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Can we add dignity?

When any of us seeks mental health care we run the serious risk that our basic needs will be ignored, trivialised or neglected. (Professor Ian Hickie, Beyond belief/ Not for Service)

These are chilling words. They are frightening enough when related to one person.  When they could be applicable to one member of every Australian family, we must hang our heads in shame.

Has the financial bottom line become more important than the lives of vulnerable people?  And the suffering doesn’t confine itself to the sufferer.  Each member of each family carries pain.  The longing to help, the frustration of being shut out, must be exacerbated enormously when the one place of help – seemingly – the system staffed by professionals, fails, cannot cope, is not interested or simply does not want to know.  Those workers must be devastated, too, by their inability to reach out and make the difference their caring natures yearn for. And then, mental health has its own problem of visibility – sufferers often don’t want others to know, and frequently, perceptibly, there is little evidence pointing to a problem.  But just because we don’t want to acknowledge it or can’t see it doesn’t mean that it is not there.  Reports such as Out of Hospital, Out of Mind (2003), Not for Service (2005) and the National Mental Health Report say, unmistakably, the problem is huge. And internationally, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message for World Day of the Sick, on Saturday, says “mental disturbance …now afflicts a fifth of mankind and constitutes a real and authentic social health care emergency”.

Australia has an unprecedented opportunity this week to take a long, hard and honest look at the situation.  The World Day of the Sick activities (February 9 – 11) will bring together theory, practice and prayer.  And in the midst of this concentrated activity, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will have on its Friday meeting agenda the mental health crisis.

The Mental Health Council of Australia and the Brain and Mind Research Institute in association with the Human Rights  and Equal Opportunities Commission, the three organisations involved in Not for Service, were in no doubt as to the direction in which COAG should head.

The Executive Summary of Not for Service concluded that it was now urgent for all governments, state, territory and national to work together and commit to a process of genuine and adequately resourced reform. In simple terms this will involve:

• a recognition by all Australian governments that mental health reform is a national priority;

• real leadership at the most senior political and bureaucratic levels to drive change through a whole-of-government response;

• real and sustained increases in the overall funding for mental health care services over the next five years to align mental health and disability burden with funding;

• an emphasis on accountability at all levels on a nationally consistent basis to ensure funding is delivered and the impacts and outcomes of the investment are available to the Australian community on a timely basis; and

• urgent and resolute action to address the looming crisis in the mental health care workforce.

In juxtaposition to Government deliberations, the World Day of the Sick activities on Friday will be pastoral.  In both gatherings, many words will be said.  Let us hope and pray that some, at least, may be turned into initiatives – not based on political points-scoring or feel-good rhetoric, but ones that will bring dignity to the lives of people who are vulnerable and at risk, and some genuine help for those who support them professionally, as carers, friends or family.

This, however, still has the sense that for some of us the problem is someone else’s.  Pope Benedict does not let us get away so easily:  “Every Christian … is called to make his contribution so that the dignity of these brothers and sisters of ours is recognised, respected and promoted.”

Penny Edman



Shades of Grey: Questioning Faith in Questioning Times, with Matthew Anstey, David Neville, Heather Thomson, and Stephen Pickard discussing the issues of faith and doubt that are present in the scripture and traditions of the church, St Mark's National Theological Centre, Barton ACT; 7.30pm.

9-11 World Day of the Sick focus on Adelaide.

9 Mental Health and Human Dignity Conference, Adelaide Convention Centre; 10am-4.45pm  

10 Mental Health and Human Dignity Pastoral Day, Adelaide Convention Centre; 9.30am registration

11 14th World Day of Prayer for the Sick  (feast of Our Lady of Lourdes) Eucharist (to include reading of the Pope’s message), St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral; 9.30am

14 A Conversation with the Sant’Egidio Community on Promoting Peacemaking and Dialogue in a World of Violence and Terror; Lidcombe Catholic Club, John Street, Lidcombe; 7.30pm.  Featuring Claudio Betti, Marina Vecchio and Matteo Bruni, from Rome.

16 International Politics, Religion and Global Justice in the New Century – a University of Sydney interdisciplinary summer symposium; Woolley Building.

Launch of the Australian Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on the Media, Notre Dame University, Sydney; 6-8pm

17-19 Come as you Are retreat, Campion Centre of Ignatian Spirituality Kew, Vic.


1 Ash Wednesday

2 ACU National 2006 Lenten Lecture, Who do people say I am … Who  do you say I am …the forming of a special relationship, by the Apostolic Nuncio to Australia, Archbishop Ambrose De Paoli; Canberra Campus, Blackfriars Building B10, Phillip Ave, Watson.

Launch in Melbourne of the website, Trafficking in Persons Clearinghouse

3 World Day of Prayer

St Thomas More’s Forum: Balancing business, family and a Catholic life, Tim Kirk, winemaker and general manager, Clonakilla (to be followed by a presentation of Clonakilla wines and cheese), St Thomas More’s School Hall, 30 White Crescent, Campbell; 6.30-8.30pm (entry charges apply)

7 Public meeting for those interested in the Inter-Congregational Anti-Trafficking Working Group New York report; the Cardinal Knox Centre, Albert Street, Melbourne, from 7.30pm 

8 International Women’s Day

14 Public meeting for those interested in the Inter-Congregational Anti-Trafficking Working Group New York report, Gleeson Auditorium, Australian Catholic University, Strathfield, from 7pm.  (People intending to go, please email pauline@brisnet.org.au  [Sr Pauline Coll sgs] to give organisers an indication of numbers.)

15 – April 5 Sudan Freedom Walk, from the United Nations (New York) to the White House (Washington DC)

17-19 The Transforming Power of God’s Word, presented by the Evangelisation Resources Down Under Bible Institute, at Riverglenn Conference Centre, Indooroopilly, Brisbane.

Searching for Peace retreat, Campion Centre of Ignatian Spirituality Kew, Vic.

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