Barrier Breakers becomes Gippsland’s second mental health service to close in two weeks

by Rio Davis

A second Gippsland mental health organisation has collapsed in a fortnight, prompting concerns about the ability of people with mental illness to access services in the region.   

The board of Traralgon-based Barrier Breakers Incorporated voted on Monday night to place the organisation into liquidation, as it was struggling to pay its debts.

The organisation had been operating in the region since 2006, offering advocacy and support for those living with a mental illness.

The founder and former director of Barrier Breakers Derek Amos said it was a heartbreaking decision.

The organisation’s programs included establishing a supported accommodation project, which built 10 units for clients in Traralgon.

However, money has always been tight.

The volunteer-run organisation relied heavily on donations and grants to continue operating, but Mr Amos said there had been little ongoing support from governments.

He said applications to state and federal governments for ongoing funding had been unsuccessful.

Barrier Breakers’ most recent financial statement lodged with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profit Commission was in 2020.

It showed the organisation had a deficit of almost $36,000.

Barrier Breakers had four part-time workers and 15 casuals in 2020.

Its 2021 financial reports were listed as overdue.

According to the report, 55 per cent of its funding came from governments and its largest expense was staff wages.

“Most of the funds that have come in by way of grants are specific-purpose grants, so we can’t use those for administration costs or keeping the office open … so we’ve struggled through,” Mr Amos said.

A woman smiling in front of a teapot.
Janice Chesters says a lack of government funding also contributed to Within Australia’s closure.(ABC Gippsland: Rio Davis)

Loss of local services

The closure of Barrier Breakers comes after the closure of major mental health provider Within Australia two weeks ago. 

Within Australia started in Gippsland in the 1990s and grew to employ 60 staff and supported more than 400 people with mental illness and disability from Wonthaggi to Bairnsdale. 

While board members said the NDIS funding model for mental illnesses was not sustainable, it was the loss of a key federal government grant that lead to the closure of the service. 

Founding board member of Within Australia Janice Chesters said locals were losing out on genuine community services. 

“It costs you in staff time, in management time, in design time, all of those [expenses] that aren’t covered by the NDIS.

“Centralised services mean that maybe you’re doing different work because your team who look at the NDIS program say ‘Look, it’s not cost-effective to do that’.

“There have got to be places for real communities and we need to get back to that kind of situation.”

Funding reform needed

Peak body Mental Health Victoria said the closure of the two Gippsland services would put pressure on an already overwhelmed system.

“Challenges experienced in major cities, such as workforce shortages and unmet need for mental health supports, are experienced more acutely in regional areas,” chief executive Marcelle Mogg said.

“This is due in part to a combination of long distances, diluted service distribution, and service models that may not be appropriate for regional communities.”

Mr Mogg said there needed to be significant funding reform to allow services to have a more dependable income stream.

“Shorter-term contracts do not offer the stability or continuity of care required for best patient outcomes.”

Urgent action needed to fill vacuum, says Barrier Breakers boss

Mr Amos said the government needed to offer more mental health support as part of the mainstream health system.

“I think somebody in government needs to have a close look at the services that both Barrier Breakers and Within Australia have been providing over the years and see whether or not there are changes that can be made to provide those services in a mainstream way throughout the region,” he said.

The ABC approached the Victorian and federal governments for comment.