Radio current affairs: Poor mental health services perpetuate poverty


Whether people become homeless because of a mental illness, or they develop a mental illness while on the streets, the link between mental health and homelessness is clear. A new housing-first campaign recently surveyed the homeless in Brisbane in order to tailor individualised services, and as PHILLIP WELLS reports, housing projects are increasingly left to fill in the gaps where stretched mental health services have failed.

On a Thursday morning in late April, BIG ISSUE vendors met at the magazine’s Brisbane headquarters to trade in the old issue for the new.

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Over fresh coffee and toast, friends and acquaintances caught up to share their struggles.

Mental health was never far from the conversation.

62 year old TED JONES has been sleeping on the streets or in boarding houses for nearly two decades, and knows all too well the impacts of mental illness on the homeless community. Indeed, a close friend had recently committed suicide.

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“I think it’s a big issue because I just lost my friend three weeks ago. He died, and I didn’t have a chance to say farewell and mental health is really a struggle. I go to a psychiatrist myself every three months or something like that. I just told them about the death of my mate and I said ‘I don’t want any drug medication’, but I just go there to keep sane.”

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While awareness of mental health issues has grown immensely over the past decade, the most vulnerable continue to find it difficult to gain access to treatment, and evidence is building of the connection between mental illness, socio-economic disadvantage and homelessness.

There are certainly varied and complex reasons why people become homeless or lose their job, but there’s no doubt that those who are mentally ill are far more likely to end up in such a situation, and in turn those who end up in such a situation are far more likely to develop a mental illness. Left unchecked, a cycle of disadvantage is created.

Yet tangible data on the subject remains scarce, and it’s difficult to judge the true scale of the problem when many refuse to report. In 2012, HOMELESSNESS AUSTRALIA suggested the prevalence of mental illnesses in the homeless population could be as high as eighty five per cent.

DR CAMERON PARSEL from the INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL SCIENCES RESEARCH believes greater support for those with mental illnesses is required.

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“We need to seriously take into account what people’s mental health is and how their mental health may act as a barrier for them to access housing, and also how it may undermine their capacity to sustain housing, so we need to intervene to address mental health related issues.”

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The fragmentation of services between government and non-government organisations, where no centralised information about clients shared, is of particular concern to DR DAN SISKIND from the QUEENSLAND CENTRE FOR MENTAL HEALTH RESEARCH.

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“Fragmentation of services makes it very challenging for consumers who are already cognitively impaired, paranoid, having auditory hallucinations – I talk to them about this information all the time –  to navigate a system where you’ve got multiple doors of entry.”

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At four AM every morning in the last two weeks of March, bright-eyed volunteers hit the streets to survey the homeless of Brisbane. MICAH PROJECTS’ 500 LIVES 500 HOMES campaign, supported by the QUEENSLAND GOVERNMENT, aims to house five hundred of the most vulnerable, and in the process is collecting valuable data. Of seven hundred and twenty-five people surveyed, three hundred and fifty-seven reported mental health problems.

500 LIVES 500 HOMES is a housing first approach similar to programs in the US and Canada, and the surveys help to tailor individual paths out of homelessness, even for those who can’t be immediately housed. Project Worker, MARIA LEEBEEK, thinks this approach can engage the most vulnerable.

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“So it was saying ‘people didn’t need to sober up, people didn’t need to deal with all these issues, let’s house them first and then deal with whatever’s presenting for them later’, because without that stability it’s very hard to do the other things.”

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DR SISKIND is a big supporter of the campaign.

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“It’s a fairly radically different philosophy. The evidence for it in the US has been really successful”.

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But perhaps 500 LIVES 500 HOMES’ greatest coup is the close cooperation between partner organisations, as MS LEEBEEK explains.

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“We look particularly at people’s health, because mental health is a large issue for lots of homeless folk. That’s why we have the partnership group of, you know, the thirty plus organisations.”

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A program similar to 500 LIVES 500 HOMES is being implemented in Perth and it’s hoped it can be rolled out across the country. However, MR JONES, like many, is concerned over ongoing Federal government funding for homeless services.

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“The way the welfare budget’s coming out in May is not going to be good, the slashing and burning with Tony Abbott and Hockey and it’s going to be hard on everybody”.

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Early intervention remains an elusive dream for stretched and underfunded mental health services, but for those who slip between the cracks, a housing solution could indeed be the first step to curing a health problem – but alas, both solutions require more funding in an environment of austerity.

PHILLIP WELLS reporting.

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