How changes in government policy have cruelled the response to ice
IT HAS taken the student welfare officer at the Wonthaggi Secondary College, Carol Davidson, to blow the whistle on a chronic failure with the state’s drug and alcohol referral system.
Mental health patients are also being adversely affected.
And it’s especially in towns like Wonthaggi, remote from support services, where the failure in the system is being most acutely felt.
Students calling for help with developing drug issues as well as adults with serious drug or alcohol problems, especially ice, along with their families, are the victims.
And before we go pointing the finger of blame at the Andrews Government, the disastrous decision to “streamline and centralise access” the state’s alcohol and drug treatment services was made by the previous Minister for Mental Health, in the Napthine Government, Mary Wooldridge, in the final days of the last Parliament.
But far from streamlining access to services, the changes have added an unwanted layer of bureaucracy, delaying appointments by up to four weeks and driving health professionals out of the field.
Regional manager of the agency tasked to carry out the assessments, the Australian Community Support Organisation (ACSO), Jenny Svoboda, has denied there are such delays.
But she’s on her own.
The State Minister for Mental Health, Martin Foley, has acknowledged the problem statewide, not just in Gippsland, and is “appalled” at the outcome.
“The result is a system that is much more difficult for people in need to get into. We know that the numbers of people being treated have fallen as a result,” he told the Sentinel-Times this week (see his full response).
It was after a drugs and alcohol forum for Years 10 to 12 students from Wonthaggi Secondary College last Wednesday that an exasperated Ms Davidson made her concerns known.
“We don’t have the access to drug and alcohol resources which we did before they were taken over by ASCO in Traralgon,” Ms Davidson said.
“It can now take two, three, four or more weeks to get anyone to contact the person that has the drug and alcohol issue.
“We are seriously lacking in our area when it comes to drug and alcohol services anyway.
“It’s a huge step for a 15, 16 or 17 year old to come into your office and admit they have a problem but when they do, they need help now, immediately, not in a month’s time,” Ms Davidson said.
Senior Campus principal at Wonthaggi, Darren Parker, said earlier in the day that his school was no different to any other when it came to drug and alcohol issues and had to be prepared to deal with them.
But, unlike schools in metro areas, it’s access to services which is the problem.
The Minister has commissioned an independent report on the problem and has promised action soon, while also claiming the state’s efforts have been nobbled by cuts to mental health funding made by the Federal Government.
It’s a sorry state of affairs in Mental Health Week.
In the meantime, those with serious or developing drug, alcohol or mental health problems locally are suffering.
“Previously we were able to contact Bass Coast Community Health and quite often they’d be able to offer assistance immediately,” Ms Davidson said.
“Now it has been centralised to Traralgon, which is ridiculous for us or anyone living in this area.
“At least with an event like this (drug and alcohol forum) we are able to expose the students to the resources that are available, the people who can help them and the issues involved.
“Young people are very personality driven. If you give them a phone number and ask them to call it, they’re less likely to respond than if you actually give them a name of a person who can help them.
“We’ve got general youth support counsellors we can put them in touch with like Eric Swift (at the college) and Gary Bergman (Bass Coast Health) or Brenda Stewart (GippsCare) but they’re not drug and alcohol counsellors like the ones we used to be able to access at Bass Coast Community Health.
“Deb (Deb Guy BCH Drug & Alcohol Counsellor) and Nyree (Nyree Davis BCH now Medical Workforce Coordinator) used to come in regularly or call. We could get help with an hour’s notice if necessary. Now we have to go through this long-winded referral process.
“As anyone knows who’s had teenagers, when they finally get up the courage to say they’ve got a problem, they need help immediately.
“They shouldn’t have to go on to a computer and register and have them call in a month’s time.
“They simply won’t come anymore.”
Ms Davidson said it was also an issue of not enough money for drug and alcohol services in Bass Coast (and South Gippsland).
“The process we have to go through is tortuous and it’s in Traralgon.
“It all has to go through ASCO. Before we could just call Deb.”
Her calls for help have already produced a result.
After last week’s student drug forum, a representative of Bass Coast Health said the service would change its approach to student drugs and alcohol inquiries.
“We have discretion with 20 per cent of our funding, so as of today, we will undertake to see students in need,” said a BCH officer.
That will be without going through the ASCO process.
But Bass Coast Health doesn’t get funding for youth needs. Any support it offers the students will have to come out of its meagre and already over-stretched adult drug and alcohol budget.
“This has nothing to do with the merger of Bass Coast Community Health and Bass Coast Health,” said the BCH officer.
“The recommissioning of drug and alcohol services came after a statewide review by the previous government and came in on September 1 last year, creating a centralised intake and assessment service.
“We also lost half of our funding and some of our staff at the same time.
“The new system is clunky and overly bureaucratic. Previously you could just walk in the door at Bass Coast Community Health and set up an appointment.
“Now you have to go through ASCO but there’s a 40 per cent attrition rate among those who just don’t make it through,” said the officer.
Some get sick of waiting to be seen, others are simply assessed as having low needs and don’t get to see anyone.
“They have a tier system with each application and if you don’t get to ‘Tier Three’ you don’t get to do a drug and alcohol assessment and you’ve got to be pretty bad to get to level three.
“If you’ve got a small drug problem you’re not going to get through.”
There’s also no funding for a family support program in Bass Coast, for those with addicted family members, but Bass Coast Health has seen the need and will be launching a support group soon.
The official statement from Bass Coast Health CEO, Veronica Jamison, is as follows:
“If there are problems in the system, we will work with our partners to provide the best possible service. If there are further problems we will advocate for changes,” Ms Jamison.
Regional Manager of ASCO, Jenny Svoboda, acknowledged that there were capacity issues with the assessment and referral process and that health professionals had felt “burnt” by changes made by the previous government and left the system.
As a former staff member of Latrobe Community Health, she also empathised with the Bass Coast Health officer’s concerns.
But she said she wasn’t aware that it could take up to four weeks to get a referral assessment done.
“I’d want to know if that was the case,” Ms Svoboda said, claiming her office had not been notified of the Wonthaggi Secondary College’s concerns.
“We have clinics at Wonthaggi once-a-week, on a Tuesday, and we’re available for walk-ins (assessments) in the afternoon.”
As well as the impact on student welfare, the changes to the assessment and referral system have also had a dramatic impact on adults with developing, serious or relapsing drug problems, especially ice addiction.
They have also told the Sentinel-Times that the ASCO referral process can take four to six weeks for first-time clients.