The Federal Government has allocated $48 million in funding over the next five years to create Australia’s first ever e-Mental Health Strategy. The funding will go towards the development of a variety of virtual services, including telephone counselling, self-help services and web-based portals.
It is hoped that the use of these virtual services will not only offer improved public services for mental health prevention and early intervention, but also help ease the pressure on public health facilities.
“Continuing advances in technology are revolutionising the way we provide health care, in particular for patients with chronic illnesses and conditions, such as mental illness,” said the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, in a statement.
“The new virtual clinic has the potential to treat thousands of Australians living with mild to moderately severe depression and anxiety disorders which form the bulk of mental illness,” he said.
Mental health has been an area of government expenditure somewhat cut-off from electronic service delivery up until now.
In the 2010-11 Federal Budget, the youth mental health foundation Headspace received $78.8 million for a range of incentives that included the expansion of telephone and web-based services. Despite this, the scope of services addressing mental health online up until now has been very limited in contrast to the advances being made in other fields of medicine.
In its 2010-11 Budget, the Federal Government’s largest single ICT commitment was $466.7 million to establish a nation-wide Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR), to ensure a patient’s health records stay intact despite changing doctors or hospitals.
Telehealth trials are also underway across the country as part of Broadband Minister Stephen Conway’s National Digital Economy Strategy, designed to leverage the benefits of the National Broadband Network (NBN).
The e-Mental Health Strategy forms part of the Gillard Government’s $1.5 billion commitment to mental health over five years, announced in the 2011-12 Budget.
International attention was first drawn towards the benefits of e-mental health during the First International E-Mental Health Summit in Amsterdam back in 2009.
Professor Ricardo Muñoz, one of the speakers at the summit, called for smart international collaboration and the sharing of Web-based health interventions, encouraging governments to “think globally, act locally, and share globally.”
The Australian Government’s proposed e-Mental Health Strategy will also be one of the first of its kind in the world, with many other developed countries lacking any similar strategy on e-mental health.
An expert committee consisting of a mix of medical professionals, representatives from suicide prevention bodies and a social media expert will also be established to advice on e-mental health.
The creation of an e-mental health strategy was proposed to the Federal Government well prior to the Summit. In 2002, a report on e-mental health from the Department of Health and Aging was released, which recommended the development and implementation of a national e-mental health policy.
“There is a strong case for e-mental health to be established as an identified priority area given its importance in the delivery of mental health services,” said the report.
“The Internet will play a major role in the future delivery of programs aimed at increasing community awareness and in providing prevention, assessment, diagnosis, and counselling and treatment programs,” the report added.
The report also mentioned that the Federal Government at the time was “positioned to take a leading role in developing policy in e-mental health.”
The proposed e-Mental Health Strategy will work concurrently and in conjunction with other national ICT initiatives, including the National Broadband Network and the National E-Health Strategy, to improve the overall health quality and services for people with mental illnesses.