National mental health policy 2008

2.8 Workforce

Page last updated: 2009

The supply and distribution of appropriately-trained workers in the mental health sector and other relevant sectors will be adequate to meet the needs of people with mental health problems and mental illness.
Mental health should be a career of choice. Mental health services require a workforce that is enthusiastic and well supported. The workplace should be one where the environmental and organisational culture promotes a positive and inclusive culture. There should be access to high quality education and training opportunities to enable the development of a flexible and competency based workforce. There should be greater effort to promote the benefits of working in this sector.

Workforce issues have been recognised as a challenge since the inception of the original National Mental Health Policy. Despite continued effort and expansion, the recruitment and retention of clinical and non-clinical workers to mental health services remains an area of concern. The supply and distribution of professionals in the relevant service sectors underpins the effectiveness of the broad approach in addressing the mental health of Australians. These professionals need to be adequately trained to provide high quality services.

There should be sufficient numbers of providers to meet community needs across public, private and non-government sectors. This includes psychiatrists, general practitioners, psychologists, mental health nurses, social workers, occupational therapists and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers, as well as consumer and carer consultants, and recovery and peer support workers.

Recruitment and retention of professionals depends on there being opportunities to work in safe environments with adequate amenity, systemic supports, and also on there being satisfactory incentives and rewards (e.g. satisfactory levels of remuneration, appropriate career development opportunities, prospects for promotion) to ensure job satisfaction. Ongoing efforts are needed to address the maldistribution of these professionals, which typically manifests itself in insufficient numbers in rural and remote areas and in areas of low socio-economic status. Consideration should be given to the mix of skills within and across professional groups, and how best to match expertise with the needs of individuals seeking care. Flexible models of workforce development and new definitions of workforce competency should be developed and implemented.

Funding arrangements for services, models of care, population distributions as well as training opportunities, all need to be considered when addressing the problems of distribution of mental health professionals.

Consistent, appropriate training of the mental health workforce throughout Australia is a necessary component to address issues of supply and distribution. Suitable undergraduate, postgraduate and other education and training opportunities should be available to attract and retain sufficient numbers of qualified workers. Continuing education options should also be provided. Such training should equip the existing and future mental health workforce to provide high quality care that promotes prevention, early intervention and recovery, and is sensitive to cultural and linguistic diversity and the rights of the individual. Clearly, some curricula should be discipline-specific, whereas other training content might be generalised across disciplines. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers and peer support workers are emerging as new components of the workforce, and should be supported in this context to reach their full potential. Adequate staffing of services to meet the needs of people with mental health problems and mental illness, regardless of where they live, remains a challenge.

Similar principles apply outside the mental health sector. There have been recent efforts to increase the skills of general practitioners, and the knowledge and awareness of mental health issues in other professional areas such as teachers, paramedics and police These staff should receive appropriate training which equips them with a basic understanding of mental health problems and mental illness, and ensures that they have the skills necessary to meet the needs of people with mental health problems and mental illness as they apply in their sector. Such training should also provide them with information about the interface between their particular sector and the specialist mental health sector, and prepare them for coordinating care and support across sectors. These staff should also have access to the specialist mental health sector for referral, support and advice, when necessary.