Opinion: Attack underlines need for change to mental health approach - South West Coast MP Roma Britnell says


Time for change: South West Coast MP Roma Britnell says the Flinders Street car attack underlines the need for a different approach to mental health. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Time for change: South West Coast MP Roma Britnell says the Flinders Street car attack underlines the need for a different approach to mental health. Picture: Rob Gunstone

AFTER the events of Flinders Street and Bourke Street it’s time to ask is our mental health system failing – failing those who need help, failing those who want to provide help and failing the wider community?

We need a greater focus on mental health and early intervention so we can actually help those who are struggling, who clearly need assistance and before they reach a crisis point.  

As a person with a long history working in health - I know we can do more. As a mum I think of the mothers who begged me to do more, but for whom I could do nothing.

We need to ask if we have got the balance wrong between a client’s right to freedom and the ability for professionals to step in and care. Do we intervene early enough to stop people reaching a crisis point? 

Are our hard working and dedicated mental health professionals overburdened because the sector is chronically underfunded and full of red tape and bureaucracy?

Do we look at this issue as a whole picture, with drug and alcohol, mental health, primary health, welfare agencies and law and order working together? Or are our departments siloed and aiming for the same goal but moving in different directions without knowing it?  Are people slipping through the gaps because they don’t fit one organisation’s boxes?

How many incidents like Bourke Street or Flinders Street have to occur before we start to ask these questions and take action? 

We are seeing an increase in instances of mental health and of drug use, but often mental health situations cannot be managed to get the best outcome for individuals. 

Is this because we place so much emphasis on the rights of the affected individual, rather than being brave enough to allow the mental health professionals and care givers to exercise their responsibilities? 

I have seen many situations where the signs are there but the necessary support for health professionals to do more is not. 

In my role as a registered nurse I came across situations of mothers with adult children, begging me to assist them to take control of their adult children, to be able to keep them out of harm’s way, give them a place to get them clean. But intervention like they wanted wasn’t something I was empowered to do. Sometimes those adult children died. Drug affected and alone. 

Mental illness was often a factor and even then I asked myself the question are we getting this right? 

Have we have lost the understanding of the importance of setting boundaries? Have we lost the art of tough love? It’s time to have a look at the supports available for the vulnerable - but while also ensuring consequences for those who do the wrong thing. 

We need to stop allowing people to flounder - those who don’t have the capacity to function in the community in a way favourable to their own health and safety and to the health and safety of the community. 

Just a few weeks ago while in Melbourne for Parliament I saw a woman have an episode in the middle of a busy street. 

She was ignored. People bustled on past the embarrassing scene trying to pretend it wasn’t happening, ignoring the situation. 

It was wrong, she needed help.  

It brought back those questions I had asked myself while working in community health - did we do enough to stop her reaching that point? Or was she left to struggle because the system failed her? Were our health professionals empowered enough to step in and help or was the burden of red tape and paper work too much?

When incidents like Bourke Street and Flinders Street happen I think it’s time for us to be brave and say this isn’t working and perhaps we need to be braver at stepping in and caring. Especially when an individual’s or the community’s health and safety is compromised.

  • Roma Britnell is Member for South West Coast. Before being elected, she worked as a registered nurse and spent 15 years in Aboriginal community health.