Mental health service planning for Aboriginal people in New South Wales

Indigenous health Indigenous health promotion Mental health Mental health promotion Policy

Mental illness (including substance use disorders) is the main contributor to lower life expectancy and increased mortality in the Aboriginal population of New South Wales. It contributes to a higher burden of disease and premature death at rates that are 40 per cent higher than the next highest chronic disease group, cardiovascular disease.1 

Aboriginal people have significantly higher rates of mental illness than non Aboriginal people in New South Wales. They are more likely to present at emergency departments in crisis or acute phases of mental illness than the rest of the population and are more likely to be admitted to hospital for mental health treatments.2 

In acknowledgement of the significant health disparities between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal people, NSW Health implemented the NSW Aboriginal Health Plan 2013 2023 (the Aboriginal Health Plan). The overarching message of the Aboriginal Health Plan is ‘to build respectful, trusting and effective partnerships with Aboriginal communities’ and to implement ‘integrated planning and service delivery’ with sector partners. Through the Plan, NSW Health commits to providing culturally appropriate and ‘holistic approaches to the health of Aboriginal people'.

The mental health sector is complex, involving Commonwealth, state and non government service providers. In broad terms, NSW Health has responsibility to support patients requiring higher levels of clinical support for mental illnesses, while the Commonwealth and non government organisations offer non acute care such as assessments, referrals and early intervention treatments.

The NSW Health network includes 15 Local Health Districts and the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network that provide care to patients during acute and severe phases of mental illness in hospitals, prisons and community service environments. This includes care to Aboriginal patients in the community at rates that are more than four times higher than the non Aboriginal population. Community services are usually provided as follow up after acute admissions or interactions with hospital services. The environments where NSW Health delivers mental health care include:

  • hospital emergency departments, for short term assessment and referral
  • inpatient hospital care for patients in acute and sub acute phases of mental illness
  • mental health outpatient services in the community, such as support with medications
  • custodial mental health services in adult prisons and juvenile justice centres.

The NSW Government is reforming its mental health funding model to incrementally shift the balance from hospital care to enhanced community care. In 2018–19, the NSW Government committed $400 million over four years into early intervention and specialist community mental health teams.


  • NSW Health is not meeting the objectives of the NSW Aboriginal Health Plan, to form effective partnerships with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services and Aboriginal communities to plan, design and deliver mental health services.
  • There is limited evidence that existing partnerships between NSW Health and Aboriginal communities meet its own commitment to use the ‘knowledge and expertise of the Aboriginal community (to) guide the health system at every level, including (for) the identification of key issues, the development of policy solutions, the structuring and delivery of services' 3 and the development of culturally appropriate models of mental health care.
  • NSW Health is planning and coordinating its resources to support Aboriginal people in acute phases of mental illness in hospital environments. However, it is not effectively planning for the supply and delivery of sufficient mental health services to assist Aboriginal patients to manage mental illness in community environments. Existing planning approaches, data and systems are insufficient to guide the $400 million investment into community mental health services announced in the 2018–19 Budget.
  • NSW Health is not consistently forming partnerships to ensure coordinated care for patients as they move between mental health services. There is no policy to guide this process and practices are not systematised or widespread.
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