Why do we give every appearance of caring more about sporting success than the state of Australians’ mental health?
Simon Tatz is well qualified to ask such a question, given his interest in both sports funding and mental health. He is the communications director of the Mental Health Council of Australia, a former sports adviser to the Federal Labor Party, and a doctoral student researching government funding of sport.
“If there were Gold medals given out for mental health services, then maybe the millions of Australians with mental health issues, their families and carers would have something to celebrate? Unfortunately, investing in new and desperately needed mental health services is less of a priority than investing in a World Cup bid, stadiums or talent identification programs.
In the world of spin and image, mental health apparently has little to offer in comparison to the excitement of national and international sporting success.
The Government finds money for ‘talent scouts’ who go into schools and identify children with sporting ability and earmarks them for elite training and Commonwealth support. Yet this very same Government will not properly fund a system that identifies children and adolescents at risk and provides access to appropriate community based mental health care.
While funding is allocated to identify, attract and develop high performance coaches, high performance mental health workers, such as social workers and occupational therapists, are trying to understand why they can no longer provide Medicare subsidised services to those most in need.
In the current budget, the Government allocated only $13 million over two years to expand the number of specialist mental health nurses. There is no funding allocated for 2012-13 or beyond.
Compare this miserly investment towards increasing the mental health nursing workforce with the Government’s desire to increase our cricketing success. The Minister for Sport, Kate Ellis, recently announced an extra $17.5 million to ensure “Australia’s place as the world’s leading cricketing nation” is bolstered through the funding of Cricket Australia’s Centre of Excellence.
Ellis proudly boasted that “the $17.5 million we’re investing will help keep Australia on the cutting edge of cricket internationally and will also help improving (sic) the health of the nation.”
Bad grammar aside, perhaps those who have fallen through the cracks, the homeless, those in prisons and ‘working families’ experiencing breakdowns, domestic violence, drug or alcohol issues or dysfunction due to the financial downturn will feel a whole lot better knowing that an investment in a cricket academy will improve their health.
Cricket is a wealthy sport, sponsored by major alcohol and fast food multinationals. Elite players earn millions. Cricket’s contribution to ‘the health of the nation’ is negligible. Can anyone seriously claim that coming runner-up in the Twenty20 World Cup does anything substantive for our health and well-being? It certainly doesn’t do a lot for mental (or the other neglected area, dental) health care needs.
But wait, there’s worse. Kate Ellis trumpeted the budget for delivering $325 million to sport – and “a record $1.2 billion” over 4 years. AOC president John Coates skited: “It was our campaign that got the money and now we (Olympic sports) have to get more than our fair share.”
By contrast, mental health didn’t win the campaign nor get its fair share. Mental illness, which affects 1 in 5 Australians and costs Australia billions in economic and social costs, received only about $120 million in new funding.
Even though suicide is the leading cause of death for men and women aged 15 and 44, there was no additional funding to prevent suicide or to arrest Australia’s reputation for having one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world. Failing to invest in the national tragedy of suicide – now here’s a record we should not be proud of.
Australia has always prided itself as a great sporting nation. We spend millions on the Olympics and an all but obsolete Commonwealth Games, as well as maintaining the Sports Commission and Institute of Sport. As Kate Ellis told us on budget night, the Rudd Government has a “vision for sport” which will help “our community to tackle the health and ageing challenges we face in the 21st century.” Ellis didn’t (or couldn’t) explain how this was being achieved.
It’s bewildering that this Government has not yet articulated a similar ‘vision’ for mental health – we are yet to hear the Government talk of success or measurements or pathways or visions in mental health.
If there was a mental health Olympics, perhaps we would see millions poured into helping consumers and carers and families struggling with a system that is underfunded and unsupported politically. If Australia was competing to hold the mental health World Cup, then we’d see a billion dollars in stadium construction and infrastructure development for the month long spectacle.
One day we might talk about our success in addressing mental health in the same way we talk about our success on the sporting field.”