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Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

Launch of the Mental Health Council of Australia report Home Truths – Mental Health, Housing and Homelessness in Australia

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

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I would like to thank the Mental Health Council of Australia for the opportunity to speak at this launch of Home Truths, a very welcome report on mental health and homelessness in Australia.

I know that my colleague, Tanya Plibersek, will be speaking more specifically on the housing implications of this report shortly when she launches this report.

Housing is, of course, the crux of the report, but there is also another pervasive theme running through this report – the social exclusion narrative – that I would like to talk about briefly this morning.

Social exclusion is a deeply complex phenomenon. It is the combined outcome of disengagement at many levels – social, cultural, economic and political – that has in turn resulted from compounding individual disadvantages.

People become socially excluded when their problems multiply and then spread to affect the lives of others in their family and social circle.

The stories in this report make this achingly clear.

There is the person who was not able to complete their HSC due to long-term hospitalisation and who is now out of work and homeless, and the woman who feels that housing providers became less willing to help her when told of her drug addiction.

In scenarios such as these, simple policy approaches will not bring lasting change or recovery. The multilayered reality of disadvantage requires a multifaceted approach.

It is this understanding of disadvantage and a passion to address it that underpin the government’s Social Inclusion agenda.

This agenda is about ensuring that all Australians have the opportunity to be fully engaged in our community, whether that be through participation in work, education, volunteering or other social and cultural activities.

Addressing homelessness and disadvantage among people with mental illness is a very important part of our agenda.

This is because people with mental illness who are homeless often suffer the greatest exclusion of all. They can be frozen out of making choices about their lives. They also struggle to secure work and participate in their community, and generally have greater difficulty accessing services.

And, as the stories in the report show, for young people with mental illness, homelessness makes it even harder to complete education, increasing the risk of social exclusion in adulthood.

This report provides yet more evidence that tackling homelessness and disadvantage is not a straight forward, simple task.

The reasons for homelessness among people with a mental illness are diverse and often compounding.

This multiplicity of problems defies an approach based on single isolated interventions.

This is why our social inclusion approach to tackling disadvantage focuses on the person in need, rather than the service that is provided.

Our objective is a “person-centred” approach, where organisations and government departments coordinate to “wrap” their services around individuals, sharing information, designing integrated care plans and taking into account their personal circumstances and needs.

I know that I am at some risk of “preaching to the choir” given the work your organisations do and the coordinated, person-centred solutions the report recommends. However, I wanted to assure you that the government recognises the points you raise about the need for community-based, consumer-focused programs and we are driving reform across the public sector in how we develop and deliver policies to target those most in need.

An important component of this new approach is the focus on partnerships across all levels of government and with the non profit sector.

We have been working with the states and territories through COAG on developing an integrated national approach to mental health service delivery that reorients mental health policy towards prevention and early intervention, and is well integrated with other primary care and specialist services.

We have also been consulting widely in developing our National Mental Health and Disability Employment Strategy, which aims to reduce barriers to education and employment. We know that participation in the community is crucial to positive mental health outcomes, and employment is one very important way to keep people engaged in their communities.

We also know that holistic approaches, person-centred approaches are only possible through strong partnerships, especially with organisations such as yours which are the first point of contact for people in difficulties.

Your perspectives are invaluable in providing government with the view on the ground and in acting as advocates for those who may have difficulty having their voice heard.

The social inclusion agenda seeks evidence based approaches. We want to find solutions that work and that’s why we welcome the Home Truths report.

The report will make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of the connection between mental illness and homelessness, and will help to inform our policies not only on housing but also as we implement our social inclusion agenda.

Once again I congratulate the Mental Health Council of Australia on compiling this important report.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.