Mental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021 | Bill

Ms VAGHELA (Western Metropolitan):

I rise to speak on the Mental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021 regarding including counsellors in the definition of ‘mental health practitioner’. I stand here today as a proud member of the Andrews Labor government. I thank our Minister for Mental Health for the great work he has done in supporting the mental health of Victorians through this difficult time. Our record in supporting mental health is unprecedented. We are delivering the biggest social reform in Victoria’s history. We are investing in the mental health system that Victoria deserves. We all know someone who has faced a struggle with their mental health. It is not as uncommon as some people think. We recognise that the coronavirus pandemic has inflated mental health concerns across the state and the country. Unfortunately still some people do not take mental health issues seriously. This is why we started to work on Victoria’s new mental health system. We are building this mental health system from the ground up. We committed to delivering on every single recommendation of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, and we are delivering on that commitment. We are investing billions of dollars in the system to give it the boost it needs. These reforms will deliver more community-based services. They will help those who need it the most.

Mental health is a very complex issue, and it has to be dealt with in a delicate manner. We have to ensure that every Victorian gets the care they need. I believe young Victorians have faced significant challenges during this pandemic. The years young Victorians would have spent making friends and learning about the world were put on pause. Hence our investment is also making sure that we support young Victorians.

It is important to support young Victorians in schools as well. The Honourable James Merlino announced the time lines for the 2021 rollout for Victorian government secondary schools across the state that will receive extra support under the mental health practitioners initiative. This initiative will make it easier for young people who are experiencing mental health challenges to get access to the support they need at their school. If students are supported properly, they can focus better on their studies and focus on forming friendships and building their critical thinking. Mental health practitioners offer counselling and early intervention services and coordinate support for students with complex needs, linking them with broader allied and community health services.

I am happy to see that the Liberals support what we are doing to reform mental health supports for students in schools across Victoria. However, I am a bit disappointed that they took so long to realise how important this support is. But nevertheless it is welcomed. I think we in the government will be beyond ecstatic if and when the opposition commits to implementing every single recommendation from the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. In 2018 we pledged to implement every single recommendation, and we have been hard at work doing exactly that. We have invested a significant amount in student mental health. Every Victorian government secondary and specialist school will have funding to employ a mental health practitioner by the end of the year. All Victorian government school students have been able to access mental health and wellbeing support during the pandemic.

We are also making sure that the practitioners have the highest possible qualification and registration requirements so students can feel supported in the best way possible. These practitioners must be registered with either the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency—AHPRA—or the Australian Association of Social Workers. This is the norm for the industry and ensures high-quality practitioners that follow industry standards. The state already provides counselling through student support services and dedicated access for government secondary students to Headspace counselling.

This is the kind of commitment Victorians deserve, but this proposed change to the Mental Health Act 2014 by the opposition will not place one single counsellor in any Victorian school anywhere in the state. The Mental Health Act does not and never has governed who can or cannot provide mental health assistance to students in school settings. The purpose of the existing Mental Health Act and the definitions within it pertaining to mental health practitioners are to govern and regulate the use of compulsory mental health treatment orders in hospitals. It is literally a regulatory framework designed to protect vulnerable people experiencing acute mental illness and to provide guidance and instruction from qualified practitioners in the making of assessment and treatment orders.

The functions of mental health practitioners can significantly impact on the rights of individuals. That is the very reason why mental health practitioners must work at designated mental health services. Designated mental health services are our tertiary specialist mental health services—our hospitals—not our local schools. Australia has no law that requires a person who provides a counselling service to have either qualifications or experience. Any person with no training or skills can call themselves a counsellor. Any person can work as a counsellor, and they are not subject to regulation by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency—APHRA—or any similar body. Further, ‘counsellor’ is not a protected term under the national health practitioner registration scheme.

Unlike the opposition, we expect a little more rigour from people making decisions which impact on human rights. I understand that trained and qualified counsellors are objective professionals who offer talk-based therapy, and they have a very important role to play in supporting mental health at a community level. However, mental health practitioners as defined in the act perform a specialised role within a designated mental health service. These are not roles for providing counselling in schools. We have to make sure that students are supported with the highest quality of care. School is part of the formative years of a person, therefore we must put care into how we go about providing support.

On top of all this work I have spoken about, in the 2021–22 Victorian state budget we included $200 million over four years and $86.9 million ongoing for a new School Mental Health Fund. This fund responds to the royal commission’s recommendation 17. The 2021–22 state budget invests a record $3.8 billion to create a new mental health and wellbeing system based directly on the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

The government continues to closely monitor the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of Victorians. The last 18 months have been immensely tough on the community, and we are aware of that. Therefore, seeing there is a need for support, we are ensuring that Victorians get the care they need during and well beyond the pandemic. For this, more than $247 million in additional funding has been provided to support our mental health services through a list of programs. As outlined in my contribution, the Liberals do not understand the importance of the right care when it comes to mental health. I do not support this bill.

The PRESIDENT: Members, the next speaker will be participating remotely. I would like to thank the Clerk and the staff who were involved with this, and I would like to thank the member as well. I call Ms Terpstra.