Thousands call on government to make therapy free for young Australians


More than 50,000 people have signed an online petition calling on the government to make therapy "free and accessible" for young Australians.

Curtis Cloake has battled with anxiety since puberty - and knows it's a condition that can't be cured overnight.

The 18-year-old from NSW's Byron Bay recently made the difficult decision to put his dreams of being a filmmaker on hold and return to his hometown to better focus on his recovery.

"I moved to Sydney to study a film course at university and I couldn’t function there, my anxiety was so bad," he told SBS News on Monday.

"I was so stressed out, not necessarily from the workload, it was more just me being in a new surrounding - it was very overwhelming."

But Curtis said he was soon faced with another problem - the cost of ongoing psychological treatments.

Even though his GP had put him on a mental health plan, which provides a Medicare rebate for up to 10 sessions, he found he was still left out of pocket.

"I’m unemployed because my body is really not letting me get a job," he said, adding his anxiety often causes him to suffer migraines, heart palpitations and breathing difficulties.

"I haven’t been able to afford it and I’ve had to get my parents to pay."

After speaking to friends who also struggled to pay for visits to a psychologist, Curtis realised he wasn't alone and decided the issue needed to be addressed.

He created an online petition calling on the Federal Government to introduce free therapy for Australians under the age of 25.

In little more than a week, the petition has gathered over 50,000 signatures and counting. 

"A lot of young people cannot afford to take care of their mental health," Curtis said. 

"My aim is to bring down the shocking rates of youth suicide, depression and anxiety by getting the government to step up and do more."

Curtis' plan is being backed by NSW Labor MP Justine Elliott, who spoke in Parliament on Monday about the petition and said she had also written to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Psychologists back petition

The need for free - or at least more affordable - therapy for young people also has the support of psychologists, who say early intervention is key to faster recovery.

Child and adolescent psychologist Kimberley O'Brien, founder of national school-based clinic program Quirky Kid, said the number of rebated sessions should be extended, especially for children who often take longer to open up.

"It really does take a long time to build rapport with a young person who is resistant or feels like there's a stigma attached to seeing a psychologist," she said.

"You have to respect that resistance and move at their pace and that might mean it takes 18 or 20 sessions to get the results that you want."

Currently, the Medicare rebate provides either an $84.80 refund for a session with a generalist registered psychologist or $124.50 for a clinical psychologist.

Child psychologist Kimberley O'Brien says early intervention is key.
Child psychologist Kimberley O'Brien says early intervention is key.

But the average fee charged by Australian Psychological Society members is $260 an hour - leaving some clients with an out-of-pocket gap of up to $135.50.

"Psychologists generally start to space out the sessions - you become more economical in the way you space out your case plan," Dr O'Brien said.

"It would be amazing if the government could rebate the full amount so that it’s a bulk-billed service, and there is no out-of-pocket expense for young people."

Mental health rebates under review

In a statement, Health Minister Greg Hunt told SBS News the Medicare Benefits Schedule, including the number of accessible sessions under the mental health plan, was currently under review.

"In the 2019-20 Budget, the Government provided $736 million additional funding for mental health services in Australia, and is expected to spend an estimated $5.3 billion on mental health this year alone."

He said the mental health taskforce was in the process of finalising its recommendations, which will be presented to the government later this year.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800.

More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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