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Legislative Council

06 October 2021
Second reading
Melina Bath  (NAT)


Ms BATH (Eastern Victoria) (16:40): I am delighted this afternoon to rise to speak on the private members bill that Ms Crozier has put forward on behalf of the Liberals and The Nationals. It is the Mental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021. I would like from the outset to congratulate my colleague in the lower house Ms Emma Kealy, Shadow Minister for Mental Health, for bringing that bill into the lower house. It was rejected by the government, unfortunately. I would also like to thank the many, many people who have emailed me asking me to support Ms Kealy’s bill, as we are doing today. One of those people who wrote to me is actually a teacher in one of the schools in my electorate and is endorsing this position and pleading for this expansion of the mental health services to be agreed to. I want to say to those people who wrote to me, and I am sure to others, I endorse this bill and it should go ahead. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Australian Counselling Association for their work and their support of this bill.

COVID has been absolutely crippling for our young people and for all of our Victorians who have been in and out of rolling lockdowns and isolated from their families but specifically and terribly for children—for children who are coping with remote learning, for children who have been isolated from their friends, for children who are isolated from seeing grandparents or extended families and for children who are not coping in the home environment for a variety of reasons and also through boredom and loneliness. These children are really suffering.

Let me give you some sobering facts. These are facts from this year and last year. There are real people, real children, behind these statistics. The demand for counselling services and Kids Helpline services between the first part of last year and the first part of this year has seen a 30 per cent increase. The weekly demand for Kids Helpline services in Victoria this year, from May to July, has seen a 68 per cent increase. There is a great deal more that I could say on all of those, but I will go through some other statistics. The number of teenagers rushed to hospital after self-harming and suffering suicidal thoughts has spiked by 51 per cent from last year. This is from the Victorian Agency for Health Information report Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Services in Victoria of June 2021. These are current statistics. The number of the most serious cases, where teenagers needed resuscitation and emergency care, between last year and this year spiked by 41.9 per cent. The report also speaks about a rise in the number of girls aged 12 and above with eating disorders.

Only today we saw in the Herald Sun a discussion around the rise in anorexia. This is what the Royal Children’s Hospital eating disorders service and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute found. It is all of those complications and constraints and the tearing away of the fibre of young people’s mental health that have created this. Indeed Butterfly Foundation CEO Kevin Barrow made some comments about this. He said the findings were replicated more broadly, with demand up by 30 to 70 per cent at many services.

The foundation runs a national hotline, which has seen an increase of demand of 50 per cent, including repeat callers. A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of attending here in Parliament a joint-party discussion around this, and I am sure the Butterfly Foundation came and spoke to us. The importance of having an ongoing relationship with a valued healthcare professional could not be understated. Mr Barrow was reported in the paper today as having said that ‘many psychologists, specialists and counsellors were fully booked and had long waiting lists’. This bill helps to address some of those long waiting lists. There is another statistic, and then I will finish with that. The Victorian Agency for Health Information found that an average of 342 children aged up to 17 are presenting at emergency departments for mental health reasons each week.

Looking at the comments of Ms Maxwell, I endorse her comments in relation to children needing a trusted source. They need to have someone who is qualified, but often they need that ongoing support that somebody based in the school system can create. Indeed, this bill helps to make that happen.

Looking at the bill, the Mental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021 is a simple bill with far-reaching benefits. The purpose of the bill is to amend the Mental Health Act 2014 to include registered counsellors in the definition of ‘mental health practitioner’ so that:

… registered counsellor means a person who is registered as a counsellor by the Australian Counselling Association or the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia …

Those counsellors would have to have had a certain level of qualification—diploma, bachelor, graduate and/or masters—and there can be a varied level of that support provided through that counselling service.

Endorsing this bill will remove a barrier and allow up to 2000 additional qualified counsellors into our system, and it is much, much needed. One of the key things that I have heard today and I have heard those from the government talk about is we are just talking and not acting. This is a direct action and a positive action that has been endorsed by many.

The Minister for Education this week put out a statement on Monday about the government’s plans for mental health practitioners, and I will quote it:

The mental health practitioners can include psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and mental health nurses …

And they have allocated some money. What this government often fails to recognise though is that in our regional schools these sorts of counsellors can be like hen’s teeth. In our remote schools getting one of those levels, one of those qualifications, is absolutely like hen’s teeth, and therefore allowing others and indeed these counsellors to be accessed by schools would be a windfall and a much-needed benefit to our regional schools and our students in great need.

I also find it flabbergasting that Ms Patten always has a dig at our chaplains. I know from my constituents and my schools in my area how sought-after chaplains are and how sometimes they are vying for the one chaplain, and I have had direct experience where some of those young people were actually quite bereft at the fact that their chaplain had to end up going to a different school. So it is really important that this government recognises the deficiency, the lack of these general psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists and mental health nurses in our regions, and the fact that we need that added layer, those 2000 that could be relating and coming out to our schools.

I would like the house to note—and there has been some discussion on it in the course of this debate—that our social workers are classified as mental health practitioners in Victoria and, as the minister has said, they are sought after. But what has not been stated here is that the social workers are not regulated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. These people are much needed, but the number of counsellors who are not AHPRA registered actually nullifies their argument.

We need these people. We need to be able to support our youth. There is huge need out there both in the city, where we have had the most exorbitant lockdown in the entire world, and where we have got regions that need services that they cannot get. We have children harming themselves in an alarming manner, and we need this bill to go through and to support those people, those children, those families in need. I fully support this bill.