Workforce Participation by People with a Mental Illness

Written on the 10 October 2012

Today is World Mental Health Day, so I am particularly pleased to be able to rise and speak on the Family and Community Development Committee report on its inquiry into workforce participation by people with a mental illness.


Mental illness affects people within our communities in various forms. It does not discriminate on socioeconomic grounds, and some indicators say that one in five Australians will experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime. In recent weeks television programs have highlighted the devastating nature of severe mental illness and the impact it has on close-knit communities.


Mental illness can be mild or severe, chronic or episodic in nature and present at any age, and for many people who suffer from mental illness the desire to participate in the community, in school and in the workforce is as important as it is to those who do not suffer from mental illness.


The committee heard from people who had experienced firsthand the barriers that prevented them from obtaining employment, and those barriers were identified as including stigma and discrimination, an inability or unwillingness to provide for a flexible workplace and issues surrounding access to mental health and employment services. The effect of some medications may also have a direct impact on an individual's ability to function, which was also identified as a major barrier.


The very nature of mental illness being episodic in some circumstances also creates barriers for those individuals who suffer from mental illness and who are trying to obtain employment or remain in the workforce. Unlike a physical disability, mental illness can often be invisible, therefore going unnoticed by many either in the workplace or in the wider community.


It was evident to the committee that people who suffer from mental illness often face greater barriers to employment opportunities and workforce participation. This was reinforced by a report from the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations which contained data stating that people with mental illness are up to 40 per cent less likely than people with no mental illness to participate in the workforce.


When those barriers identified can be overcome, the benefits of participation are widespread. The personal benefits include social inclusion, which gives an individual a sense of purpose and with that increased confidence. The social benefits enable those with skills, knowledge and experience either from their work or from life's experience to pass those things on to others. The financial and economic benefits extend to both the individual and the government.


An individual who is in employment and is self-sufficient is generally less reliant on government assistance, particularly in the areas of health and welfare services.


In conducting this inquiry the committee received 44 written submissions and held 32 public hearings in Melbourne and both Geelong and Bendigo in regional Victoria. The committee heard from a range of organisations, employers, agencies and, importantly, individuals. I would like to thank all the witnesses who came before the committee and gave evidence, especially those individuals who had suffered or were suffering from mental illness and who were prepared to share their stories and experiences when, at times, it was difficult for them to do so. Hearing the experiences of those individuals enabled committee members to understand the complexity of the issues surrounding mental illness and the importance of participation in the workforce for people suffering from mental illness.


The benefits that early identification in education settings and encouragement to remain in education brings to younger people who suffer from mental illness were also highlighted. It was identified that mental health services provide critical support to people in attaining both their employment and educational goals. In determining how greater participation in the workforce by people with mental illness can be achieved, the committee recommended that a mental health employment strategy be developed and overseen by the Minister for Mental Health. In doing so the minister would be working closely with both state and federal government departments to ensure a decrease in duplication of responsibilities such as in the area of funding and provide greater clarification of the roles of respective government departments in relation to administering mental health services and programs.


Another very important and relevant requirement identified by the committee is to change perceptions of mental illness within the workplace.


Supportive workplaces and early intervention, together with a changed perceptions, were highlighted as being beneficial to people who suffer from mental illness if they are to remain engaged and continue to participate in the workforce. The personal, social and economic benefits I spoke about earlier may then be achieved. I believe the issues highlighted throughout this inquiry are important for our community and governments at all levels can provide support which will assist those with mental illness to have improved workforce participation.


Finally, I express my thanks and gratitude to the members of the committee: my parliamentary colleague Andrea Coote; and from the Assembly the member for Broadmeadows, Frank McGuire; the member for Carrum, Donna Bauer; the member for Thomastown, Bronwyn Halfpenny; and the member for Ferntree Gully, Nick Wakeling. as I also thank members of the secretariat, Dr Janine Bush, Dr Michael McGann, Stephanie Dodds and Natalie Tyler, for their contributions throughout this important inquiry which ensured that this report could be tabled today.

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