A sick system

Issue 

A sick system

"Disturbing", "scandalous", "disgusting": these are among the long list of adjectives used in Brian Burdekin's report on the human rights of people with mental illness to describe their plight. Yet words are inadequate to paint the full horror of the daily lives of hundreds of thousands suffering serious mental illness in Australia.

Physically and sexually abused; ignored and denied treatment; homeless and pushed from shelter to shelter; housed in the squalor of a boarding house, often with a police lock-up as the only alternative when a hospital bed is required — these are the findings of Burdekin's 1000-page report. It is a catalogue of systematic breaches of international human rights standards by Australian governments.

Predictably, the states, which have primary responsibility for providing health programs, ducked for cover, pledging to "help people falling through the cracks" — "gaping holes" is more accurate. These are the same governments that couldn't wait to "deinstitutionalise" mental health in order to sell off the prime real estate occupied by psychiatric hospitals and to save the hospital running costs.

Putting patients into the community was an advance, but not if it meant renouncing the responsibility to provide community care. As Burdekin noted: "We've kidded ourselves that governments have presented this policy as more humane, when in fact the results have been quite scandalous". The savings from this process have not been reinvested in mental health.

Most of the major dailies wept crocodile tears upon their front pages, but it's the same papers which insistently advocate government cutbacks on everything except law and order. The Financial Times didn't even cover the story at all: how could it compete with Boral on the verge of making $100 million profit for doing absolutely nothing? And despite Burdekin's recommendation that the federal government invest more money in mental health, community services minister Brian Howe knows better; he says money is "not the answer".

If it were not for the non-profit charity organisations, such as the Salvation Army, the situation would be a lot worse than it already is. What is truly scandalous is that government has abrogated its responsibility to society's most vulnerable people. It shouldn't be necessary for charities to house or care for the sick, less still slum landlords. The government should provide appropriate accommodation and care, and assist home-carers to look after their loved ones.

If there's not enough money, then tax the wealthiest 1000 companies, which Business Review Weekly listed as having increased their profits by 28%, on average, over the last 12 months. The Financial Review's attitude, glorifying profits and ignoring the sick, epitomises this sick system — capitalism.

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