Two University of Melbourne experts unpack the changing climate of mental health services

Community, social and mental health services is one of Australia's fastest growing industries, so it pays to know where it's heading.

Since the National Mental Health Strategy was introduced in Australia in 1992, mental health and social services are now staffed by a significantly larger workforce. In its first 15 years, the number of skilled professionals increased by 51 per cent, and today, it’s one of our fastest growing industries.

Demand for the latest skills and understanding of the industry is constant, so to get ahead, studying mid-career can help.

“The past 10 years have seen the community services sector develop as a major employer of skilled professionals in Australia,” says Professor Cathy Humphreys, Head Department of social work at the University of Melbourne. “The rapid professionalisation and demand for qualifications signifies an important shift, and there are no suggestions that either the growth in the community sector or the professionalisation of workers will decrease in the future.”

This immense growth has coincided with rising awareness of mental health. Research by the University of Melbourne demonstrated an increase in awareness of illnesses like depression surrounding mental health in the last 25 years, thanks to national organisations like Beyond Blue working to destigmatise mental health in all pockets of Australia. The percentage of those with a mental illness who saw a mental health professional in 2007 was almost double those who did so in 1997 – from 12 per cent to 22 per cent – due to increased accessibility.

“The relationship between clients and the services has changed dramatically over the last 20 years from a more welfare-oriented system that was focused on grateful recipients of care,” explains Dr Ralph Hampson, Associate Professor of social work at the University of Melbourne.

Mental health care has become more proactive, more geared towards prevention, and has aimed to seek out those who may not seek help themselves. It has also shifted from primarily within hospitals and clinics to community settings. But in recent years, the sector has also ballooned into individualised or specialised care.

Dr Hampson says private practice for social workers is a new and booming field, and one that is rarely talked about.

“There will always be a need for social workers and community workers in justice, prisons and child protection, but the Master of Advanced Social Work could be used for the people who are wanting to develop their specialisation and further their expertise in particular areas.”

The rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) has been a game changer, providing more opportunities for individualised support, while the Headspace rollout has seen huge innovations in early intervention treatments, and opened more doors for youth mental health workers.

But one of the biggest growth spurts for community and social services has been in aged care. Thanks to the Royal Commission into Aged Care, whose final report will be delivered in November 2020, Dr Hampson says the demand for aged care workers in both community and private contexts is expected to increase dramatically.

“The growth of this sector is a bit unprecedented in that the ageing population will double. We're going to need more social workers and community workers to serve that population,” he says.

With the community, social and mental health services industry swelling, supply of skilled workers is struggling to keep up with demand. With so many areas expected to expand, there’s never been a better time to jump into further study at the University of Melbourne, where graduates leave equipped with the most relevant, useful and up-to-date skills needed throughout the sector.

Explore our courses