Mental health hospital near school should be welcomed

It feels to me that we’re right on the cusp of dramatically smashing mental illness stigma. Professional athletes are allowed to have anxiety now. Some people can call into work and say “mental health day” without getting fired. Mental illness is on the edge of being normalised, representative of everyday folk able to speak openly, get help, and ultimately live a happy and productive life.

And then things like Alphington Grammar happen. The non-government school in Melbourne’s inner north-east is in the news for fighting a proposal to convert a nearby former aged care home into a mental health hospital, arguing its students could be exposed to drug-affected or predatory patients.

Alphington Grammar argued the proposed facility presents risks to the school community.Credit:Simon Schluter

Almost 200 objections to the new facility – many from families of students at the school – tell us that mental health care is still a scary scenario.

Almost 40 per cent of young people in Australia (aged 16-24) had a 12-month mental disorder in 2020-21. That’s up from 26 per cent in 2007 and represents, on average, double the rate of mental illness compared to the rest of the adult population. The available data shows only 31 per cent of young women seek professional help, and only 13 per cent of young men.

Around 75 per cent of lifelong mental illnesses will present before the age of 14. The leading cause of death in Australia’s youth population is suicide. All that is to say, it’s statistically likely that more than 200 students at Alphington Grammar are experiencing a mental disorder, and like many young Australians, unlikely to be getting help.

The suggestion that patients at the proposed facility will pose a risk to school students is a concerning take on the situation. A person experiencing depression or anxiety is much more likely to be a risk to themselves than to others. And, most importantly, more of us than ever recognise someone with mental illness deserves the chance to be well.

Planning officers advise the Alphington facility would provide “much-needed support in an overburdened health system”. Victoria is – like the rest of the country – in the grips of a profound shortage of care. Nationwide, just over 7000 public hospital beds are available for mental health patients. The Victorian government is currently in the process of rolling out 260 additional acute public beds, representing an $801 million investment.

The Alphington proposal is for a “sub-acute facility”, creating 32 new beds for people at risk, and staffed 24 hours a day. The government describes this level of care as promoting “independence and quality of life for people with a mental illness at a crucial point of recovery or relapse”. That is, support that will help people manage their illness and re-enter society.

According to a statement from operators Healthe Care, it would not provide “high-acuity psychiatric services, forensic or criminal mental health services, or a mental health emergency service”.

Alphington Grammar’s principal, Dr Vivianne Nikou, seems to understand it differently. As she told ABC Radio Melbourne’s Ali Moore on Tuesday morning, “It’s all cleverly worded in that ‘primary conditions’ won’t be any of the more serious ones that would concern a school. Can it rule out sex offenders?”

“You’d be having patients who have acute needs just meandering through the school,” Nikou said this week, conjuring images of Victorian-era waifs wandering asylums (most of which are now bourgeoise apartments). And while mental health care still falls short in many ways, modern-day hospitals are a long way from lost souls in white nightgowns.

In objecting to this facility, school staff and parents reiterate outdated stereotypes of mental health patients. Not everyday people struggling to cope with the daily pressures of life, or victims wanting to reclaim their lives after trauma, or legends determined not to let their mental health stop them from being a person.

Visit the school’s website, and it will tell you the “primary focus is the success and happiness of your child”. The thing is, a significant factor in rejecting care is the stigma associated with it, especially for young men.

It’s only in the most recent fraction of human history that we haven’t been told mental illness makes you weird or dangerous, or both. Only recently has anyone stood up and said, hey, it’s OK that you feel bad, you still have value.

It’s important that schools work to promote the message that people with mental health illnesses deserve help, and should be able to receive it without shame.

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.

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