Beyond formal services: How we’re bringing the community into mental wellbeing

Close to $9 billion dollars is spent each year on mental health in Australia. Here, we explain why we need to mobilise the community alongside formal services to improve mental health, and share three case studies that demonstrate communities responding to mental health.

When it comes to mental health, we need to go beyond formal services

As we grapple with an epidemic of sadness, stress, anxiety and depression – not to mention the incredible strain of Covid-19 and recent bushfires – close to $9 billion dollars is spent each year on mental health in Australia.

The current approach to improving mental health in Australia is to pour this money and focus into professional services. Yet, the interim report of the Royal Commission into Mental Health in Victoria states that the formal service system is broken, overwhelmed, poorly integrated and inequitable (FN).

This approach also fails to see the mental health system holistically. A holistic view sees professional mental health services as part of a system that also includes community-based responses.

In a decade of work, we’ve seen time and again that recovery from mental ill health is relational. Connection and community are critical, alongside formal mental health services.

Community needs to be seen as way out and up from mental illness

Imagine a deep crevice. The dark bottom of the crevice is mental illness. That is a place where services can be of immense use. But what is the ladder that people can cling to as they feel their feet unsteady beneath them, when the slide into mental illness begins? For those in the depths of mental illness: what is the support that will help them clamber out? What will help communities recover from the strain of bushfire and global pandemic? And with only 5% of community service workers feeling formal services can completely meet the needs of those in need, how can we bridge this gap?

We need community connection rather than a reliance on services

Formal services alone are not the answer. That ladder is community. It is connection and a sense of belonging. A reliance on services alone reinforces the view that mental health is an individual rather than community concern. Rather, services need to form a supportive ring around communities, as in football (“Here if you (really) need”). But they are not at the heart of community and individual mental wellbeing. That heart is people, in place.

How do you use community to improve mental health?

Below are three case studies that demonstrate communities responding to mental health. These illustrate what it looks like when the community is the safe staircase, keeping people out of mental illness and helping them recover.