Psychiatrist and youth mental health advocate Patrick McGorry has called for "a radical reform of the structure and culture" of mental health services, as the Productivity Commission prepares to look at the economic cost of mental illness.
The former Australian of the Year said previous reviews had resulted in no more than "Band-Aids and confetti", calling for a significant funding boost to bring mental health treatment in line with that directed at illnesses such as cancer and heart disease.
Allan Fels, former chairman of the ACCC and the National Mental Health Commission and who lobbied for the Productivity Commission inquiry, said mental health reform could boost the economy by a massive $18.4 billion a year. Among the benefits would be a marked improvement in workforce participation by Australians with a mental illness.
The push comes after the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month revealed the suicide rate had spiked by 9 per cent to 3128 deaths last year, with 262 more lives lost than in 2016.
"Unless mental health is dealt with properly and well, the failures of the system to prevent avoidable forms of mental illness would lead to very high costs in disability support pensions, prisons, housing and homelessness - and unnecessarily expensive treatment," Professor Fels said.
"Mental health is the weak point of the otherwise good Australian health system, it's been a low priority at federal and state level and is not well organised."
He welcomed the review, which he hoped would put mental health "on the economic reform map" with federal and state Treasury and ministerial departments - including the Office of the Prime Minister.
Health Minister Greg Hunt is expected to release the inquiry terms of reference in the coming days or weeks and has said the Productivity Commission inquiry will take up to 18 months.
"A good mental health system backed by employment measures will sharply increase participation in the workforce by people with mental illness, especially mild to moderate illness," Professor Fels said.
And he said "significant" gains could be achieved by fixing the system, predicting that a 25 per cent improvement over five to 10 years could result in a 1 per cent boost to Australia's GDP - $18.4 billion a year, based on current economic output.
"This would dwarf most of the claimed economic gain by tax microeconomic reform," he said.
Professor McGorry said psychiatric services should be integrated with other mental health support, and addiction specialists, in "community hubs".
He said mental health remained drastically underfunded, despite government claims of record spending.
"We're losing ground and it's all being spent in the wrong places," he said.
"I'd like us to get parity with the rest of health funding ... We'll have a massive return on investment if we spend the money in the right way."
He said mental illness affected people who were "in the prime of their life", meaning effective interventions would deliver "a huge return on investment".
Lifeline chairman John Brogden said the system needed more funding directed at helping patients discharged from hospital after a mental health crisis.
"We know the greatest indicator of suicide is a previous attempt, and we have very poor follow up for people who leave hospital," he said.
"There is terrific follow up if you leave after pregnancy - they send a home nurse to check up on you -
but for mental health, people are being let out of hospital without a single phone call."
Mr Brogden, a former NSW opposition leader who became a leading advocate after his own highly publicised mental health episode in 2005, said Australia was "losing the battle" in suicide prevention.
"We've never spent more money on mental health, we've talked about it more - yet we're going backwards," he said.
University of Melbourne Professor of Psychiatry Louise Newman welcomed the Productivity Commission probe, but urged that it not become "a repetition of other inquiries" into the sector.
Professor Newman, the director of the Centre for Women's Mental Health at the Royal Women's Hospital, said vulnerable groups had been neglected in discussions about the economic effects of mental illness.
She called for a focus on early intervention and prevention, and the needs of women - particularly those with serious perinatal mental disorders - children, refugees and domestic violence survivors.
"We know unemployment rates and mental health problems are very high in those groups," Professor Newman said.
She said some women escaping violence needed support to recover from trauma before returning to the workforce.
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Dana is a federal politics reporter, covering health and industrial relations. Previously, she was a reporter for The Australian.