Launch: Not for Service

Full report and related materials available here

Wednesday October 19
Brain and Mind Research Institute, University of Sydney
Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM , Human Rights Commissioner
Sev Ozdowski


M ay I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

It is also my pleasure to acknowledge:

  • the Minister for Health and Ageing, the Honourable Tony Abbott MP;
  • my colleagues from the Mental Health Council of Australia and the Brain and Mind Research Institute;
  • people here who have been affected by mental illness, directly or as family and carers; and
  • all other distinguished guests.

In such company my role as Human Rights Commissioner is not to speak as an expert on mental health, but to emphasise the human rights dimensions of the way that we as a nation respond to mental health issues.

Australia has signed and ratified important human rights treaties which explicitly recognise the right of everyone to the highest possible mental health care.

For example, the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights , Article 12, states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.  

And Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child reinforces the application of this right to children and youth.

We have also the UN Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care (adopted by the General Assembly in 1991) which reinforce the rights enshrined in the International Covenants and provide valuable guidance as to how those rights ought to apply to people with mental illness.

  • Principle 8(1) makes clear that people with mental illness have the right to the same standard of health care as other ill persons.
  • Principle 14 states that mental health facilities should have the same level of resources as any other health facility.
  • Additionally, Principle 7 emphasises the right to be treated and cared for as far as possible in the community.

HREOC has longstanding interest in mental health

More than 10 years ago, HREOC conducted an inquiry into the rights of Australia 's mentally ill and found multiple breaches of basic human rights ('The Burdekin Report') .

At that time the mental health system had begun to move away from institutionalisation to care predominantly occurring in the community, possible because of medical advances made.

This approach remains supported by all the experts and by all major organisations in the mental health sector.

But the Inquiry found that while institutions were being closed down, community supports were not being adequately built up.

From the start of my term as Human Rights Commissioner I was hearing reports that most of the issues identified in the Burdekin Report remained of concern.

Through last year - in partnership with the Mental Health Council and the Brain and Mind Research Institute - we conducted national consultations to throw the spotlight back on issues of access to mental health services and supports.

The volume of input we received was overwhelming , as shown by the fact that the report has taken until now to complete and is nearly as large as the original Burdekin report.

And as you will see, what we found in many areas is all too disturbingly close to the findings of that report in 1993.

One submission to the 'Not for Service' consultations put it simply:

' The dream of closing psychiatric institutions and moving towards community-based care has turned into a nightmare. Community care is under-resourced and integrated services are lacking. Too many people are denied treatment and slip through the gaps'.

Or in other words, we are dealing with enormous crisis of mental health services in Australia . Not only are Australia 's mentally ill being turned away from the health services that they need, they often end up in gaols instead.

The extent of the problem is clear and so is the solution.

Governments, and I am speaking not only about the Commonwealth Government but about all Australian governments, need to provide leadership.

They need to work together instead of apportioning blame.

They need to provide more resources for mental health services and supports.

And more accountability is needed for how the money is spent.

In the past it was possible to find solutions in situations where Federal and Stare responsibilities overlapped. For example, it was possible to deal effectively with gun ownership after the Tasmanian massacre.

We often deal with drought as a both national and state emergency.

Currently we are searching for national solutions to deal effectively with terrorism and industrial relations.

Now we need to work together to solve the mental health crisis .

In fact, currently there have been some encouraging signs suggesting that a national response to mental health disaster may emerge .

The presence of Minister Abbott here today is very welcome as another such sign.

In closing, the clear message from our consultations is that more than 20 percent of Australians are counting on their governments to make mental health a priority - now.