Let's support our mental health caregivers | OPINION

Something important is missing in recent discussions about the state of mental health care in Australia.

Yes, we need more crisis supports. Yes, in-patient services are overstretched and funding for ongoing clinical services woefully inadequate.

But most of the time, people living with a mental health problem are not in hospitals, and professional contact is infrequent.

It's family and friends who see them most.

Becoming a grandfather has prompted me to think about how our society supports parents in the most important work of their lives - rearing the next generation.

Universal access to antenatal classes and maternal child health nurses brings expert knowledge when it's needed. And new parents learn much from their peers who are a step or two ahead in parenting.

But where do we learn what to do if someone close to us is struggling with depression, OCD, schizophrenia, bipolar or more?

Have I failed as a parent because this has happened?

How am I expected to know if medication is good or bad? How do I pay the bills when I've had to cut back to part-time work in order to be a carer? Is he/she now dangerous? What will my friends think? Should I be forcing him to get out of bed? How can I make her stop that crazy talk?

These are just some of the questions I've heard in my line of work.

Existing relationships and regular contact put families and friends in the box seat to support those close to them. But, understandably, few are confident to do so.

I've been working with Wellways Australia to evaluate a program designed to help - and it's had some very positive results.

The Building-A-Future program uses the best available evidence as well as the wisdom of those who have been in a similar situation.

We surveyed more than 1000 carers around the country who attended the 12-session program.

Carers' distress reduced over the program and lasted through to the 10-month follow-up. Carers' understanding of mental health, and communication with the person they supported improved significantly. The research was recently published in the international journal Psychological Medicine.

We now have strong evidence that peer-led family education and support programs work.

They should be as accessible to mental health caregivers, as antenatal classes are for new parents.

John Farhall is an Associate Professor in Psychology at La Trobe University