Commissioners named in bid to fix state’s ‘broken’ mental health system

The failure to fix Victoria’s “broken” mental health system is costing the state billions of dollars in lost economic output and putting intense pressure on its justice, education and health sectors, the Andrews government says.

Former Department of Justice secretary Penny Armytage will chair Victoria’s royal commission into mental health, Premier Daniel Andrews announced on Sunday.

He described the royal commission as the most important piece of reform under way in the state and said responding to the recommendations would come at significant taxpayer cost.

Penny Armytage speaks to the media in Melbourne.
Penny Armytage speaks to the media in Melbourne. CREDIT:DARRIAN TRAYNOR

Ms Armytage will be supported by three other commissioners: former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chief Professor Allan Fels; Alex Cockram, Associate Professor of the University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychiatry; and Professor Bernadette McSherry, a professor of law specialising in mental health law and criminal law at the University of Melbourne.

The royal commission will hold public hearings ahead of the release of an interim report due by November 30 and a final report in October next year.

The government has already agreed to accept all of the recommendations of the review of the state’s mental health system.

Mr Andrews said he expected meeting those recommendations would be costly.

“It is almost certain that there will be a big bill at the end of this process as well, but I don’t see that so much as a cost to budget as a profound investment in a fairer, more decent Victoria,” he said.

The only condition imposed on the commissioners is that they put forward practical recommendations.

“It is a broken system and until we acknowledge that and set a course to find those answers and a practical plan for the future, people will continue to die, people will continue to be forever diminished,” Mr Andrews said.

The Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council, a non-government advocacy organisation, argued a person with experience of using state mental health services should have been appointed to the commission.

“It’s really disappointing that we don’t have a consumer commissioner,” Maggie Toko, the council’s chief executive, said.

“The people who’ve survived the mental health system have the most important expertise for this royal commission, but they’re not there.”

Latest figures reveal more than 600 Victorians died by suicide last year, Minister for Mental Health Martin Foley said.

He said the commission would probe the links between failures in mental health care and its impact on justice, education and health.

“So much of our prison population, our criminal justice system, our schools, our acute hospitals, our forensic systems, all are stretched to beyond breaking point,” Mr Foley said.

More than 8000 people made a submission on the royal commission’s terms of reference.

Those terms include how to best prevent mental health and suicide, helping Victorians to navigate the mental health system, best supporting family and carers of people with mental illness, and supporting people living with mental illness and drug and alcohol problems.

Ms Armytage said the commission was a once-in-a-generation chance to improve mental health treatment in Victoria.

Mental Health Victoria chief executive Angus Clelland said mental health had for too long been the poor cousin of the health system.

“We are particularly encouraged by the emphasis in the terms of reference on prevention and early intervention and the focus on the needs of people living with mental illness and the needs of their families and carers,” Mr Clelland said.