Vulnerable Australians feel “scared” and “betrayed” after the Albanese government announced it would scale back the number of subsidised psychology appointments.
Medicare-subsidised psychology appointments that patients can access in a calendar year will be halved from 20 to 10 in 2023.
The Morrison government increased the number of subsidised sessions available per year from 10 to 20 in 2020, 2021 and 2022 due to the pandemic.
The New Daily spoke to several individuals who were concerned for their mental health and the mental health of family members because of the reduced number of visits to a psychologist.
Single mother and full-time student Laura Strehlau is worried about managing her bipolar affective disorder.
“I cried all night after hearing the announcement,” Ms Strehlau said.
“Having access to these sessions has gotten me to this point, and it’s because I’m able to have these regular sessions that I stay at this point.”
Tweet from @somewherein84
Ms Strehlau had a major depressive episode during one of Melbourne’s extended lockdowns and credited regular weekly sessions with her psychologist for getting back on her feet.
She said that only having access to 10 appointments would have done more harm than good.
“Until those 20 sessions were available, I was in the wilderness,” she said.
“[Just] 10 sessions would have opened [a] Pandora’s box, and I still would have been alone.”
Without the extra subsidised appointments, Ms Strehlau said, she is likely to fall into more depressive episodes and experience hypomania.
“They’re taking away my major support network and ability to stay stable. I’m scared. I can’t afford full-price psychology sessions.”
For Ms Strehlau, the government’s decision cuts deeply because she worked as the campaign manager for her local Labor candidate during the federal election.
“In opposition, they [the government] would have been screaming at the Morrison government for doing something so reprehensibly irresponsible … to have the party that I gave up so much time for being the people that are letting me down so much – it feels like it bites differently.”
Health Minister Mark Butler confirmed the changes following a review of the Better Access for Mental Health program, the first review of the scheme in more than a decade.
Money for the additional appointments will run out at the end of the year, with Mr Butler indicating the government will not renew the funding.
The Health Minister said the additional appointments extended waitlists and increased barriers for people to access the service.
Ms Strehlau said that since the additional sessions were made available she has been able to positively contribute to society and the economy.
“Because I’m stable, I’m a good mum and I contribute to society,” she said.
“People who have complex mental illnesses and are able to manage it … we’re a benefit to society. But we can’t do that without major treatment plans.”
The Australian Association of Psychologists executive director Tegan Carrison said the organisation was disappointed by the cuts.
“Given the devastating impact of the pandemic, regular natural disasters, increasing levels of mental ill-health and unprecedented demand, this decision is denying people the level of mental health care they so desperately need,” she said.
The association had previously called for a $150 rebate for psychology patients in order to make the visits more affordable.
Crossbenchers have also been critical of the move.
ACT Senator David Pocock is calling on the government to rethink the cuts.
“We are still in the midst of a mental health crisis, now is not the time to be removing funding without a solid plan to address the significant issues with our mental health system,” Senator Pocock said.
“Gap fees are at an all-time high, hospitals are stretched and our community mental health providers are not just oversubscribed, but are about to fall off a funding cliff.
“There is also a pressing need to better address the root causes of mental health issues,” Senator Pocock said.
“Where are people with complex mental health needs supposed to go, if they can’t access any of these systems?”
The Health Minister was contacted for comment.