By Zeb Holmes and Ugur Nedim
$40 million of the funds will go towards expanding the high-security Thomas Embling Hospital, a forensic facility where people with mental health issues who commit violent crimes may be sent instead of prison.
$29 million will be rolled out over four years to identify people with mental health issues who are at risk of committing violent crimes, and offer them support and preventative programs designed to address underlying issues.
Mental Health Minister Martin Foley says the initiative will focus on young people who are at risk of engaging in criminal conduct, including those who have demonstrated anti-social conduct or committed low level criminal offences.
In announcing the package, the Andrews government conceded that Victoria has underfunded its mental health system for the past decade.
The opposition welcomed the funding, but accused the government of being slow to act.
“The simple reality is that we are now two-and-a-half years in to the term of this Government, and we have seen precious little action thus far,” Opposition corrections spokesman Edward O’Donohue remarked. “Any new funding must be implemented as soon as possible to make up for this lost time.”
Effect on violent crime
A KPMG report warned that the chronic underfunding of mental health services has contributed to youth crime, finding that Victoria’s mental health system is under greater pressure than any other jurisdiction’s.
When asked about the report, mental health minister Martin Foley responded, “I haven’t seen the final report that was referred to, but I don’t think it was a particular shock that Victorians understand that when you underfund mental health services for over 10 years, that’s going to have an impact on demand.”
“When you underinvest in mental health, all you do is shift the problem from the mental health sector to the justice and corrections sector, and what this package is about is to make sure we keep Victorians safe by delivering the services people need when and where they need them.”
Mental health in prison
A report prepared by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that the proportion of prison entrants with a history of a mental health issues is about two-and-a-half times higher than the general population (31% compared with 11–12%).
The report’s author, Tim Beard, has called for a greater focus on mental health in the prison context.
“I think the overall mental health of prisoners is fairly poor, particularly when they first come into custody, because they’ve either been experiencing untreated mental illness in the community or experiencing drug and alcohol problems,” he said.
Mr Beard also expressed concerns about the high level of distress and the medication rate of the prison population. Brett Collins, a former prison inmate and a member of Justice Action in NSW, argues that inmates’ families should be allowed a greater involvement in mental health programs within prisons.
Mental health issues are especially prevalent amongst Indigenous inmates. Recent Victorian research suggests that 72% of male Indigenous prisoners and 92% of female Indigenous prisoners meet the criteria for a diagnosis of a major mental illness. Similar findings have been reached in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia.
Further improvements required
Mental health advocate, professor Patrick McGorry, believes Victoria’s mental health system needs to be completely rebuilt after years of neglect.
“It used to be the best in Australia and now it’s the worst in terms of access and care,” he remarked. ”There there are people in a very small sub-group who do pose a risk and they could kill.”
Professor McGorry argues that those with mental health issues should be given as much support as those with physical conditions. “We see people dying every week unnecessarily as a result of this failing system – lives are ending up on the scrap heap,” he said.
Treatment as crime prevention
Research overwhelmingly suggests that engaging in mental health programs is far more effective when it comes to reducing reoffending than imprisonment. In a 2009 publication by the Washington State Institute of Public Policy, 10 peer reviewed evaluations of mental health therapy programs demonstrated a reduction of 17.9% in reoffending rates and net benefits of $17,694 per program participant.
NSW’s recidivism rate is currently extremely high, and only appears to be getting worse. Approximately 48 per cent of inmates released from prison will be back within two years. The rate has increased by almost one percent every year since 2011.
Many believe that placing a greater emphasis on preventative and diversionary programs rather than incarceration would lead to a reduction in reoffending rates, and a net financial saving for the community.