It’s time we balanced the ledger

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Let me introduce you to Gerald, a 12 year old living in the small outback NSW town of Bourke – population 1,800. Gerald loves fishing, Rugby League (he barracks for the Penrith Panthers) and lives with his Mum, Dad, Nan, brothers – Steven (14) and Adrian (5), and sisters – Becky (3), Isabel (1 ½) and Ruthie (two weeks old).

Gerald is an Indigenous Australian. As we are unfortunately aware, Australia continues to retain developing world standards when it comes to the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander people. In fact, Aboriginal Australians rank 103rd on the United Nations Index of Human Development (which considers life expectancy, literacy, and standard of living) compared to all Australians, who come in 4th.

Gerald’s Dad, Shaun, is 45 years old and suffers from diabetes and kidney disease. Last week, Gerald travelled 300km to the ‘big metropolis’ of Cobar (population 5,200) for his first-ever visit to the dentist (two adult teeth were removed and three fillings added). Little Ruthie was born with a low birth weight and has an 80 percent chance of developing hearing problems before her 5th birthday. And Nan (60), who has been suffering dementia for six years, was admitted to the local hospital two weeks ago where she will spend the rest of her days.

It’s time we balanced the ledger when it comes to Aboriginal health

It’s time we balanced the ledger when it comes to Aboriginal health

Indigenous health is an issue high on the agenda of the Public Health Association of Australia’s annual conference, which kicked off last week in Adelaide.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the health of Indigenous Australians is inequitable when compared to the rest of the Australian population. The rate of suicide in the Indigenous population is more than three times the non-Indigenous population. The burden of disease and injury for Aboriginal people is 2.5 times the level for non-Indigenous Australians, and dementia rates for older Aboriginal people are five times more than that of non-Indigenous Australians.

What’s more, Indigenous children born in Australia are three times more likely to die before the age of five than non-Indigenous children – survival rates similar to that of Cambodia. Indigenous men and women can expect to live 11.5 years and 10 years respectively, less than their non-Indigenous neighbours.

A harsh outlook this may seem – but it is the reality for 562,681 Indigenous people living in Australia.  So how and when will we Close the Gap 

Last week, the previous Indigenous health minister – Warren Snowdon – was reinstated along with the Indigenous health portfolio as a result of public backlash.

One way to tackle the appalling statistics is to produce more Indigenous doctors. 150 Indigenous Australians are studying medicine in universities across the country – a move in the right direction. And 420km up the road from Bourke, the small rural town of Wilcannia has struck a pioneering agreement with the federal and NSW governments to set-up Indigenous-run small businesses, in addition to improving health services by establishing nurses in schools and setting up better healthcare for pregnant women. Gerald and his family have fingers and toes crossed that Bourke will soon follow suit.

We need to see proactive strategies based at ground level and focused on the premise of community education if we are to see any genuine improvements in the state of Australia’s Indigenous health.

When the health of some Australians is comparable to that of people living in third world countries we must commit to real change to close the gap and dissolve all inequities.

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Tic tac toe. Who’s going to give Australia’s mental health a go?

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THE ELECTION – it’s THE ‘hot topic’ dominating news headlines, coffee shop banter and online forums. Australia’s mental health has emerged as an issue with potential to derail the major parties. So are the parties bringing enough reform to the table to swing votes their way? 

 Mental health is Australia’s third largest health issue behind cancer and cardiovascular disease. Mental illness is the Is mental health a priority? leading cause of death for all Australians under 45, more than road trauma and binge drinking. It affects 1 in 5 Aussies and is predicted to be one of the world’s largest health problems by 2020. Such statistics can be overwhelming, however, let’s not dwell on why mental health has been relegated to the health backburner; let’s focus on escalating discussion, taking action and moving forward!

Currently, just 6 per cent of the health budget is devoted to mental health and only a third of those suffering will receive access to mental health care. Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry has used his notoriety to give a voice to those shouting for change, particularly as 2,500 Australians die each year due to mental illness.

McGorry states that the best way to show the Australian community that mental health really is a priority for the Government is to invest in mental health reform and provide Australians with access to genuine 21st century mental health care. 

Recently the Western Australia state government appointed the first ever Mental Health Commissioner and Melbourne played host to the world’s inaugural International Youth Mental Health Conference – both small steps in the right direction.

An analysis of the major political parties’ election promises on mental health, conducted by national charity SANE Australia, has found that both policies lack vision and take a narrow and superficial view  of the complexities of mental health. SANE Australia has challenged the major parties to commit to ‘real action’ and ‘move forward’ promptly if elected.

Everyone who needs help for mental illness should get treatment and support as early as possible, for as long as needed, and in the community where they live.

In Australia, this is far from the reality of people with mental illness – says the Executive Director of SANE Australia, Barbara Hocking.

2010 is a pivotal year for mental health in Australia. Just last week, two dozen organisations have written to both main party leaders demanding for true leadership on mental health. The announcement of an election has propelled mental health out of the policy shadows and into the election spotlight. However, sustained effort and investment will be required to keep people with a mental illness living well in the community. Hopefully this August we will finally be able to give Australia’s mental health the help it deserves.

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Regional media: a forgotten frontier?

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A rivalry exists in Australia that spans from the East to West coast, encompassing health, education, the cost of living and even football. City versus country, regional versus metro; there is a clash occurring reminiscent of David vs. Goliath. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, with more than one third of Aussies calling regional Australia home, we have to ask – is it foolhardy to relegate our country cousins to second place?

Don't forget regional mediaRural and regional media outlets often play second fiddle to the likes of big guns such as The Sydney Morning Herald and Herald Sun. While the ability of national and major metropolitan media outlets to create mass awareness cannot be underestimated, the ‘local angle’ can be just as powerful – perhaps even more so when it comes to motivating people to behave in a different way or take action.

Adding credibility to this claim, a survey conducted by Roy Morgan Research reveals no medium is more effective at reaching country Australians than their local newspaper. Regional press is read by 7.3 million Australians – a figure not even the likes of Masterchef can compete with.  Bucking city trends, the steep downturn in readership figures experienced by our national and metro papers has not been felt by regional counterparts who have actually managed to increase their readership. 

With a greater Government focus on health in regional Australia, a unique opportunity beckons to put health back on the ‘bush telegraph’ agenda.

Just this week, the Government announced its first National Male Health Policy will soon be released, a policy shaped by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report: A Snapshot of Men’s Health in Regional and Remote Australia. This focus on regional and rural Australia illustrates the ever-increasing discrepancy between the health of ‘city slickers’ and that of our regional countrymen, and women. And although funding of targeted rural health programs increased by 45 per cent to $700 million in 2009-10, there still remains an opportunity to reach regional Aussies with targeted health information via the media outlets they consume most – knowledge is power after all.

When it comes to health information and proactive self-care, providing details on the latest in diabetes management or cancer treatment should not reflect the banana bread craze and reach our country counterparts months later. 

Regional Australia is too often relegated to the Australian media’s version of Shannon Noll - always the runner-up – but what about them? Be it the Goondiwindi Argus, NBN Coffs Harbour or Outback Radio 2WEB, perhaps regional media is the hidden jewel in our media crown.  National and major metropolitan news and information is important, however it is local content with localised messages which truly has the power to galvanise community empowerment and action.

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Is Ho-ho perbole hi-jacking our holiday spirit?

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Santa_Clause_obeseThe final countdown to Christmas kicked-off today and as many Aussies brace themselves for puddings and presents, Scrooge has surfaced – demanding a slimmer, trimmer Santa. 

A paper published in the British Medical Journal suggests Santa swap his sled for a bike and ditch the brandy and mince pies for Rudolf’s carrots. Dr Nathan Grills from Monash University has accused Father Christmas of inadvertently endorsing obesity, drink-driving, speeding and a general unhealthy lifestyle. Could the crises of the 21st Century really derail the Claus dynasty?

The weighty issue of obesity has been a hot topic for a number of years, and Government legislation has echoed the concerns of Australia’s healthcare professionals by establishing a National Preventative Health Taskforce to help curb the nation’s expanding waistlines. But, should we be blaming Santa for the 300 million people who are overweight worldwide?

Dr Grills argues that due to his popularity, “Santa needs to affect health by only 0.1 per cent to damage millions of lives”. With the weight of the world on his shoulders, Santa hit back, saying he eats plenty of fish, enjoys running and often prefers milk over spirits – commendable role-model behaviour.

As the silly season gets into full swing, many affiliates of the anti-Santa brigade are creeping out of the woodwork. And although we should demonstrate some restraint during this period of indulgence, should Bah Humbugs deny today’s children the delight of finding a half-eaten mince pie on Christmas morning?

Merry Christmas to all!

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