Funding of $120m will go to increasing the number of psychologists and upskilling other health professionals.
The federal government has made the most of World Mental Health Day, launching its 10-year National Mental Health Workforce Strategy in a bid to solve the chronic workforce shortages in the sector.
At the heart of the strategy lies an investment of almost $120 million to “attract, train, maximise, support, and retain a workforce that will meet the growing need for mental health services”.
Just over $91 million will go toward increasing the number of practising psychologists, including 500 new postgraduate psychology places, 500 one-year internships for provisional psychologists, 2000 subsidised supervising training places (including 1000 refresher places) and the redesign of higher education psychology pathways to support longer-term reform.
An additional $17.8 million will go to upskilling other health workers including undergraduate nurses, midwives, and healthcare students in mental health, as well as to develop national standards for counsellors and psychotherapists.
The strategy will attempt to mitigate issues relating to workforce shortages, stigma associated with working in mental health, unclear scopes of practice, disconnection between different mental health professions, workforce maldistribution (particularly in rural areas), limited availability and use of high-quality data to inform workforce planning and an increasing demand for services.
There is an emphasis on increasing the number of mental health workers in rural areas, with an independent review of the Better Access program finding that supply constraints disproportionately affect those in low-income households and those in rural areas.
“Australians deserve a mental health care system where people can get compassionate help from highly skilled professionals,” said Health Minister Mark Butler.
“[We are committed to delivering] a more equitable and sustainable mental health and suicide prevention system – one where no one is left behind,” he continued.
“The Strategy is a first step in the government’s long-term goal to ensure our mental health care system has the workforce in place to care for Australians needing mental health support.”
Australian Psychologists Society president Dr Catriona Davis-McCabe said the society welcomed the strategy, which “clearly shows that urgent action is required if we are to meet the workforce targets communities and workers are crying out for”.
“With workforce shortages and maldistribution central issues across the sector, governments should be looking to make studying postgraduate psychology more affordable and accessible,” she said.
“Governments should also be looking at relocation incentives to ensure psychologists and other mental health workers are incentivised to work in areas of most need.”
Dr Elizabeth Moore, president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists said the new plan was “critical”.
“The evidence shows prevention and early intervention are the cheapest and most effective forms of mental health care at a population level.
“On an individual level, it’s getting enough of the right help, early enough, regardless of the issue,” she explained.
“But when you don’t have enough practitioners, or the system is too fragmented, people fall through the cracks.
“An investment in the mental health workforce is investing to save – saving money, and ultimately saving and improving Australians’ lives.”