Gillard flags mental health as priority

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Julia Gillard has signalled mental health will be a key priority if Labor wins government, launching a $277 million program to tackle suicide.

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In a major policy speech in Brisbane, the prime minister announced one of the biggest investments of Labor’s election campaign so far.

She pledged Labor would invest funding in four areas, aimed at boosting frontline services, direct prevention of suicide, more services for men and support for young people.

“This … will redouble our national efforts to prevent suicide in order to reduce the tragic toll it imposes on the many people it affects,” she said.

Under the plan, Labor will boost psychological counselling services for those who have attempted or are at risk of attempting suicide, providing an extra 12,500 people with assistance each year.

It also will expand crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, such as the Lifeline Australia hotline.

Ms Gillard said she would improve safety at suicide hotspots such as The Gap in Sydney.

Few people had not been affected by suicide at some time in their lives, she said.

“Mental health will be a second-term priority for the government.”

The announcement was welcomed immediately by the Mental Health Council of Australia.

“The measures outlined by the prime minister today are real steps forward,” chief executive officer David Crosbie said in a statement.

But it was disappointing the package did not go further, he said.

“There is a desperate need to address decades of neglect from all levels of government.”

Ms Gillard said Labor was legitimately proud of its past record on health reform but there was more that it could do.

The major health announcement came as Ms Gillard attempts to put her own stamp on health, an issue that was such a priority for her predecessor Kevin Rudd.

She reminded her audience at the Community for Economic Development Association of her past experience as shadow health minister earlier this decade.

Ms Gillard also took the blowtorch to the man who was her opponent for much of that time, the current Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Mr Abbott had been one of the nation’s longest-serving health ministers yet had done little or nothing to reform the system, she said.

To date in this campaign he had offered little in the way of health policy.

Ms Gillard joked about the constant media obsession with Labor’s “bland” campaign but she said there was a very real choice in the election.

“It’s a choice between cutting services and improving services,” she said.