In the context of growing media pressure to address Australia's poor record on mental health, the Federal Government announced yesterday that people with psychosocial disability would have improved access and support from the NDIS. Minister for Families and Social Services Paul Fletcher and Assistant Minister for Disability Services Sarah Henderson joined together on World Mental Health Day to announce the new "psychosocial disability stream" of the NDIS. With the cameras rolling and an election around the corner, it is clear the government wanted to appear to be taking action on an issue that is of growing concern to Australians. There's only one problem: they have not actually announced anything new.
A psychosocial disability stream for the NDIS was actually promised in February this year, in the NDIS Pathways Review. The features of the new pathway announced yesterday do not actually sound that different from what was described in that Review. They are:
The employment of specialised planners and LACs with an understanding of psychosocial disability.
Better linkages between the mental health services and NDIS. But since they are supposed to be linked and working together anyway, this is kind of just announcing to the world that you are going to do your job better.
A focus on recovery-based planning and episodic needs. This sounds good, but absolutely no details were provided about what it would look like.
Moreover, the announcement still referred to the 64,000 people with psychosocial disability who would be eligible for the NDIS. This figure has been used since the beginning of the Scheme. Yet it is only a tiny fraction of the estimated 700,000 Australians who experience severe mental health episodes each year. Many of the 636,000 people excluded from the Scheme will have been relying on State-based services that are closing due to the NDIS transition. There are still no announcements about what services will be available to support them.
The psychosocial disability pathway was listed in the Review along with a new general pathway and 6 specialised pathways. The other specialised pathways were for children under 6, people with complex needs, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people living in remote or very remote communities and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. There are rumours floating about that these other specialised pathways are being dropped. Hopefully, this is incorrect, as these are all cohorts that are vulnerable to market failure. If the NDIA wants to end the cycle of bad news stories circulating in the press, then they need to forget about abandoning these pathways and focus on the people most likely to have bad outcomes from the Scheme.
I like to imagine that yesterday’s announcement was a mistake. The Ministers, panicked under the pressure of adjusting to their new portfolios, accidentally grabbed February's cue cards before fronting the press. On somebody's desk right now, there is a long, forgotten speech that details that government's plan to address Australia's failing mental health services using the NDIS and other government programs. When they realise their mistake they will probably be a little embarrassed, but the rest of us will be relieved. Because Australia can no longer afford to ignore mental health or people with psychosocial disability. The price of inaction is not one that Australians are willing to pay.