Ten per cent of Australians live in regional and remote areas – that’s 2.6 million people who can’t easily access the mental health services they desperately need.
I recently asked a friend from Brisbane if she would pack up her family and move to a rural town in Australia if she knew that cancer rates were twice as high than those in the city? She looked aghast and said no, of course she wouldn’t.
I then asked, “what if your son had a chronic condition and you knew that 75% of the specialists he would need were based in major cities, would you move to a rural town then?” Her answer, as expected, was another emphatic no.
And yet, this devastating reality is what we ask of regional and rural Australians suffering from mental health issues.
Between 2010 and 2017, the rate of suicide in remote areas was almost double that of major cities, and in 2015 VicHealth reported that 88% of psychiatrists, 75% of mental health nurses and 75% of registered psychologists were employed in major cities, leaving the remaining workforce to serve all other rural and regional areas. Is this truly the best we can do?
Last week the results of a review of the Australian Government’s Better Access mental health scheme were released, and the results showed that the scheme is inequitable in its current format, especially for those in rural and regional areas. In fact, a 2015 study found the delivery of Better Access services was typically greater in more advantaged urban areas.
In order to combat this inequity, the Australian Psychological Society (ASP) is recommending to the government that a new certification for regional and rural psychologists be created as a recognition of the unique skills required to work in remote areas.
By creating a regional psychology speciality there is hope that access and delivery of rural mental health services will receive more focus and funding from the government in years to come. But, until such provisions are up and running, where can people turn for help today?
With limited access to qualified and specialised psychologists within a reasonable distance from their home or workplace, many rural Australians are struggling on a day-to-day basis. This impacts their productivity, increases their likelihood of absenteeism from work and creates problems in their personal lives. In small and remote communities, one person’s struggle soon affects everyone.
Often people who live in small rural communities are reluctant to seek treatment because of a perceived lack of anonymity and confidentiality - walking into a psychologist’s office in a large city is nerve-wracking enough, but knowing that your entire community is witnessing you take that step can be downright terrifying. Plus, in urban centres you have the option of finding a mental health professional that is right for you - there are numerous choices available - but in regional areas you likely have only one option, and if that person isn’t a good fit there may be no realistic alternative available.
Until the government manages to provide modern and forward-thinking regional mental health services, rural businesses can help fill the chasm the government is unable to close.
Businesses that offer digital and online mental health services to employees allow them to access the immediate help they need, on their terms, and in complete anonymity. The range of mental health professionals available on platforms such as Cyber Clinic means people can find someone who understands their unique circumstances as someone living in a regional or remote community, and who has an approach that works for them. The positive effects of providing online mental health support will not only be felt in the workplace, where an employee’s work satisfaction and morale will increase and hence business productivity, but in the wider community.
Regional and rural Australians are known for being tight-knit and supporting those in their communities during tough times – offering access to online mental health services may be the most important support there is.
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