Experts call for major parties to commit to addressing mental health system bottleneck ahead of federal election
Eighteen months after she entered "a very dark space", Laura Jane Picone says she still hasn't received any help.
Ms Picone, 28, said she fell into a deep depression at the height of Melbourne's lockdowns in 2020. The social isolation caused by losing her job, living alone and being unable to see friends took its toll.
"I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel, to be quite frank," she said.
Ms Picone said she called Lifeline, hoping to be referred to a psychologist, psychiatrist or even a counsellor.
She was added to long waiting lists, and the process was further delayed when she moved from the city to the country for a few months, and experienced domestic violence.
Ms Picone now is back at work in Melbourne and optimistic about her future, but still had "some things I need to work through".
Young people caught up in 'no man's land'
Ms Picone's case typifies the bottleneck many experience when trying to enter the mental health system.
Possibly worse, however, is what leading youth psychiatrist Patrick McGorry calls "the missing middle".
These are patients who haven't reached a crisis point yet, but have complex, prolonged needs that require a level of expert care.
"It's the no man's land between primary care and specialist or hospital care," Professor McGorry said.
"About half to two-thirds of young people are in that category, but they just simply cannot get through to that next level, because it has not been built around this country."
Professor McGorry, the director of research institute Orygen, said he was disappointed mental health had not featured more prominently in the election campaigns of the two major parties.
"It's pretty much radio silence so far," he said.
What have the major parties pledged so far?
In 2019-20, more than 4 million Australians received mental health prescriptions, and state and federal governments spent $11 billion on services — with about a third coming from the Commonwealth.
In the 2020-21 budget, the federal government promised an extra $2.3 billion over four years for suicide prevention and early intervention programs, mental health treatment and bolstering the workforce.
A further $650 million was promised in the budget released in March.
A Labor spokesman said the party would honour those budget commitments if it was elected.
On the campaign trail, Labor has also promised to reverse a federal government funding cut for bulk-billed telehealth psychiatry sessions for people in regional and rural areas.
Anthony Albanese said the program would support 450,000 consultations over four years and cost $31 million over the forward estimates.
Meanwhile, the Coalition has been providing details on how it plans to spend money it had allocated towards mental health in previous federal budgets.
This week, youth mental health organisation Batyr was announced as one of the beneficiaries, receiving $3.8 million in funding.
Professor McGorry said the budget promises were "a good starting point" but the need for overall care was "clearly not being met".
He said without adequate mental health funding there would be "a lot of unnecessary deaths from suicide, futures lost and a weakening of the economy."
Pandemic after-shocks on mental health system still being felt
Melbourne psychologist Irene Robertson said her clinic had closed its waitlist for months, as staff worked through a growing volume of family break-ups and children experiencing anxiety and depression.
"I feel like the effects of this pandemic will be seen for many, many years, especially for those that have lost businesses or completely disengaged from school."
For some already in the system, receiving ongoing treatment can also be a challenge.
Brisbane woman Gabrielle Webster, 61, has battled bipolar disorder for three decades, a condition that she said cost her two marriages and relationships with her son and friends.
It had also limited her ability to hold down a job in line with her university qualifications.
Ms Webster, a disability pensioner, works part-time as a cleaner to afford monthly health insurance payments of $250, private psychiatry sessions and the 13 tablets she takes each day.
"I'm a rapid cycler which means I never have normal periods. I only have high or low. It's only now that I am able to function with the medication," she said.
Ms Webster said she wanted to see more subsidies for psychiatry sessions and improvements to mental health wards in public hospitals.
"I think they're throwing money at it, but it's just not working," she said.
"Mental illness is on the increase and I still think there's a stigma attached to it."