Leaving the mental health tent with Matt Berriman

6 minute read

Sometimes it takes a big gesture to get your passion project the attention it deserves.

Matt Berriman has discovered that sometimes it is easier to speak your mind and get things done from outside the system you’re trying to change. 

Up until last Wednesday Mr Berriman was the chair of Mental Health Australia, working to try and improve the mental healthcare system in this country from within that framework. 

But, after 2.5 years in the job and the frustration of what he called a “lack of traction” at all levels of government, he resigned. And now he’s speaking out, free of the constraints of needing to represent an organisation. 

What’s the feedback been like since your decision to resign? 

It’s been mixed, some disappointment but also a lot of affirmations from the community about how they understand but wish I would stay on in the sector to address the issues.  

Was there a trigger that made you say that’s it, I’m done? 

I wouldn’t say there was a trigger. There’s been a constant build-up of challenges, above the health minister’s portfolio, that the Prime Minister wouldn’t engage with. And we’ve been pushing hard, especially after the recent events. I didn’t want to bring Mental Health Australia and the people in that organisation into disrepute by taking a very strong line against the Albanese government. 

There’s definitely been a shift [since the last federal election]. I was only in the seat as chair for a very short period before the election, but I had very strong direct contact with Greg Hunt. And, you know, we disagreed on several matters. But there was work around bilateral agreements worth $1.8 billion in aftercare for suicide prevention. That’s just stalled. 

Back in March 2022 you wrote that you hoped you would leave the job with the mental healthcare system in better shape than when you arrived. You must be disappointed. 

When I talked about my lived experience of attempting suicide I got a lot of messages from people saying they were going to take their own lives but they didn’t after seeing that article. So it’s been worth the effort and the personal toll it takes when you have been through something that traumatic and still living with bipolar disorder. 

It’s not the way I wanted to leave the role. I’m a person that holds themselves to high account in a professional sense and that’s gone from my time through cricket and business. I didn’t get done what I wanted to get done. 

But because I’m now outside the tent, I’m now focusing on being able to use my voice and platform in the lead-up to the Budget and leading up to the next election. I’ve had a lot of conversations with various parties. You probably heard that the Greens are now agreeing with the Opposition about this – that’s very rare to see the Greens join the blues.  

Hopefully we’ll see change from that. Maybe my change legacy will come after the fact of me being in the MHA position. 

Do you have anything specific in mind for your next step?  

No, I haven’t made anything concrete yet. But there’s certainly been a lot of different parties interested in what I’m looking to do. I’ll take my time to assess the best option, but I definitely won’t be missing from or leaving the [mental health] sector. 

I’ve got a long-term passion for the people who have mental illness and their carers. And I’ll certainly be doing what I can to make the changes necessary. I’ll just be working for that moving forward.  

Wave a magic wand – if money and time were no object, what would you do right now to improve the mental healthcare system in this country? 

It needs to be end-to-end in a multifaceted system; everything through from education, early intervention. There’s only a tiny percentage of the budget that goes to early intervention. 

I would want to see a larger workforce for psychiatry and psychology. That means you’d be opening up more spots for people, it would mean incentivising people to go into that sector.  

I’d also want to be talking around how you access care. It shouldn’t be up to the government to dictate whether you need 10 sessions, 20 sessions or two sessions. 

That doesn’t happen with physical health. If you need chemo treatments, you do what you need as a patient. So why should it be any different in the mental health system?  

And then I think there’s a big education piece for the community as well around how to deal with people with mental ill health.  

I think a lot of people [in government] are scared to make steps and I think the community would go, that’s fair enough, but we just need you to try. 

One of the challenges that I talk about is asset allocation and where the funding should go. You look at defence, for example, where we spend hundreds of billions. I understand that we need to defend our country and our borders. But the reality is … out of that $200 billion, surely, a slice of that should go to servicemen and women with PTSD that happened when they’ve served the country. 

We need to be thinking about integrating education, housing, defence, health as a part of a holistic approach. 

How do we incentivise students and junior doctors to go into psychiatry and psychology? A lot of people go and do psychiatry, but 10% maximum actually practise because there’s not enough placements available. We need to fund those training places. 

Pretend you’re sitting in front of Albo right now. What do you say to him? 

Do you care about mental health? Because at the last election, you said no one would be left behind. And at the moment, there’s five million plus people being left behind.  

What politicians tend to do is kick the can down the road. Go and put fires out when things reach a crisis. Politicians are always spinning plates. And they tend to put out the fires that they think are most likely to win them the next election, rather than what’s in the best interest of the country. 

You were a promising young cricketer, earmarked for Australian honours. Then an injury ended that plan. Since then you’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. How are you doing?  

Really well, actually. My mental health is the best it’s been. I turned 40 just over a week ago. It’s certainly been a busy four or five days. But, I’m really good. Thanks for asking. 

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