This year’s pre-election federal budget came with an impressive-sounding $737 million allocated to mental health. As usual however, the fine-print tells a different story.

On budget night, one of the oldest tricks in the book is to space out funding across several years. In this case, the $737 million is spans a seven-year period, which meas that the funding actually amounts to just over $105 million in real terms per year. It’s a bit better than last year, where the yearly figure came to just over $55 million. The main problem is that for decades, both of the big parties have neglected mental health funding to the point where we now have a $5 billion annual shortfall. So the concern is not just that we continue to under-fund mental health care, but that we may actually be slipping further behind. Here are some facts and figures to help you make sense of the problem:

First, we know that mental health problems result in at least 12% of all years of life lost, by comparison to other big health problems. It’s the third biggest health issue after cancer (19%) and cardiovascular disease (18%). Yet despite knowing this, Australia allocates just 8% of the health budget to mental health. In a health budget of well over $116 billion, that’s a funding shortfall of around $5 billion per annum. Just imagine what we could do to address mental health problems in our society, if we brought that investment up to scale? Failing to allocate anywhere near enough resources in this space, is a bit like giving a firefighter a bucket of water and expecting them to put out a bushfire.

Now governments will always announce mental health funding with phrases like “a record investment” and they will point out that the total amount we allocate is “substantial”. While those statements are technically correct, they mask the fact that the average yearly increase to total funding allocated to mental health sits at just over 1%. Unfortunately, the increase to funding this year was really no different, again sitting at just over 1% up from the total figure last year. Given that we have a yearly rate of population growth at around 1.6% and annual GDP growth at around 2.8%, Australia is simply not keeping up with growth let alone closing that $5 billion gap. As the cost of providing mental health services increases, that lack of investment by our government means that the public either pays more or goes without.

The Australian Mental Health Party will hold the big parties to account. Given the ongoing pattern of neglect, it’s up to us to set a realistic goal to fix this problem. The key question for the big parties is how long you expect the Australian people to wait? We’ve set a sensible target of 25 years – long enough for the babies being born right now to become adults. In simple terms, Australia will need to allocate at least $200 million in new funding each year for 25 years to close the funding shortfall. Of course, as the federal health budget increases each year, we will need to adjust the allocation to stay on target. For the time being, we have a realistic target to aim for.

Now there’s a lot more we could have said about the federal budget. We hope you can see why we’ve brought this basic resourcing issue into the spotlight. In our view, politicians need to move beyond sentimental platitudes and virtue signalling about mental health, and get real about the sheer magnitude of this issue. Please leave your comments below.

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