Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (16:01): I am pleased to rise this afternoon to speak on the Mental Health and Wellbeing Amendment Bill 2023, in doing so for the Nationals in concert with the Liberals. This bill is in some respects a tidy-up of the former bill from 2022, and it fixes some, I will say, inconsistencies that were in that bill, a very large bill, and some typos. That is the first point, and we certainly agree with that tidy-up. This bill also makes some minor amendments to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Act 2022 and consequential amendments to the Judicial Proceedings Reports Act 1958.
The bill really does stem, as we have heard this afternoon, from the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. The first report from that, the interim report, was handed down in 2019, and certainly five out of those nine recommendations in that interim report were on the need for a mental health workforce and to ensure that there are people working across the breadth of Victoria.
I had the opportunity and took the opportunity as part of that royal commission to join roundtable discussions with the commissioners, and there were a number of commissioners in regional Victoria. I remember attending one in Warragul one day, primarily to support some of my constituents who had come into my office. They were consistently frustrated. They were the carers or the parents of adult children, or adults, who had been suffering from prolonged mental ill health. Of course the pathway down to a mental health disorder, condition or illness can be many and varied. It can have its origins in the physical – in DNA – in substance abuse and in the pressures of life. There are multiple and concerning ways.
My particular constituents went there, and they needed to tell their stories, because despite my best efforts in raising their issues in here they were so frustrated that they felt they could not get their voices out. I do not know – it may have been temporarily cathartic. I still wonder whether or not they actually achieved what they needed to achieve. However, listening to their stories was so very challenging for us sitting there and listening to their heartfelt daily issues that they had to face on behalf of their adult children and their frustrations with the system. Also there were mental health practitioners at that roundtable for the royal commission. I remember that from a professional standpoint in regional Victoria and in Gippsland they were frustrated by the lack of other professionals and the fact that their waitlists were so, so long. They were concerned that they were not actually able to meet the needs of their potential patients, and there was frustration that surrounded that.
Indeed one of the findings of the royal commission certainly was that families, carers and supporters felt that they were left out of the system. Sixty thousand Victorians care for someone with a mental illness. That was the report’s finding. Indeed they felt excluded from the system. They also felt a lack of access to information about treatment, care and support – and I can reflect that in my experience with people coming into my office in my Eastern Victoria electorate.
One of those key factors, in speaking with that mental health practitioner, is the backlog and waitlist. Certainly that particular hearing and the round tables by the commission were pre COVID, and then we had COVID. We have just heard from Mr Limbrick about the effect and the impact of our statewide lockdown system – which no other state in the world had – particularly in regional Victoria, where COVID had a light footprint by comparison. We had schools in Orbost locked down for weeks and months. That certainly had an impact on those young children and the way they interacted – their lack of social and educational interaction. But there was also deprivation of contact with the elderly and the concerns they had. That really put them back on their haunches in relation to the isolation effects. Also, for those members of the community who had substance abuse issues, certainly those consistent lockdowns through COVID pushed them off into a state of increased addiction, and then they could not have an appropriate response because the waitlist was so long.
These are just some of the things that I have experienced and seen. The Andrews government have known – they have been in government for eight years – for such a long time about the thousands of job vacancies across Victoria in the mental health area and the need to put skilled and qualified people in front of those vulnerable people and their families to support them in finding a pathway to better mental health.
I just want to acknowledge our shadow minister, my colleague Emma Kealy, who has done a power of work in this space. She has really led our discussions, other than those who have written to me and certainly those who I have come across in my Eastern Victoria electorate. She has really led this in terms of the stakeholder groups. Their concerns are about this bill sliding backwards and slipping away from the royal commission’s recommendations for a health-led response to a police-led response, and that is of course a disappointment. Quoting the royal commission:
Given that most people experiencing a mental health crisis have done nothing illegal, the involvement of police can be humiliating and traumatic.
They have done nothing illegal. They simply, and most complexly, have a mental health condition. The recommendation also states that police should be involved only where necessary to protect people’s safety. So we see that the royal commission really had a focus on the health professionals leading the medical support, with police and PSOs being brought in, shall we say, only as a last resort or where there was a safety issue at heart.
One of the key things that some of the constituents in my electorate have said is around the frustrations they have felt at the lack of opportunity they have had to make inroads into the initial triage and then into the support systems. These are recent case studies. A constituent’s son who was under the influence of drugs and behaving erratically stated that he was going to kill himself – so a very, very serious situation. The mother’s only and last port of call, in sheer desperation, was to call 000, and the police attended her property. She was really seeking an intervention in the form of a mental health professional, a lynchpin that would have provided her son with a pathway. But the police said that they felt very hamstrung and that the only pathway they could use to get him into the system was in effect to charge the young man in the hope that a magistrate would provide that pathway to mental health.
The police said to this mother that they felt totally hamstrung in their attendance – and they had to do that of course, because he was potentially going to be a danger – and that they want that system better triaged.
Another constituent has a 50-year-old son who suffers from bipolar and has frequent manic episodes. To date he has been arrested several times by the police for his erratic behaviour. The concerned father stresses that mental health professionals are better placed to assist his son in bringing about suitable treatment options as an alternative to the police. Again, he is concerned that there is just this cycle of going in and coming out without that proper triage.
It is very, very clear that our police association have raised their concerns as well about a walk back from or walk to or walk away from a health-led to a police-led response. We saw the Andrews government spruik at election time that we were going to have 500 new police officers in our system to bolster those police lines and police support. Well, we also know that there are approximately 800 vacancies in Victoria where they cannot find police positions, and that is a concern – that is an absolute concern. I was at a function only recently where I spoke with a Victorian police officer, a dedicated officer, and he said, ‘We’re just under the pump.’ He was not going anywhere, but the pressure on their shoulders is more and more and more.
We also see that information has come to light only recently in the media. They state that alarming data released to this Parliament on Monday shows police were called to 10,310 mental health incidents last year that led to someone having to be taken to the emergency department. That is where a lot of police actually spend their time – they are unfortunately cooling their heels in emergency departments for extended hours on end.
I would like to put on record my thanks to all of our first responders, to Victoria Police officers and to Ambulance Victoria officers. Again I had the pleasure at another function to sit and talk with a very distinguished AV officer, just talking in generalities about their work and their dedication. They are the front line – they come to explosive and volatile situations – and it is their calm, professional compassion and stability that provide often the most intensive support from Ambulance Victoria. One of the key recommendations of the royal commission focuses on the 000 responses and ensures that paramedics, as I have just said, are the first respondents to these call-outs. Again this is really vital, the way that they are responded to, for the support and the recovery and the triaging of mental health patients.
My colleague Ms Crozier has spoken about clauses 13 and 14 and our concerns around clauses 13 and 14. We certainly support clause 12 because that provides that flexibility in dispatch, in ringing 000. Call takers can certainly then nuance and triage that and provide the appropriate police or paramedics as required. So clause 12 we certainly endorse, but clauses 13 and 14 remove a focus around that medical, health-led response and walk backwards to that police response. We have got both a reasoned amendment to take this bill away and to do some work, to speak to those stakeholders and to triage this bill, and also some house amendments from the Nationals and the Liberals around removing clauses 13 and 14 altogether.
Finally, we need to listen to those professionals. They are at the coalface of mental health support. The Police Association Victoria certainly have frustrations around this, and I know my colleague Emma Kealy has spoken with VAADA, the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, in depth, and they do a power of work. They have also been certainly supportive of the importance of first responders, but then also getting into the system and having that ongoing professional service and a clear pathway for those people to lead better lives. Our local hospitals and our medical centres and our emergency departments are really confronted quite often with challenging situations, and I would like to put on record here today my thanks for all of our Gippsland hospitals, our Eastern Victoria hospitals, for the work that they do. I call on the crossbench to support both our reasoned amendment and our house amendment. Otherwise, this bill has merit and needs to pass through this house.