Leading academics have cast doubt on the effectiveness of headspace, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding.
- A report has questioned whether significant investment in headspace has been matched by health outcomes
- headspace says the report is “irrelevant” and “inappropriate”
- The mental health service has received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding since 2006
A report published this week in The Medical Journal of Australia suggests mental health outcomes are not matching the significant outlay in funding for youth network, headspace.
Australian National University’s academic unit of psychiatry and addiction medicine’s Jeffrey Looi told ABC Radio Melbourne the paper offered a summary of published evaluations related to effectiveness of care.
“The overall picture is that there is very little evidence of substantial effectiveness — and the other part that is concerning is, so little of the people provided care in the service were actually in the published data,” he said.
Headspace has fiercely rejected the claims, saying its own studies show the services on offer have resulted in “significant improvements” for 71 per cent of participants.
But Professor Looi said one of the largest studies included just .5 per cent of the young Australians who had used headspace.
He said public and private mental health services were assessed against agreed sets of measures in both in-patient and out-patient settings to ensure benchmarks in the outcome of care.
“The curious part is how little of this type of evaluation has occurred for headspace and why that hasn’t been forthcoming, which raises concerns,” Professor Looi said.
He said the report didn’t question the legitimacy of the services provided but rather whether it was money well spent.
The report claims that since it was established in 2006, headspace has secured funding totalling more than $1 billion.
This includes an allocation of $765.8 million as part of the federal government’s pandemic measures with an aim of establishing 10 new centres — to reach a total of 164 sites across Australia by 2025.
“There is obviously a need in the community,” Professor Looi said.
“It’s whether the money is well spent because of the evidence of the effectiveness of care and that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.”
The report was co-authored by Professor Steve Kisely, a University of Queensland researcher, psychiatrist and public health physician.
Both professors serve on a consortium of independent academic psychiatrists who examine policy issues for the overall health system.
Given headspace clients were often referred back into public mental health services, Professor Looi said it would be useful to consider strengthening the funding for public mental health services.
“We believe it is a bottleneck in terms of access that needs to be expanded and is in alignment with concerns that have been expressed about public mental health system capacity — funding could be spent on that,” he said.
Other options include established partnerships between private practice and the public hospitals with the inclusion of in-reach allied health support.
“The problem with potentially large scale NGOs and bespoke type services is that they don’t interact effectively with other parts of the health services,” Professor Looi said.
Headspace chief executive Jason Trethowan said the report showed “evidence of considerable bias”.
“[It] is deliberately misleading, misrepresents headspace and makes irrelevant and inappropriate claims,” Mr Trethowan said.
“Over the past 16 years, headspace has provided more than four million services and supported over 700,000 young people at our centres right across the country,” he said.
“Headspace is firmly established as a critical component of the mental health care system and we are proud of what we offer, not just to young people but also their families and the communities in which we operate.”
He said a new study exploring the outcomes of young people accessing support at headspace found just under 71 per cent of 50,000 people surveyed reported improved outcomes.
“We know young people’s experience of mental health is unique, their help-seeking is fragile and improved outcomes, such as these, have a lifetime benefit,” Mr Trethowan said.
“The impacts of the past two years including COVID-19, natural disasters and the rising cost of living have disproportionately impacted young people and young people are coming to headspace for help in greater numbers than ever before.”