How many more tragedies? Sydney siders in disbelief as they lay flowers

Apr 16, 2024
The Sydney Opera House is illuminated with a black ribbon Monday, April 15, 2024, as part of the national day of mourning following the stabbing deaths of several people at Bondi Junction shopping mall on April 13. Image: AAP Image/Flavio Brancaleone

Our society is failing the seriously mentally ill.

In the wake of the Bondi junction shopping centre attack, reporters expressed surprise that a person with a serious mental health illness could be living in cars and hostels. Ask anyone in mental health services they will tell you it’s common for people with serious mental illness to be on the road. This is not the fault of their families. Families are not mental health experts. Families are often distraught and at the end of their tether in dealing with the person. Often these people are wilful and will not do what their families want.

How many more tragedies before we realise that our society is failing the seriously mentally ill? Government initiatives in recent years have rightly focussed on prevention and early intervention but those who develop serious mental illness are not getting the help, understanding and support they need.

When deinstitutionalisation happened in the 1980s and 90s we were promised alternative facilities in the community with educated staff who understood mental illness and its potential for violence. That has happened for some – mostly the more wealthy and comfortable – but now we face a shortage of acute beds in the public sector and community mental health teams struggling with workloads. Private psychiatry is expensive as is a stay in a private psychiatric hospital. Private health funds don’t cover long stays.

Once all our grief is expressed, politicians need to start listening to mental health professionals who know and understand acute and serious mental illness.

We cannot dismiss the Westfield attacker as “this happens in mental health” and go back to our snug rooms, ignoring the crying need for more support and protection for the acute and seriously mentally ill. Protection from themselves, for their families and for the community.

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