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Mental Health's Broad Church Must Sing From The Same Hymn Sheet

All help seekers want is a single and very kind religion to turn to.

15/06/2017 2:22 PM AEST | Updated 15/06/2017 2:34 PM AEST

When our politicians announce $47 million for suicide prevention, as they recently have, and when it's in the middle of a 10-year high in deaths by suicide, you say thank you.

And while we will not receive funds from this announcement, Lifeline is truly grateful that it will benefit our aligned organisations such as the Black Dog Institute, Mates in Construction, Mindframe and others. The funding will support their continued national-level work in areas such as research into suicidality, public education and communication about suicide, and training to make workplaces suicide-safe.

The logical opportunity is to coordinate these resources and efforts for real reduction in suicidal death -- which has increased by 25 percent in the past five years. It is, however, only a promise at this stage. Frankly, it is known from consultation and research with people who use mental health and emotional well-being services that Australians just want practical help that's empathetic and effective. They want a system that cares and works. They want to know where to get specific care.

But there's another aspect to all this. We need to make sure that our efforts are coordinated. Beyond public funding, beyond high-minded policy and strategy, beyond institutional arrangements; that's what people in crisis expect of the help-givers.

I am surprised by the level of sometimes unproductive competitiveness between Australia's mental health and emotional well-being organisations, our lack of coordination among each other, and our lack of inter-connection with broader institutions such as public health providers.

We seem to think of ourselves as separate churches when all the help-seeker wants is a single and very kind religion to turn to.

We can effectively cannibalise each other and confound our own supporters by competing for public and private fundraising dollars. We can all maintain costly administrative functions; we all can continue to significantly invest in distinct technology platforms when technology can in fact aggregate so much; we can roll out public communication campaigns with so many uncoordinated messages that we simply befuddle rather than empower the public and the help seeker.

Most significantly, we can continue to confuse those we exist to help. But we shouldn't.

More From Lifeline CEO Peter Shmigel

Each of these organisations does amazing things for people in need. I am personally in awe of the extremely committed leaders of our field such as Ian Hickie, Helen Christensen, Pat McGorry, Jane Pirkis, Jack Heath and many others. They are rightly held in the highest esteem by the community because they truly help change and save lives. But it's simply the case that by getting our own house in order, the NGO part of the mental well-being and suicide prevention spectrum can do more good for more Australians.

What could positive change for the sake of Australians who want better outcomes in mental and emotional well-being and suicide reduction look like? I have six proposals.

Adopt A Unifying Service Charter

What matters most in achieving mental health and emotional wellbeing outcomes by service providers is values. Where those values are person-centric and compassionate -- as in non-judgmental and providing unconditional support -- most combinations of programs deliver better results. While doubling down for those with mental illness who are highly susceptible to suicide, our lens needs to be cast wider than only medical considerations. Some 50 percent of those who die by suicide are not presenting to services because of mental illness; they present to family relationship services, housing and financial counselling services, and we need to accommodate them and their overwhelming psych-ache, too.

Put More Resources Into Help-Giving Through Less Administration

There are interesting precedents overseas where charities have created 'shared service' models for their back-of-house functions, and are also increasingly sharing the basics like offices and IT systems. This concept can also be extended to working with each other to become more self-reliant as a sector through aspects as social investment bonds and other innovative financial instruments for suicide prevention.

Establish A Clear Role For Each Player

There can be blur about what we all do. Treatment for mental health, as opposed to information about mental illness, as opposed to suicide prevention education, as opposed to mental health research, as opposed to working with specific communities such as young people or those with a mental illness. We can easily map and clarify those aspects, choose the evidence-based means that are most effective, jettison the overlaps, and present a unified proposition to the people in need. The Federal Government, which funds much of the sector, can play a crucial role in helping us achieve this better coordination.

Run Fewer Helplines

At present, and as a result of the phenomenal trust that the community puts into us, Lifeline takes nine times more calls and online interactions than any other sector member -- and our primarily volunteer base keeps our costs comparatively low. We are very open to a discussion about becoming a portal for others -- including "digital gateway" from scratch.

Formalise Wraparound Services

Our various services have a great deal to offer to people in need. It would be ideal to better support individual help-seekers and make sure we can look after them according to need. As an example, Lifeline -- with the right resources -- would love with to better coordinate the care our clients in crisis get after they get off the phone or chat line from us. Technology represents a huge opportunity here.

Work More With People Of Lived Experience

It is an opportunity for each of our organisations to be as close as possible to the needs of the people who use our services or rely on us. We can collectively build a new concord with people of lived experience of mental illness, emotional distress, crisis and suicidal ideation and behaviour. They know what they need and what works and can strongly partner with all of us rather than engage with each of our silos.

Like no time before, there is support at the political level to achieve better mental and emotional wellbeing in Australia. Like no time before, there is more money available to do. Like no time before, the community is ready, willing and able to help itself and help others. And like no time before, those of us in the help-giving charities of Australia can do more to help them by better organising ourselves.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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