The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare recently released data that shows spending on mental health services in Australia continues to rise. A total of $8.5 billion was spent nationally on mental health services in 2014-15 – a $911 million increase from 2010-11.

While additional spending on mental health is always welcome, what the new Health Minister Greg Hunt needs to ask is, is all this spending actually making us any better?

The big ticket items are obvious – the majority of spending went on public hospital services for admitted patients at $2.2 billion, followed by community mental health services at $1.9 billion.  There was also an update on mental health-related Medicare-subsidised services where the Australian Government paid $1.1 billion in 2015-16 or $46 per person.

We know that mental illness is a significant health and social issue. 45% of all Australians will experience a mental health problem over the course of their lives.  Further, 75% of mental health problems first appear before the age of 25, and yet more than 70% of young women and 80% of young men who need help and support don’t get it.

We also know there is significant unmet demand for mental health services and yet the ability of governments at all levels to increase funding to address current and future needs is under ever increasing pressure.  So what’s the solution?

In Australia and around the world, technology has become a part of daily life, and the use of technology to improve mental health and wellbeing is the obvious way forward.

At ReachOut – which launched as the first online mental health service nearly 20 years ago – we have witnessed the growth in online interventions and apps for a range of mental health problems.  These technologies offer a variety of evidence-based, scalable, cost-effective programs and are accessible at any time, from any location.

Unfortunately, however, the full benefits of digital mental health in Australia are unrealised due to a number of factors including a lack of an overarching strategy and lack of integration of digital mental health tools and services with traditional face-to-face mental health services and professionals.

There are also funding uncertainties, with existing digital health services funded on a contract basis through the Federal Department of Health’s Teleweb Program with supplementary funding from corporates, philanthropy and research partners.  This differs from more sustainable funding for face-to-face services through Medicare and private health insurance.

ReachOut’s research with EY supports the position that digital mental health solutions could provide an excellent ‘first line of defence’ in a system of mental health stepped care, especially given the rapid way they can be deployed and the capacity of online interventions to reach and service large numbers of people.

Further, statistics show that young people are comfortable and engaged online, regularly accessing the internet from home and via mobiles. Online mental health technologies offer an important solution to address barriers to access – such as negative attitudes towards help-seeking, cost, waiting times, transport, a fear of breach of confidentiality – and help young people in a space where they feel comfortable and in a way that is acceptable to them.

In late 2015, the Australian Government announced major reforms to mental health to create a better experience for consumers which included a stepped care approach, where service is matched with need; increased capacity for early intervention; and optimal use of digital mental health services through a gateway.  Implementation of these reforms has seen a lot of change, in service commissioning and structure.  However, it’s not yet clear whether all this change has resulted in any real reform, particularly for digital mental health.

Online technologies are part of our daily lives.  Using these technologies in mental health to provide self help and intervene early, and importantly integrating these technologies with traditional face-to-face services is a cost effective way to help all Australians improve their mental health and feel better –  and in the long term lead happier and healthier lives.

Our Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has said that mental wealth is a vital national priority.  More recently, Minister Hunt has said he wants to focus on mental health, and that for him it is deeply personal.  What is needed is leadership and a commitment to driving real reform in mental health.

Jono Nicholas, ReachOut CEO

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