MICHAEL USHER: Politicians pay lip service to mental health, but what is actually being done? Not much.

Michael Usher
The Nightly
4 Min Read
MICHAEL USHER: Our leaders know the buzzwords, the sombre expressions, but it’s all talk, and no solutions while five million Aussies are known to struggle, and nine to ten people die each day.
MICHAEL USHER: Our leaders know the buzzwords, the sombre expressions, but it’s all talk, and no solutions while five million Aussies are known to struggle, and nine to ten people die each day. Credit: The Nightly

I’ve been worried for some time that the topic of mental health in Australia is being used by some individuals and leaders to sound worthy and caring, while delivering absolutely nothing to help heal. Lots of buzzwords, lots of sombre expressions, lots of new policies and zero solutions. It’s a hollow approach to what experts in the field are calling a silent pandemic.

Undermining the extremely serious nature of genuine mental health conditions has thrown open the doors to the subject being hijacked by those wanting to use mental health as a shield against questions or scrutiny. There’s growing concern in workplaces that mental health is being weaponised by employees to shirk responsibility.

They’re the minority, thankfully, but they’re taking the lead from political leaders who throw around mental health during election and budget cycles to appear as if they’re taking action and then never deliver.

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And that’s shameful. Look at the chronically sad statistics, and you’ll see this is no subject to politicise or cheapen. And there’s no easy way to write about mental health without it addressing some of our darkest problems and detailing the brutal statistics. So, I hope this helps and doesn’t cause any more hurt if you’re in a vulnerable place.

Nine to 10 Australians die by suicide every day. While you read this, someone will attempt suicide. In fact, 178 Australians try this every. Single. Day. That’s 65,000 every year. Five million Australians have recognised mental health challenges, which has a huge impact on many more family members, carers and loved ones.

Matt Berriman is one of those statistics. But he is more than a number. He’s an intelligent and diligent young man who I was grateful to meet and spend time with this week. I’ve interviewed him for this week’s edition of Spotlight on Sunday night.

Matt Berriman is the former chair of Mental Health Australia
Matt Berriman is the former chair of Mental Health Australia Credit: Seven Spotlight

Matt is very honest about his very personal battle and mental health diagnosis. He’s tried 15 different medications, as many hospital stays and all sorts of treatments, including electrotherapy. At one point, Matt thought it might be best to stop the crippling roller-coaster he was riding every day and end it.

Thankfully for him, and all of us, he didn’t.

And he’s here today to help so many people with his own story, and his passion to hold our leaders to account instead of just accepting their hollow commitments to fixing mental health in Australia.

In 2021 Matt was appointed the chair of Mental Health Australia. He wanted to create change and was led to believe he’d have a pipeline to the politicians to make that change happen. He was very wrong, and after six weeks Matt sensationally quit.

He’d come to the conclusion that Anthony Albanese and this Government were all talk and no action when it came to mental health.

He told me that he couldn’t even get a meeting with the Prime Minister in all his time as chair. Matt just didn’t feel the PM and his Government cared or were fully committed to fixing the problem.

Now I’m sure privately, Mr Albanese and the Government are seething at the criticism, but they’d been playing the man and the not the ball. And the ball is bouncing out of control.

In talking with Matt I shared some stories I’ve been told about the terrible gaps and costs in delivering mental health care in Australia. I cited the example of a teenager who needed critical psychological support immediately, only to be told that an available psychologist was booked up with a four-week waitlist.

Matt quickly shot back: “Four weeks! That’s quick, in some parts of Australia it’s a 12-month wait to see a psychologist.”

Matt Berriman is the former chair of Mental Health Australia.
Matt told his story in this week’s edition of Spotlight on Sunday night. Credit: Seven Spotlight

A year to get help! That is outrageous, and is costing lives. Matt offered one quick fix the Government could offer right now to help that situation. Don’t just slash migration numbers — refine the list to make mental health care nurses, doctors and psychologists a top priority for entry into Australia.

Matt also believes the billions of dollars being delivered to mental health care is largely evaporating along the long, open and broken funding pipeline. He argues for example funds for mental health don’t need their own bureaucracy and should be delivered directly to health, defence and education portfolios.

But all his suggestions have been falling on deaf ears.

So, he’s leapt outside the official channels to become a mental health advocate, unshackled from toeing the Government line. Which was getting him and all sufferers, nowhere.

I asked him if he had a message for Anthony Albanese. It was simple, and powerful. “Do. More.”

And his direct message to the one, and no doubt more, reader or viewer listening to him right now, at this very moment who may have reached the threshold and can’t see a way of stepping back.

“Be here tomorrow. Just be here tomorrow. Call, speak, talk to anyone who can reach this moment, and then be here tomorrow so we can help.”

It’s what Matt did. He’s speaking from heart breaking experience. And thank goodness he chose to be here, to fight for everyone suffering in silence.

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