Shopping centre tragedy sparks mental health funds rise

Jack Gramenz |

New mental health funding includes an extra $18m for an inquiry into the Bondi Junction massacre.
New mental health funding includes an extra $18m for an inquiry into the Bondi Junction massacre.

Stretched mental health services in NSW will get a huge funding boost in the wake of a mass stabbing attack at a Sydney shopping centre.

The $111 million, to be announced in the state budget, comes after a man who’d been living rough rampaged through a Sydney shopping centre and killed six people.

Community mental health teams will get more staff, allowing for better case management and extended hours to provide outreach, including in regional areas, the NSW government announced on Tuesday.

The additional staff will include clinicians to complement the existing work of social workers in outreach teams, Mental Health Minister Rose Jackson said.

“They’re doing wonderful jobs as caseworkers, but they’re not mental health clinicians,” Ms Jackson said.

St Vincent’s Hospital’s homeless health service provides care including substance abuse and chronic disease management, nurse unit manager Erin Longbottom said.

“But I would say the demand on our service for mental health care is the highest,” she said.

The service has been bringing services to people where they are: sleeping rough on the streets of Sydney.

“That’s what’s needed, and that’s what’s worked, and that’s where the investment needs to be, in making sure that people do not fall through the cracks,” Ms Longbottom said.

NSW Greens MP Amanda Cohn said funding for more staff was one thing, but finding them was another.

“Those services have sweeping vacancies across NSW, those positions can’t be filled because the pay and conditions for health workers aren’t acceptable,” she said.

Dr Cohn chaired a parliamentary inquiry that found significant barriers to accessing care in a fragmented and inadequately funded mental health system in its report, also released on Tuesday.

It recommended whole-of-government reform to address social contributors to mental illness.

Health Minister Ryan Park told state parliament the government was developing a comprehensive plan across multiple portfolios.

Premier Chris Minns said the funding, announced ahead of the budget to be delivered later in June, was an important step in providing increased care, 

“Our profound hope is that it does make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.

NSW Premier Chris Minns speaks to the media (file)
Chris Minns says mental health services are a vital lifeline. (Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS)

The severity of the cracks in NSW mental health services became clearer in April after the stabbing at Westfield’s Bondi Junction, where the attack Joel Cauchi – a 40-year-old man with a history of mental illness – was shot dead by a police officer.

“The recent tragic events, terrible events across Sydney, really do highlight … that this is essential funding,” Mr Minns said.

The premier said the scale of the problem was large and the government response could not capture all circumstances or eventualities.

People with persistent mental illness and complex needs will have support from 25 additional staff providing alternatives to long-term hospital care under a program worth $40 million over four years.

Mental Health Coordinating Council chief executive Evelyne Tadros said providers had asked for as much as $40 million a year and the announced funding fell significantly short.

The head of the peak body for community-managed organisations called for more funds across the entire system, with priority investment in community-based services.

Liaisons will be enlisted to conduct outreach for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness to connect them with services and accommodation.

Mental health theme portrait (file)
Mental health brought 124,467 people to NSW emergency departments last year. (AP PHOTO)

The inquiry found emergency departments are not an appropriate setting to provide care and can exacerbate distress.

Some $39 million will be spent over four years for a helpline to keep people out of emergency departments, giving them access to assessment advice from specialist clinicians and connections to relevant services. 

There were 124,467 mental health-related visits to NSW emergency departments in 2023, but about a quarter could have received support through other primary care settings, the government said.

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