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Bright future for e-mental health: Kate Carnell

You’d expect Kate Carnell to rank her former role as ACT chief minister as the most significant milestone in her career.

Instead, she points to twenty years of work as an owner-operator at a community pharmacy as the defining period of her life which shaped her attitudes towards healthcare.

“I saw just how prevalent mental health issues were and how difficult they could be to deal with. On a daily basis people would come in troubled about seeking help or knowing how to comply with medications they had been prescribed,” she said.

This grassroots experience led to a series of leadership roles in community service, the Australian Pharmacy Guild and a decade long stint in politics.

Ms Carnell is now chief executive at beyondblue, a national initiative tasked with facilitating attitudinal change on depression and anxiety.

The role is another expression of her passion for healthcare which during her five year tenure as ACT chief minister included owning the health portfolio. In more recent times Ms Carnell was CEO at the Australian General Practice Network.

Reflecting on her work at beyondblue, Ms Carnell acknowledged how far things had come since the organisation began twelve years ago. “It was established out of need to raise the profile of depression in order to reduce stigma, undertake research into it and encourage people to seek help. Things have come a long way over the past decade,” she remarked.

She said anxiety disorders have become a key priority since being added to the organisation’s brief four years ago. “This came about because although depression is very common, anxiety disorders are even more so but even less well understood,” she said.

Despite how far our society has come, Ms Carnell said the need to increase awareness, reduce stigma and improve access to services is immense with one million Australians today experiencing depression, and double the number with some form of anxiety problems. Less than half of people affected are currently seeking help.

She said e-mental health initiatives are making significant inroads with its mission to educate people about mental health disorders, in addition to its work offering practical, evidence-based online support and services.

Ms Carnell said beyondblue is “incredibly supportive” of the federal government’s recently announced e-Mental Health Strategy and new web portal mindhealthconnect.

“If you get onto anxiety problems early, the evidence now shows online programs can be as, or more successful, as face-to-face. This is exciting not least because many had previously thought online treatment options were cheaper but not necessarily as effective,” said Ms Carnell.

While clinician support for e-mental health is still “patchy”, Ms Carnell said growing numbers are seeing the value of live counselling and tools such as self-paced cognitive behaviour therapy courses to assist patients between visits and as an adjunct to treatment. “As research we do is producing the evidence, doctors are picking up on the value of online therapy,” she said.

Ms Carnell also noted beyondblue has contributed to the growth and quality of e-mental health resources by partnering with other leaders in the field such as the Black Dog Institute, and sponsoring work targeted at particular at-risk groups. One example she cited was the desk, a mental health portal developed by a consortium of Queensland Universities for tertiary students, who are one of the most vulnerable demographics for developing unrecognised mood and anxiety disorders.

And considering national spending on mental health now exceeds $6.3 billion per annum in a time of tight budgets, Ms Carnell said leaders should take notice of the outcomes the online space can deliver for people’s mental health without a large price tag. “There are not many areas in health you can say this about,” she concluded.