Melbourne suicide bereavement, HRAR services shut down as funding dries up

Dianne Ellis and her husband will never forget February 7, 2021.

Shortly after they woke up on Sunday morning, they found Ms Ellis’s son, Steven, had died by suicide at the age of 42.

For at least eight years Steve had been living with rapid cycling bipolar — a condition that saw him fluctuate between mania and depression.

Ms Ellis remembers her son as a “larger than life character”, who loved Transformers and Japan.

“My happiest day was marrying Harry, and Steven’s death and the weeks around it were the worst,” she said.

Bereaved couple’s ‘saving grace’

When police arrived they gave Ms Ellis the number for LifeConnect, a program that provided bereavement support after suicide for people in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

In the days after Steven’s death, Ms Ellis and her husband called the number and said they wanted help.

Their LifeConnect counsellors were invaluable.

“Having a family member suicide, it’s just so catastrophic for your life,” Ms Ellis said.

“The counselling was fabulous.

“Bec was my saving grace — I was just waiting for that phone call.”

When Ms Ellis was told the bereavement program would “close for service” as of June 30, she was shocked.

“I was so angry I cried,” Ms Ellis said.

“I was just furious for [my counsellor] and for all the other families who are going to need this service.

Good results, but funding gone

Neami National ran the LifeConnect program on behalf of the Eastern Melbourne Primary Health Network (EMPHN).

In a statement, it was confirmed that at the end of financial year a “change in funding” would “result in the closure of the LifeConnect suicide bereavement programs, including one-on-one counselling and outreach support, support groups and community support sessions”.

“LifeConnect will continue to provide community-focused suicide prevention services,” the statement said.

“We are working closely with existing clients impacted by the closure to ensure a safe transition, assisting people to connect with alternative bereavement supports where needed and available.”

A young man with red hair and black thin framed glasses looks up, holding a cigarette.
Ms Ellis says the support she received after Steven’s death helped to get her through.(Supplied: Dianne Ellis)

EMPHN said the program was funded “from a variety of sources”, including the federal and state governments, much of which was short-term.

“The program was monitored and was operating well — performance was not a factor,” EMPHN program delivery and service enhancement unit executive director Narelle Quinn said.

“Unfortunately the service was always operating out of a time-limited pool of funding and there was insufficient funding remaining to support the bereavement counselling aspect of the LifeConnect program moving forward.”

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said the government had committed to providing the PHN program with rolling three-year contracts to support longer-term service delivery.

“The PHN will continue to support LifeConnect to provide community-focused suicide prevention services using Commonwealth funding,” he said.

“People seeking bereavement services in eastern Melbourne can access bereavement services through the Standby program, delivered in eastern Melbourne by Jesuit Social Services, by phoning 1300 727 247.”

Ms Ellis said she would not want to go to a religious organisation for support.

Short contracts, big problem

The Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) says thousands of programs across Australia are reliant on “drip funding”.

VCOSS chief executive Emma King said no organisation could operate to its full potential if it faced a series of funding cliffs.

“You can’t deliver long-term reform on short-term funding,” she said.

Ms King says the prevalence of short-term contracts contributes to “toxic” work insecurity in the sector.

“It’s a heavily gendered workforce, so it disproportionately impacts women,” she said.

Seven-year contracts recommended

A 2017 inquiry by the Productivity Commission (PC) recommended longer contracts for family and community services that were based on how much time was needed to achieve agreed outcomes rather than “arbitrary or standard contract periods”.

“It is difficult to identify an ideal contract length,” the report said.

“To address this, the commission is recommending that governments move to a seven-year default contract term.”

The PC said seven-year default contracts would allow time for set-up and a smooth transition to a new provider at the end of the contract.

“In between, service providers would have a much needed period of stability and, when combined with a stronger focus on user outcomes, would provide the basis for more effective service provision,” the report said.

Ms King is calling for both state and federal governments to “set a new standard”.

“We certainly want the Victorian government to adopt seven-year contracts as standard,” she said.

An older man with a mask opens the door to two workers wearing masks and gloves.
Access Health and Community staff say they have built trust in vulnerable communities.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

Support for the vulnerable to end

A program that helped tens of thousands of vulnerable Victorians access healthcare during the pandemic will also wind up today.

The High Risk Accommodation Response (HRAR) program began in 2020, following the widely criticised hard lockdown of nine public housing towers in July of that year.

Residents living in high-risk accommodation such as public housing towers, caravan parks and supported residential services had community health workers come to them to offer COVID and flu vaccinations.

While the clinicians were there, they were able to help people address other health needs such as chronic conditions, dental and mental health concerns, by connecting them with existing services.

A middle-aged woman with dark grey hair and a fringe, standing outside.
Jane Seeber says the HRAR funding was cut off “with fairly short notice”.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

One of the 24 community health services delivering HRAR said it was “really difficult news” when they found out the program would be cut.

“Unfortunately for a number of workers we haven’t been able to find positions for them ourselves,”  Access Health and Community Services chief operating officer Jane Seeber said.

“[We] understood what a difference the team was making.

Earlier this month Victorian Healthcare Association chief executive Tom Symondson said he hoped the Victorian government reconsidered the program’s funding.

“We’ve got months left of the cold weather. We’ve got our hospital system under huge pressure,” he said.

“Programs like HRAR keep people out of hospital.”

While funding for HRAR will end today, the state government says it is investing in a smaller initiative to support Victorians living in high-risk settings.

“Drawing on the success of the High Risk Accommodation Response (HRAR) program, the government is investing an additional $8.5 million in a new program that will support our most vulnerable communities over the next 12 months,” a spokesperson said.

“The Community Connectors initiative will support people in areas such as high-rise towers and priority regional areas to stay healthy by connecting residents with community health and social care services.”

When contacted yesterday, Access Health and Community chief executive Anna Robinson said they were not aware of any funding being announced.

“While we welcome funding to support vulnerable communities, a program that is limited to public housing will not meet the needs of most people supported through the HRAR program,” she said.

Mr Symondson also welcomed the funding but said last-minute reprieves were disruptive.

He is urging both state and federal governments to use longer contract terms as standard and to guarantee funding extensions for programs for “as long as they are delivering value”.

“It has an impact on patients or consumers who might be benefiting from that service and it has a huge impact on the workforce, who can’t have certainty for their own roles.”

With additional reporting from Kristian Silva.

Leave a Comment