War ‘difficult to justify’
Editorial: A case to answer
Chains on the wall, padded cells, a meal of slops, a lack of hygiene or care - these are the images of the old asylums in which the mentally ill were incarcerated.
It was to bring this Dickensian regime of mental health care to an end that the Richmond Report recommended two decades ago that the old asylums be closed down and the mentally ill cared for in the community instead.
The first part of this prescription came to pass, but the second part never happened to the degree promised.
These vulnerable people were indeed released from the asylums, but they were then largely left to get on with life as best they could without the promised level of community support, especially in NSW, which has the most poorly funded mental health system in Australia.
Many have ended up exploited and lonely, living in run-down boarding houses with no care taken of them at all. It is no wonder that some choose alcohol and street drugs instead.
A successor report to the Richmond Report has been issued; see our front page article Mentally ill sent to jail.
It makes damning reading.
Not only has much of the money saved from closing down the old institutions not been diverted into the necessary community services, but many of the mentally unwell now find themselves being 'treated' in jail.
Dr Brian Pezzutti, the NSW parliamentary committee chairman responsible for the new mental health report is a Liberal, but all major parties can be justly criticised for failing this group of people; both sides have enjoyed power since the Richmond Report was issued, but neither has devoted sufficient resources to helping the mentally ill.
One-third of all those in NSW jails suffer from mental illness, says Dr Pezzutti. Not a good statistic. Nor are the jails equipped to treat them. It might not be so bad if they were.
The St Vincent de Paul Society was one of the major contributors to the Pezzutti report that condemns NSW for jailing people suffering mental health problems and then leaving them to languish behind bars without proper treatment. One can only hope this report will stir a government response.
And also, perhaps, that Vinnies, as one of the few agencies successfully helping the mentally ill in the community, will see some more funding go its way so it can further increase its services.
NSW might also look to Victoria and Queensland for more humane and effective ways to treat mentally ill offenders.
If it doesn't, it will be no better than its predecessors who were castigated for locking up the mentally ill and metaphorically throwing away the key.