Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that of the 3.2 million people who had a mental health disorder in the previous 12 months, only 35 per cent obtained treatment services, less than the 38 per cent reported in the previous survey in 1997.
And 2.1 million Australians recorded in the latest survey as having had a mental problem in the previous year did not use the health services, but felt they had missed out.
The figures, contained in the latest National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, have prompted calls for a rethink of mental health policies.
Brain and Mind Research Institute executive director Ian Hickie, a longstanding advocate of reform in mental health services, said many experts had expected the access figure to rise to at least 50 per cent after the huge cash injections of recent years, including the $1.8 billion package pledged by John Howard in 2006 and subsequent announcements by most states.
But Professor Hickie said that instead the report showed Australia had been tipping "new money into old services" such as GP consultations. This meant the people benefiting the most, middle-aged women, were the same people who had always most used such services, and that those missing out, men and young people, were seeing little improvement in their treatment.
"We were shocked in 1997 to find that only 38 per cent had access to services in the past year," Professor Hickie said.
"Once that became clear, it became a goal to increase access to care. If we were shocked in 1997, we are staggered now. We should never have gone for 10 years without knowing whether all the money we were spending was having any effect."
Professor Hickie called for new and innovative policies, such as delivering more mental health care through community services, and better use of communications technologies and private providers.
The study, conducted between August and December last year, indicated no reduction in the need for mental health treatment. It found 45 per cent of Australians would experience a mental health problem at some stage in their lives, and that 20per cent had a mental problem in the past year, writes Adam Cresswell, Health Editor of the Australian newspaper.
Among people aged 16-24, the rate was more than a quarter.
Mental Health Council of Australia chief David Crosbie said the figures were deplorable.
"When you think it's no better than it was 10 years ago, and with all the investment and the rejigging of the existing system and the talk about reform, you have to wonder if it reaches real people in real communities," he said.
"As well as supporting the current system, we need a lot more new and different services, and community-based services. The bottom line is we are just not reaching people with a mental health disorder."