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Treating mental illness - how healthcare workers can really make a difference

Photo: Treating mental illness - how healthcare workers can really make a difference
The enduring stigma associated with mental illness, along with the depth of competence required to effectively help those who need it, has resulted in a shortage of much-needed mental health workers.

“The mental health workforce is lacking in many areas, not necessarily delineated by discipline,” says John Hurley, course coordinator of the Masters of Mental Health and Masters of Mental Health Nursing at Southern Cross University.
“Very broadly, mental health nurses often lack postgraduate education and psychologists lack competence around medications and serious mental illness, as do other disciplines.

“All lack a full understanding of how early life psychological trauma is manifested in later life and hence - on an individual basis - may fail to communicate compassion and/or empathy.”

With rising awareness of mental illness and the associated consequences of leaving it untreated, a shortfall in qualified mental health workers could have far-reaching repercussions both individually and societally.

“A strong mental health workforce will prevent, minimise - or if that fails, manage - the crippling impact of mental illness on the individual, and those within their social network,” says Mr Hurley.

“Mental illness suffocates the person and removes them from the mainstream of life and societal participation.

“On less humane considerations, mental illness may create a financial burden, minimises work participation and hence taxation collection and overall productivity.”

Mr Hurley said it’s crucial that people with mental health issues are able to connect with professionals in the field.

“But equally it is important that they can connect with people who have nonjudgmental empathy towards them.”

Mr Hurley says along with the stigma, mental health work has the generally undeserved reputation of being dangerous, which may prevent some people from working in this area.

Furthermore, there’s a lack of understanding as to what roles are available and what these roles encompass.

“Those working in the mental health workforce will include both professional and non-professional groups,” he says.

“The latter are highly valued and often have a lived experience of mental health challenges and are recovering.

“The former will typically be mental health nurses, psychologists, clinical psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, counsellors, youth workers, and psychiatrists.

“Each of these disciplines will undertake roles around their capabilities and/or scope of practice, which may, or may not be congruent with each other.”

Mental Health workers are required across the spectrum of public, preventative, primary and secondary services, along with non-government and government sectors.

More recently the education sector in primary, secondary and HEI levels are also looking at building mental health competence in their workforce.

As a result, the industry has become incredibly diverse in terms of the possible roles and positions available, though much of the public lacks a true understanding of what each role may entail.

“Typically, mental health nurses and psychiatrists are associated with medications and in-patient care at the serious end of mental illness,” says Mr Hurley.

“Psychologists are associated with providing cognitive behaviour therapies in mild to moderate mental health cases within private practice, and social workers, occupational therapists and the like are associated with the social function and integration of the consumer into wider society.

“These associations are flawed and resplendent, with exceptions to all of those pigeon-holed identities.”

Mr Hurley says, on a wider scale, the mental health shortage could begin to be overcome by addressing these cultural discriminations through socially constructing the story of recovery and strengths-based views of mental illness.

“The policy direction is to recruit generalist nurses to mental health, to recruit those with lived experience and to make the primary health workforce, such as general practitioners and practice nurses, more mental health literate.”

Southern Cross University’s Masters of Mental Health and Masters of Mental Health Nursing aim to increase the capabilities of the mental health workforce so that consumers have improved experiences of care and practice and lead more fulfilling lives as a result.

“The essence of these courses is to focus on the personal/professional fusion of the learner,” says Mr Hurley.  

“This is in conjunction with growing skills in assessment, psychotherapies, physical health care, applied evidence- based practice, behavioural psychology, developmental psychology and emotional intelligence.”

Anyone with a health or social care related bachelor degree will be eligible to complete the courses, which will greatly improve workplace opportunities for both mental and generalist health workers.

“The psychologist who is not able to access clinical psychology will be greatly enabled to work in non-government organisations or even health service sector,” says Mr Hurley. 

“The generalist occupational therapist, social worker or nurse will be enabled to be identified as a mental health specialist, the mental health nurse will be able to be credentialed by the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses.

“All will make a difference to the lives of those who are most marginalised in our society.”

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