OT Reflections on the March 2020 Mental Health Australia Policy Forum

12 March 2020
Old Parliament House, Canberra

The forum was opened by Robyn Kruk, Chair of Mental Health Australia (MHA). Robyn emphasised the need for strong leadership and advocacy during a concerning time of social isolation exacerbated by national and global events. In the context of two Productivity Commissions, four Royal Commissions, the loss of Partners in Recovery, and the emergence of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a recent survey of MHA representatives indicated the following priorities for the peak advocacy body:   

  • Stimulus funding to meet the mental health needs of Australians impacted by the recent natural disasters and pandemic
  • Continued reform of the fragmented mental health system
  • Better consumer and carer engagement

Incoming MHA Chief Executive, Leanne Beagley, addressed members for the first time. Leanne explained that her inspiration is drawn from her experiences growing up in Tanzania, Africa, where she witnessed frequent injustice and discrimination in the health system. As a qualified occupational therapist, Leanne later strengthened her belief in empowerment and self-reliance in person-centred mental health care. Leanne has extensive leadership experience in government and non-government organisations; and recently formalised her knowledge with PhD studies exploring the influence of culture in mental health systems.

Policy Forum Discussions

National Mental Health Commission (NMHC)

Dr Alison Morehead updated MHA members on the NMHC Vision 2030: Blueprint for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. This vision will be aligned with the four pillars of national mental health reform: (1) primary care, (2) hospitals and health, (3) mental health prevention, and (4) mental health research. The challenge will be integrating the three core components—mental health, physical health, and social and emotional wellbeing—across complex services. 

The aim of mental health reform is to decrease mental illness and increase recovery for Australian populations (e.g. improvements in housing stability and employment) by getting the right services to where people live. To achieve this, the NMHC has identified essential “building blocks” of care at the local level. Alongside more common elements such as carer support, prevention and early intervention, the Commission has identified occupational and life skills as core ingredients. To facilitate this reform, the NMHC will lead the following initiatives:

  1. National Workplace Initiative (2019-23) to create a national framework for mentally healthy workplaces suitable for small, medium and large businesses. This framework will provide tools and resources to guide Australian businesses with an implementation model for the future.
  2. National Natural Disaster Mental Health Framework built on global best practice, as well as learnings from communities and families during recent natural disasters, to establish a Bushfire Mental Health Response. Access to occupational therapists will be included as one of the health professional enhancements in this Better Access initiative. 

National Mental Health Workforce Strategy Taskforce

The Productivity Commission’s draft report acknowledged 3 established professions (psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses) for future workforce planning. According to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, growth rate in these professions has exceeded population growth. Unfortunately, this growth has not translated to improved access to mental health services in Australia. The Workforce Strategy Taskforce aims to understand the makeup of the broader mental health workforce for an improved model of workforce distribution, particularly in rural and remote areas. For example, training more mental health professionals from remote areas, as evidence suggests that staff who originate from remote geographies are better retained in these locations. 

According to the Taskforce, an “established workforce” list for mental health systems also includes occupational therapists and social workers. “Emerging workforce” includes other growth areas such as lived experience and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers. Workforce capabilities to be targeted include trauma-informed care; and provision of culturally appropriate services for people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. Therefore, a culturally competent workforce will be a key future focus.

Future Opportunities for Occupational Therapy

Dr Morehead accepted OTA’s offer to participate as a stakeholder in the National Workplace Initiative led by the NMHC. This is a strong opportunity for the occupational therapy profession to participate in, and contribute to, the national reform agenda.

By strengthening and celebrating our capabilities and leadership in high need areas—such as disaster response and suicide prevention—we can deepen broader systems’ understanding and appreciation of our profession, including its contribution to creating more recovery-oriented services. According to the NMHC, the impact of occupational therapists can be enhanced through occupational and life skills and trauma-informed approaches, strengthened by co-production with consumers and carers.

Many MHA members, including myself, expressed concern regarding the current focus of the National Workforce Strategy Taskforce. Feedback from MHA members indicated strong support for a future workforce map that represents a broad range of professions, including clinical, disability support and lived experience professions; meets specific health determinants, such as physical, social, vocational and emotional wellbeing; and reflects evidence-informed care, rather than retrofitting “established” and “emerging” professions into non-specified roles. Remaining alert to these consultation and community feedback opportunities will be vitally important.

About the Author

Geoff Lau has worked extensively in adult mental health as an occupational therapist, clinical supervisor and manager since 1992; across acute to tertiary, inpatient and community-based services in Queensland and overseas. His core training in occupational therapy at The University of Queensland, combined with post graduate training in social science at the Queensland University of Technology, guided his clinical practice towards evidence-informed assessment and intervention. Learn more about Geoff.

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