Australia’s first deputy chief medical officer for mental health will have a challenging task ahead of her, as she navigates a pandemic which could lead to more deaths by suicide than from the virus itself, experts say.
- The Federal Government has appointed Ruth Vine as the first deputy chief health officer for mental health
- Experts fear the COVID-19 pandemic could trigger an increase in suicides
- Professor Vine was previously the chief psychiatrist in Victoria
Victoria’s former chief psychiatrist, Ruth Vine, has been appointed to the newly created role, working with Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy alongside four other deputies — each with their own area of expertise.
The Australian Medical Association and mental health experts Patrick McGorry and Ian Hickie have been pushing for the job to be created.
They have argued clinical leadership will be crucial in the months and years to come, warning the lasting mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will be felt across the country.
Modelling from the Brain and Mind Centre released last week suggested that in a worst-case scenario, which would see unemployment peak at about 16 per cent, the crisis could cause an additional 1,500 deaths by suicide a year, over five years.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the appointment showed the Government had responded to the calls for action.
“It’s good advice, it’s come to us, we’ve accepted the advice and appointed Dr Ruth Vine,” he said.
As well as being a chief psychiatrist, Professor Vine has previously worked as the director of mental health for the Victorian Department of Health.
Before that, she spent many years working as a consultant psychiatrist specialising in forensic mental health.
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Professor Murphy told a parliamentary committee Professor Vine would work alongside National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan, bringing a clinical perspective to the work.
“We wanted to get a psychiatrist who had been involved in mainstream mental health services,” he said.
“There was a view we needed to cover the full spectrum and have a strong psychiatric input, as well as the broader mental health spectrum Christine Morgan provides.”
Professor Hickie, from the Brain and Mind Centre, said the appointment showed the Government was strengthening its commitment to mental health, but added Professor Vine had a difficult task ahead of her.
“This is the first time in Australia we’ve really had the signal that mental health is as important to physical health,” he said.
“The challenge that she is going to face now is to take the best evolved available data to the principal health committee, chaired by Professor Murphy, and make sure the advice to government is as direct and concise as the advice has been on containing the virus.”
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Professor McGorry, the executive director of youth mental health centre Orygen, agreed the new Deputy Chief Medical Officer would face significant hurdles.
“The challenge is great, the mental health system was overwhelmed prior to COVID-19, and our modelling shows we’re going to experience a quarter to a third increase in demand on top of what was not being met before. The challenge is enormous,” Professor McGorry said.
But he said Professor Vine was well placed to navigate those challenges, having had a long and distinguished career in the public sector.
“She, of all people, will know first-hand the parlous state of our mental health system in Australia, as she’s seen it basically collapse over the past 15 years in Victoria, leading to the royal commission.
Ms Morgan is due to present a mental health pandemic response plan to National Cabinet on Friday, and Professor McGorry said all eyes would be on what happened next.
“It’s great to have appointments like this, but the proof of the pudding is going to be in what they announce.
“If it’s just general principles and vague commitments like what we’ve had in national mental health plans for 20 years, that won’t cut it.
“We’ve got to see specific, targeted investments happening immediately.”