This week is Social Sciences Week, and I will have the privilege of speaking directly with members of the Tasmanian Parliament about mental health in our communities and the potential for digital technologies to shape a more inclusive future for Tasmanians.
My perspective on mental health is shaped by my background in social work, a profession that is focused on the social impacts of mental illness, and on the transformative change needed to restore, protect and promote the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities. Social work is formed from the humble stuff of lived experience. It is grounded in the immediacy of human need and a deep appreciation of the painful aspects of daily living. It is from this colourful, passionate, emotion-filled heart of practice that I write.
Mental ill-health affects all of us either directly or indirectly. We all know someone who has or will have a mental illness, or we might experience mental ill health ourselves. That is a statistical fact as almost half of all Australian adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetime.
A recent report by Primary Health Tasmania shows that 14% of Tasmanian adults experience high or very high levels of psychological distress. Even more concerning is the disparity evident within specific communities. In 2019, about 25% of Tasmanian Aboriginal adults reported distress levels significantly higher than the broader population. Younger Tasmanians are also witnessing a surge in distress levels, with a staggering one-third of those aged 18–24 years reporting elevated levels.
But these figures hide real people.
As a social worker, I have witnessed the devastating impacts of mental illness, not as statistics, but as raw, unfiltered human experience. As a researcher, I have heard the stories of hurt, despair and grief, hope and courage that accompany mental illness.
And as a family member and friend, I have walked alongside loved ones as they navigate mental health challenges and the disruptions in education and employment, relationship breakdown, stigma and loss of opportunities that often come with this.
It is their experiences, their stories, that drive my research and my commitment to ensuring that every person who needs support for their mental health can access that support whenever and however they need it.
The stark reality is that many people do not receive adequate mental health treatment and support. There simply are not enough mental health providers available to meet the needs of the one in five Australians who experience a mental illness in any one year. The COVID pandemic has placed further strain on our mental health services. Even as we are trying to return to "normal," we are witnessing heightened mental health issues in our communities, burnout among our health workforce, and other challenges like increases in the cost of living and natural disasters, all of which we know exacerbate mental health problems.
This is an extraordinary situation, and it will not be addressed by doing more of the same. We need to come up with new models of care that can support people from the moment they identify that they need help.
Digital health holds immense potential for extending mental health service capacity across Tasmania. During the peak of the pandemic, we witnessed the critical role that technology can play in offering immediate services in times of need. In Tasmania, many people benefited from making and attending mental health appointments online. The introduction of Lifeline Tasmania’s 1800 number and the Mental Health Council of Tasmania’s #Checkin website, in particular, provided alternative access points for people seeking help for situational distress.
It is encouraging to see that the Tasmanian Government has expressed a strong commitment to ensuring Tasmania becomes a leader in digital health. The Digital Health Transformation Strategy, supported by an anticipated investment of $476 million over the next ten years, underscores this commitment.
The journey to revolutionising mental health care has begun, but we still have a long way to go. Many people, and especially marginalised communities, continue to face barriers to accessing digital care. To remove these barriers, we must uphold a steadfast moral commitment to equity, ensuring that those who are most in need of mental health treatment and support are not left behind.
From a social work point of view, ensuring that no-one is left behind requires a fundamental commitment to understanding human experience, not from a distance, but through an intimate connection with people’s lives, especially the lives of those who are so often pushed to the periphery.
The language of social work is the language of care and caring. We must all have the courage to speak and honour that language, not just among ourselves but to the larger world.
In a society that tends to devalue caring and care-oriented work, this will require a confidence and clarity that will put us to the test. But what better test than to freely acknowledge the colourful, passionate, emotion-filled heartlines of our collective humanity. It is these very heartlines that hold the promise of a more inclusive future for all Tasmanians.
Professor Milena Heinsch is Head of Social Work at the University of Tasmania. This article first appeared in The Mercury.