Mental Health

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Many people experiencing homelessness will also experience mental health issues. This often results in difficulties in accessing key services such as those relating to health and housing. This chapter looks at some of the issues experienced by homeless people with mental health issues such as involuntary treatment and dealing with the criminal justice system.

1. Introduction to Mental Health and Homelessness

One in five Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. The prevalence of mental illness among people who are homeless is almost certainly much higher. Recent research suggests that approximately 30% of homeless people have mental health issues (Chamberlain, Johnson and Theobald, Homeless in Melbourne: Confronting the Challenge, for Applied Social Research, RMIT University, February 2007).

Importantly, mental illness can be both the cause and the result of homelessness. A recent study conducted in Melbourne concludes that over half of the individuals who are homeless and suffer from a mental health problem developed that problem after becoming homeless.

Moreover, people who are homeless will often have difficulty in accessing mental health and other medical services, such that their mental illness goes untreated. This is compounded by the fact that, commonly, many people with a mental health problem will deny it.

If a homeless person's mental health issues go untreated, then it is very difficult for that person to find a sustainable pathway out of homelessness. Further ongoing, long-term support may be needed to keep individuals with multiple health issues in stable accommodation.

1.1 Key issues to consider

Clients who have a mental health issue may seek information and advice on various topics, including about:

 having been made the subject of an involuntary treatment order (ITO) under the Mental Health Act 1986 (Vic) or about their treatment order conditions (see section 2 below);

 the impact of their mental illness on their experience of the criminal justice system (see section 3 below);

 where and how to seek treatment for their mental illness (see section 3 below);

 discrimination on the basis of mental illness (see Chapter 2 of this Manual); and

 guardianship and administration issues (see Chapter 9 of this Manual).

1.2 Impact of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities

The Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2007 (Vic) (the Charter) came into operation on 1 January 2008. Part 2 of the Charter outlines various human rights that public authorities (as defined within the Charter) must consider in the exercise of their statutory obligations and powers (see further at Chapter 3 of this Manual).

It is possible that the mental health legislation enacted in Victoria may be inconsistent with many of the rights set out in the Charter. This is because essential aspects of Victorian mental health law enable public authorities to subject people with possible mental health disorders to treatment (including detention) without their consent.

Therefore the Charter should be borne in mind when considering whether a client has been lawfully treated when subjected to such laws.

The Charter may also be relevant to the sentencing of an individual who has a mental illness or disorder under the Crimes (Mental Impairment and Unfitness to be Tried) Act 1997 (Vic) (see section 3 below).