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Calls for 'streamlined' access to mental health treatment

Talking points

Brisbane resident Matt Mahalo says if he had known what options were available for mental health treatment 15 years ago, his life could have taken a very different path.

Living with bipolar and chronic depression, Mr Mahalo, 33, now leads “a much happier life” after finding the treatment he needed.

Matt Mahalo, 33, believes access to the mental health system needs to be improved.

But he wonders what could have been different had he known what professional mental health treatment was available all those years ago.

Research commissioned by MLC Life Insurance has quizzed more than 500 Australians with mental health conditions who had sought treatment in the past 12 months.

The research showed that more than half struggled to navigate the mental health system, and a quarter were not even aware of support available.

Mr Mahalo said that was a familiar story for him.

“After 10 years I was suicidal because I thought it should have got better, and it was only getting worse,” he said.

“My mental state was not getting better but also I turned to other things like drugs and alcohol and that just makes it so much worse.

“I realised that at that point I had a decision to make … I realised that it was really my approach to life and I needed help at that point.

“It wasn’t an impossible situation but I just needed someone to help me.

“The real issue I guess was … I didn’t know where to get that help.”

Mr Mahalo said he twice tried to access proper treatment through the health system as he faced the complexities of different diagnoses.

“I really gave up on the healthcare system completely to be my solution, which is really sad,” he said.

“I spent the next 15 years figuring out how to do life better – thankfully I learned a lot about how to lead a much happier life.”

The research showed 63 per cent of respondents believed Australia’s mental health system was too complicated to navigate, often requiring multiple specialist appointments to receive a diagnosis.

Seven in 10 respondents said their attempts to access the mental health system were “negative”.

Those figures concern psychiatrist and Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Bernhard Baune.

Professor Baune said the processes for gaining access to mental health specialists needed to be streamlined to prevent people like Mr Mahalo giving up.

He said a “multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary approach” involving not just GPs but psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and other professionals would help create a more holistic pathway.

“Seventy per cent of people had a negative experience in navigating the mental health system and find it daunting and confusing, and that is a large number which I found quite alarming,” Professor Baune said.

The research was commissioned as part of a plan for MLC Life Insurance to provide specialist medical access to mental health clients.

In partnership with Best Doctors, the insurance company is launching its Mental Health Navigator, providing a specialist second opinion to customers to ensure their diagnosis is correct.

Mr Mahalo said he believed education and openness about mental health was critical, starting in school and continuing throughout life. Complexities around stigma, fear, and the sheer effort it could take a person struggling with mental health to pick up the phone and make an appointment were all issues that need to be addressed, Mr Mahalo believed.

“It’s a really big thing, you really feel like you’re putting yourself out there, not only in a financial sense but also in an emotional, vulnerable, sense to make an appointment,” Mr Mahalo said.

"If someone was facilitating that, that would be great."

Anyone needing support can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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