Ms PATTEN (Northern Metropolitan) (15:58): I rise to speak to Ms Crozier’s bill, the Mental Health Amendment (Counsellors) Bill 2021. You know, I do not think there is a single person in this chamber who does not passionately believe that a child’s mental health is crucially important and mental health support in our schools is very important. I am also clearly of the view that we should have highly qualified mental health support available to Victorian students, but I have to say I am perplexed by this bill, albeit we have only looked at it over the last few days. I have read the second-reading speech and heard Ms Crozier provide it, but this bill goes to amending the Mental Health Act 2014. It does not relate to or touch on schools at all. It changes the definition of mental health practitioners for the purposes of the Mental Health Act. The definition of mental health practitioner in the Mental Health Act only relates to those who can make a mental health assessment order under that act. If you read that act, and I went through that act this morning, that is what the definition for mental health practitioner relates to.
And under that this means that this allows the people who are defined specifically and directly in that act to make assessment orders, which is the first step in initiating compulsory mental health treatment.
A mental health practitioner under the act may make an assessment order. An assessment order then enables an authorised psychiatrist to examine the person without the person’s consent to determine whether they have a mental illness and need compulsory mental health treatment. An assessment order enables a person subject to the order to be taken to and detained in a designated mental health service for assessment if necessary. It is a really narrow purpose in this act, and it does not in any way relate to counsellors in schools. So I do not understand why we would add counsellors to that definition in the act, because it will not actually help. It will not make the case for bringing more counsellors into schools, which I entirely support. In reading the second-reading speech, everything around the bill I support, but when we go to the bill, that is where it just does not make sense.
Ms Watt listed substantially where counsellors are in schools and in fact where student support services are available through regional Department of Education and Training offices. There is dedicated access for secondary students to counselling through Headspace. Primary welfare officers, who are often counsellors, operate in 800 or 1200 schools. There are counsellors there already. So I am still quite perplexed as to why we would want to define them under the Mental Health Act and for some reason come to the conclusion that that would increase the number of counsellors in schools. The second-reading speech says that by doing this it will provide approximately an additional 2000 counsellors. It will not. It will not make any difference.
We have just seen the announcement from the government of the mental health practitioners program—and I think Ms Watt also spoke to this—where every Victorian government secondary and specialist school will have funding to employ a mental health practitioner. That is a very broad range, everything from therapy dogs to psychiatrists. I wonder if that is where the confusion has come with this bill and whether it was because of the term ‘mental health practitioner’ in that announcement that it was thought that maybe it was only allowing those defined under the Mental Health Act as mental health practitioners to become part of that program.
But I do think there is an area I am passionate about, and that is actually ensuring that we have qualified, good mental health practitioners in our schools—that we have the right people to do the right job. We need to weed out those that are deficient. You know, some that support there is completely unqualified, and I think it will come as no surprise to this house that I am speaking about the chaplaincy program.
To become a chaplain in Victoria you have to be a Christian, one. You need a cert IV in youth work or pastoral care or even both. That is it; that is what qualifies you to become a chaplain to provide student welfare in the schools. Now, the department’s guidelines say that chaplains may be from any faith or no faith, and the chaplain’s job and work are not meant to be religious, but you cannot get a job as a chaplain unless you are religious—and not any religion; the chaplaincy program is limited by the providers of the program, and all bar one insist that they will only hire Christians, because they can.
So this is incredible discrimination, apart from anything else. I would just like to also mention there are chaplains out there who have got very high qualifications and are very good at their jobs, and I grant that, but when we are talking about wanting qualified people in our schools to provide mental health assistance to our students then maybe we should be looking at where we are not providing qualified people.
Maybe we should be reconsidering that, because I think our children do deserve highly qualified mental health support now more than ever. But a 13-unit, one-year course in youth work or pastoral care is not it. Those are not the professional qualifications I want for my children to help support their good mental health. Now, yes, as we increase the volume of mental health support in our schools we as a state should also increase the calibre of that support, and I would say that one way to do that is by cutting out the obvious deficiencies that place underqualified staff on the front line with our vulnerable kids—that is, getting rid of the chaplaincy program in this state.
But again, I support counsellors in our schools, and I certainly think that given the announcements and given the rollout of all of these new mental health programs we are going to see more counsellors. I think that is a wonderful thing, and I will do whatever I can to assist the schools in my electorate to access those programs. But I still cannot understand, and maybe Ms Crozier will be able to sum up and explain, how amending the Mental Health Act to add ‘registered counsellors’ to the definition of a mental health practitioner puts more counsellors in schools. It just does not.
Fiona Patten MP
Leader of Reason
Member for Northern Metropolitan Region
Second reading 6/10/21