A CHRONIC shortage of supported accommodation for Latrobe Valley people battling mental illness is plaguing the region, according to key service providers.
As mental health service providers across the region geared up for this week's Mental Health Week activities, numerous support agencies, families and frontline workers identified a housing crisis for mentally ill people as being the key challenge faced locally.
Other problems raised by families included restrictive diagnostic criteria imposed on clinical services by the Mental Health Act which they claimed meant people in desperate need of treatment were sometimes not admitted to hospital until they harmed themselves or others.
Of the many service providers The Express spoke with there was also a recognition that additional resources were required - with some reportedly in the pipeline - to allow for improved integration between services involved in the care of mentally ill people.
With an "exponential" growth in the number of local people now requiring mental health care, however, by far the greatest "unmet need", according to most sources, was appropriate supported accommodation options.
Several advocates claimed previous governments' "de-institutionalisation" policies, which saw the closure of psychiatric facilities including Hobsons Park in Traralgon - a 250-bed facility with further outpost accommodation, had led to an epidemic of mentally ill people forced to "couch-surf", reside in caravan parks throughout Gippsland, "live rough" in cars for months at a time or live with families ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of mental health care.
Barrier Breakers chief executive Derek Amos said his organisation's imminent pilot project would see six supported accommodation units built on the former Hobsons Park site but this was "only scratching the surface" of what was now an "enormous burden on the region".
A lack of housing for mentally ill people had "evolved over time" and was now "one of our biggest unmet needs".
Mr Amos said a number of Department of Housing homes initially made available for out-reach services in the region had been returned to "general housing commission stock" once tenants had vacated the properties and were no longer earmarked specifically to people with mental illness.
Research undertaken by Barrier Breakers revealed the local situation had left people "very vulnerable" and led the organisation to propose its model, since supported by government, for units aimed at providing secure tenure to people who could then "have their chronic mental illness managed without fear of losing their accommodation."
Barrier Breakers, however, remains frustrated at the bureaucratic delays stalling construction of the units as it continues to waiting on a lease agreement to be formally approved by several State Government departments.
Meanwhile Gippsland MIND area manager Rochelle Virtue, whose organisation is a key non-clinical, community-based service, said there was "absolutely" a need to see more "live-in youth residential beds" available in the Valley.
MIND, which provides home-based out-reach, rehabilitation and recovery support across Gippsland, runs a 10-bed youth accommodation facility in Traralgon which it would like to be able to expand and resource on a 24-hour basis.
MIND services more than 200 people at any given time and demand indicated it could double that load if resources were available, Ms Virtue said.
She claimed past years had seen a clear growth in demand and that while a range of "really good services" existed in Latrobe, most front-line workers in the field were too busy "on the ground" to ensure "all the services connected to a client" were "talking to each other."
"We want to see a robust integrated recovery plan implemented," she said, adding that some funding had recently been released to fund four new positions regionally but ideally each agency would have their own "care co-ordination" position.
Similar views were expressed by Latrobe Regional Hospital director of mental health Cayte Hoppner who said all components of mental health care provision needed to "work together in a more co-ordinated way".
She also claimed there was a "definite lack of supported accommodation" for local people with a mental illness.
"When you are looking at promoting their recovery, all they want is a stable home and to be connected to resources and friends... to have a job or a hobby," she said.
"How do you get any of that if you don't have a stable home to live in? That is often the difficulty in this area."
Ms Hoppner said LRH was currently working with Mental Illness Fellowship and local real estate agents on a three-year Doorway pilot project - based on a unique New York model of care - to see clients accommodated in the private rental market and offered "mental health care and social inclusion" services. So far 19 of the 20 places available in Latrobe were filled, she said.
Regional services were also currently busy preparing submissions for Council of Australian Governments money "around secure housing and co-ordinated care packages", Ms Hoppner said.
Read The Express on Thursday for more coverage on local mental health issues.