in Australia. We're working really hard and we work with the Australian Government to make sure that we are creating and strengthening those pathways for people to get into those jobs, whether it is as an Aboriginal health worker, whether it is as a psychologist or a mental health nurse. So we will continue to work with the Australian Government around making sure that we have a very strong workforce, but we do already have very strong services here and we'll also be guided by them around how that can best work.

JOURNALIST: In terms of the services that are already existing. What do you imagine this additional service will actually add to that load and how do you envisage that alleviating the pressures that we see, particularly in this area and with the specific challenges?

MOSS: Some of the challenges that you hear about often, and I'm also the Minister for Youth, so I've just come out of a weekend meeting with the youth roundtable. There are members from central Australia and Mental Health comes up every single time I meet with them. It's about access to services, but it's also about ending up on wait lists and how immediate that support is.

So I think anything that helps alleviate some of that, waitlist as well, provides that opportunity for people to walk in and get the help and support that they need and that we don't have a wrong door. People can get the support that they need, especially young people, I think is incredibly important. So I don't think you'd find a single person who doesn't think that we need to expand the capacity, not only in Central Australia, but across the Northern Territory. So I think young people will really welcome this. I think the whole community will really welcome it. We all know the reality of wait times and things like that. It does particularly take a toll on you.

JOURNALIST: In terms of the budget breakdown, what sort of the funding split?  I understand part of this is also for the running costs of actually funding the program once it's up and running. What sort of breakdown of costs?

McBRIDE: So the $11.5 million is for the establishment and then the running of the adult service and also for the kids hub. This is co-contribution between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Government. This is over three years. What we expect is that the both of these services will be up and running next year. In terms of the breakdown of that funding, there is initial funding, in terms of the establishment and then ongoing co-funding for the services in this community. The Commonwealth are working very closely with the Northern Territory Government to make sure that we have the right level of investment and importantly, that we're working in close collaboration with existing service providers, including Congress to make sure that it's properly integrated and that it improves cohesion. As Minister Moss is saying, that we're able to reduce those wait times. We know that in young people in Australia today, most mental health conditions emerge before the age of 14 and we have seen an increase in distress for young people right around Australia, partly contributed to through COVID-19. We're determined as the government to be able to work with the Northern Territory, with Congress, and local communities to make sure that what we introduce is something that is welcomed by the community, that fits well with existing services and service providers, that builds capacity, that is culturally responsive, and that is safe. We believe that we've got the right level of investment to make sure that this will be able to be successfully established and to be able to continue to operate in this community.

BOFFA: It's important to realise that this new service will compliment existing headspace services we've been running for more than a decade now which services young people 12 to 25. This is for children under 12, where there is a gap and there is a need for more mental health services. But also it's important not to be defeatist. We've got workforce challenges, but we've been able to provide a very large team of clinical psychologists, psychologists, neuropsychologists, adolescent child neuropsychologists. So when the money is there and you've got the right service model we are able to attract staff. And I think that's really important.

The single most important thing that needs to get out there for us to attract staff is to get the message out that Alice Springs is now safe. The crisis is over. We're back to where we were in 2021 levels and we had no staff not coming in because they said it was unsafe. But unfortunately, in the national picture, there's still this perception that this town is as unsafe as it was leading up to Christmas last year. That's not true. We still have some significant issues to deal with. But for non-Aboriginal health professionals coming to work in central Australia, it's back to being the safe place it was in 2019 to 2021 and we need people to come and work for us and not get put off by the situation we're in. Which has largely been addressed by the alcohol restrictions which have been incredibly effective.

JOURNALIST: Dr Boffa, just in terms of the role of Congress, and then the collaboration between other services, particularly addressing the challenges, like you mentioned, in a really regional place. A lot of the people that you know, would really need help aren't actually based in Alice Springs or in surrounding communities. How do you envisage that actually working when the service is up and running and sort of helping to address that?

BOFFA: Yeah, look, I think the big challenge is getting adequate services into remote communities. We run now nine remote clinics, including one we're about to takeover, in a very, very remote part of the Northern Territory, and we make sure we've got social and emotional wellbeing services on the ground and communities. We've got social workers living in quite a lot of remote communities. We've got psychologists out there. We've now got a psychologist based in Yallara. So we're very committed to making sure these services get out Bush, not just in town. That's something the co-design process will have to look at very carefully. We also want a space that's not a clinic. Clearly we need a space that's welcoming. That's a drop in space for parents and the young children, for a whole range of access points for services, including mental health services. So we have got a big challenge to get services in remote areas including NDIS services and mental health services. And that's something we've got to look at with this initiative. We are collaborating already. Congress is the backbone organisation for Connection Beginnings, but we're about to convene on the meeting of the Child Friendly Alice Group, which is a broad based collaboration of over 20 service providers in town, working with children.

So we'll build on those collaborations, those partnerships, as we consult further with government and with other organisations about how this best needs to be implemented. And it will need to be accessible for remote communities, not just for Alice Springs.

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