Mathew Mackie

$247 million for chaplains in schools, $2.8 for mental health: What’s wrong with this picture?

On Tuesday, Scott Morrison will announce yet more funding for mental health programs in schools. However, if Morrison considers this his “key focus”, he’s completely misread the issue.

 

 

On Tuesday, the Morrison government is set to announce funding to expand a mental health plan in schools around the nation. Per Fairfax, “The $2.8 million will go to a not-for-profit group, batyr, to offer more online services and support a program of school visits promoting youth mental health and suicide prevention. The group is named after a talking elephant.”

This push is apparently part of the $500 million plan to combat the issue of mental health, with the Liberal Party website stating that “…our $503.1 million Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan is the largest suicide prevention plan in Australia’s history and focuses on expanding the headspace network, Indigenous suicide prevention and early childhood and parenting.”

I realise that $2.8 million to one NFP is barely worth a mention in the face of larger examples of funding, but considering that Morrison called the issues of mental health in the nation’s children a “key focus”, when you place this side-by-side with another scholastic-based policy, the numbers don’t add up.

In 2018, the Coalition rolled out the $247 million plan to place chaplains in public schools, a plan that Scott Morrison not only supported, but wanted to see “significantly expanded”. The plan was uniformly panned by the Australian Human Rights Commission (in a report), Labor senator Louise Pratt, who said that “….there’s an urgent need for youth workers with professional qualifications in our schools and that would be a much better priority for the government,” a sentiment echoed by the President of the Australian Education Union, who said: “We do not support the chaplains program. “Our schools need these funds to invest in programs such as school counsellors and student wellbeing programs in schools. We prefer to see that money invested in our schools more broadly.”

 

 

The mental health landscape in this country is in trouble. Accessibility and cost remain the salient issue. On a school level, help is reserved for those who can afford it, as the current embedded in-school counsellors are often the first step of mental health professionals beyond university. Ergo, they’re inexperienced and unable to offer ongoing care beyond textbook generalisations. An employed member of that system likened it to “a MASH unit, we patch them up, and try to keep them going…many parents cannot afford the minimum $150 per session the average youth therapist asks for…unpacking the puzzle of mental health is solely available for the rich. The poor just have to endure. The cause and effect of the current system had lead to this epidemic.”

Grattan Institute health program director Stephen Duckett warned that the government were not delivering on promises, leading to “yet another fail…the latest Panglossian national status report on mental health gives no hint of the underlying problems of poor access, misdirected funding, lack of teamwork, and appalling rates of suicide in Indigenous communities.”

As it stands, one in four Australians between the age of 16-24 experience mental health issues. However, merely combatting suicidal ideation, or those in crisis, ignores the scope of the issue. Clearly, the mentally unwell don’t arrive at suicide soon after diagnosis. Often, it is a choice made when help is not forthcoming, readily available, or seems to be working. A lack of education around the steps that lead to that dark place is systemic of the issue.

It speaks to what Morrison believes is the solution to the issue, rub some Jesus on it; ignore an objective crisis on a national scale for the incompatible subjectivities of religion. Moreover, continued census data points to the fact that our youth are ditching religion at a growing rate. I daresay that the word of some bloke from thousands of years ago matters little to the modern issues our children are subject to. This is especially the case if the openly religious don’t agree with who you are. What the school system needs is competent, experienced youth psychologists within an accessible system. The auspices of religion hiding under the guise of empathy will not do. Nor will a face-saving measure by someone advancing his own personal gospel. Throwing money at a talking elephant, a pseudo-Happy Harold, is a huge misread of the problem.

 

 

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