Australia's truly forgotten people


Iris Gray lives in a modest clinker brick home in the working class Hobart suburb of Glenorchy. She is 74, and frail. Her main pre-occupation is her 50 year old son Rodney. Rodney Gray is a schizophrenic and has been institutionalised for much of his adult life at a mental institution called Royal Derwent in New Norfolk, about 40 kilometres from Hobart.

Since the closure of Royal Derwent a decade ago, Rodney has lived alone in a small flat in North Hobart. He has suffered malnutrition, been admitted to hospital for drinking cleaning fluid, and regularly forgets to take his medication.

Despite a letter writing campaign, a personal visit from the former Labor Premier, Jim Bacon in 1998 and an article in the Hobart Mercury on September 26 last year highlighting her plight, Mrs Gray has been unsuccessful in her efforts to ensure Rodney lives in supported accommodation.

A month ago, I went to see Iris Gay and as she walked me to the front gate of her home, she shook her head, cried and said, ‘What will happen to Rodney when I die’?

This story is heart wrenching. As is the plight of another man – let’s call him ‘George’, who my mother and I found crying alone in affluent Middle Park in Melbourne earlier this year. While he sat alone in tears, at least fifty people sat literally a few feet from him in the May sunshine, sipping coffee and reading the weekend papers.

My mother, who has spent over two decades working in the welfare sector, told me this man only had access to supported accommodation from Monday to Friday “ there is no one to care for him on the weekends.

The plight of Iris and Rodney Gray and ‘George’ are not ‘front page news’ in this election campaign. This neglect is staggering when one considers that one in five Australians will suffer a mental health episode once in their life. And that Australia spends only around seven percent of its health budget on mental health “ half the OECD average.

With the exception of Senator Lyn Allison of the Australian Democrats (a party with which I have an association), who last week launched a mental health policy separately from a broader health policy, none of the other major political parties seems to want to campaign vocally on Australia’s crisis in mental health. Although Labor, the Greens and the Liberals say they will release mental health policies before October 9, none is ‘shouting from the rooftops’ about the issue.

Unlike the forests of Tasmania, for example, Iris Gray hasn’t had politicians beating a path to her Tasmanian home to see what they can do to help her and Rodney.

And ‘George’ doesn’t get Mark Latham’s attention when he comes to Melbourne. But he’s got plenty of time for the excellent photo opportunity presented by a visit to the one place in a hospital that celebrities love to been seen in – the ‘kids with cancer’ ward.

Treasurer Peter Costello did say on Sydney radio station 2UE on 22 September, that in his view the 20 year old policy of getting the mentally ill out of institutions and into the community has not been a ‘great success’. This is an area, he said, ‘where a lot of re-thinking has got to be done in relation to policy’. At least Mr Costello is talking about the issue.

Jeff Kennett, former Liberal Premier of Victoria, told the Australian newspaper on 14 September – a day after the mind numbingly boring ‘debate’ between Mr Howard and Mr Latham – that both leaders are throwing money ‘at the community to secure votes but not any of it is actually directed towards resolving the national water challenge or addressing mental health or ageing.’

The crass materialism and cynical vote buying of the 2004 federal election campaigns prevents the national scandal of the mental health crisis from seeing the light of day. Meanwhile Iris Gray battles on helping her son Rodney with little state support, and ‘George’ has to find somewhere to sleep and live every weekend.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.