WRITTEN BY: Dr Qusai Hussain Rural Australians are dying – how regional businesses can help fill the mental health gap

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. How can rural businesses help?

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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?

SPECIALISED ACCESS

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

serviceswas 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?

OFFERING OPTIONS

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

offerdigital 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.

Positive change starts here!

Take your first step to a healthier you, download the Cyber Clinic app and be connected with flexible online counsellors, psychologists and therapists that have been picked for you. Take charge of your mental health and wellbeing today.

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07-Aug-2020
how i tackled anxiety

One in six Australians is currently experiencing depression or anxiety or both. Beyond Blue Breakdown: 17.0% of Australians aged 16 to 85 have experienced an anxiety and/or affective disorder in the past 12 months. This is equivalent to 3.2 million people today.

This is one of our team member’s story on how she tackled anxiety. Tash has been suffering from anxiety since her mid-twenties.

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It has been four months since I last saw my psychologist. She helped me ground myself, by bringing me back to the now. CBT and probing into the whys of my reactions to events and my thoughts and fears, I learnt about myself and knew that I was to change a few things in my life to get ahead of my situation. I started with being loyal to my needs first. I went to every psych consult religiously, and in the third session, realised how I was changing as a person, I felt strong, proud and empowered. I was taught to create boundaries and continue to enjoy amazing connections with my friends and loved ones. I learnt to self-love and nurture my needs ahead of others. I was learning to say “no” politely and firmly and to stand in what I believed. I felt like I could surrender to the new me and still feel free. Fast forward to now, I do these things daily to keep on top of my mental health:

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We welcome the good news from Minister Greg that the Government will provide 10 additional Medicare subsidised mental health consults for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic after lengthy meetings with the APS. We are proud to offer this to our existing clients to help support with their current mental health treatment plan.

Mental health and suicide prevention remain one of the Government’s highest priorities, and this Government recognises the mental health impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having on individuals and communities, particularly those in areas such as Victoria, where regrettable but necessary measures are needed to stop the spread of the virus. New items will be created under the Better Access to Psychiatrists, Psychologists and General Practitioners through the MBS initiative (Better Access) and will be available from 7 August 2020 until 31 March 2021. Patients need to have a Mental Health Treatment Plan, have used all of their 10 sessions in the calendar year; and have to undertake a review with their GP after their 10th session. 

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rural australians are dying – how regional businesses can help fill the mental health gap

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. How can rural businesses help?

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?

SPECIALISED ACCESS

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?

OFFERING OPTIONS

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.

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On the announcement of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System just before the state election last year, I was equally sceptical and hopeful. The first of its kind in Australia, the commission couldn’t be more needed, but I felt unease at mental health issues being used for political point-scoring. 

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A SYSTEM FOR THE FUTURE

Our current mental health system is fragmented, difficult to navigate and, most alarming of all, dehumanising to people at the very moment in time they need the most human connection.  

In our modern world, there is often outcry about the dehumanising nature of digital technologies, and yet, time and again, those same technologies have brought us closer together. We connect with loved ones on the other side of the world, or doctors’ who are hours away from home, at the click of the button. Human connection is not lost because of technology, it is lost due to bureaucracy.   

We live in the 21st century, and yet our mental health system is severely outdated, without any understanding of how to meet the changing needs of our society. We need to invest in digitizing mental health delivery – actually funding service provision and access in a modern way – rather than simply raising awareness and funding education programs. 

A strong digital infrastructure is the backbone of every part of contemporary society – mental health should be no different. Unless the royal commission looks for solutions grounded in the future, too soon any recommendations it gives will once again leave our mental health system in the past.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

Now that the first phase of the commission is over, the terms of reference have been finalised (which can be found in full here). These include how to effectively prevent mental illness and suicide, how to help people navigate the system, how to help families and those with mental illness and how best to support people with mental illness and drug and alcohol issues.

In coming months, the commission is expected to release information on how the inquiry will be conducted, including how the community can contribute to its work. The commission is scheduled to produce a preliminary report by 30 November this year, and a final report in October 2020. 

I encourage everyone to work with the royal commission if they can and push for radical change – anything less will be a heavy indictment that politics comes before people.

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Australia has launched its first ever Productivity Commission on mental health – and as far as solutions go, digital health needs to be front and centre.

There was a time in Australia when construction workers didn’t wear hard hats onsite, factory workers had to work 12-hour days, and no one had even heard of an OH&S safety demonstration. 

Government regulations and workplaces evolved over the past 100 years for two important reasons – to protect workers and to protect the economy. It simply wasn’t good business to have once productive employees laid up in bed with broken bones or exhaustion – safe and supportive workplaces meant better productivity for companies and a better Australian economy overall.

In 2019, our ‘lucky country’ now has some of the most stringent workplace safety laws in the world. But, the nature of work has changed dramatically in the 104 years since the Australian industrial relations system began. While physical health and safety must always be a primary concern, the mental load workers are placed under in our highly pressurised society is taking a toll – on them, and our economy. 

AN INVISIBLE CRISIS

Just last month the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the loss of productivity resulting from depression and anxiety is costing the global economy US $1 trillion each year. Here in Australia, four per cent of our GDP is lost every year due to productivity losses as a result of workers’ mental health issues – that’s at least AU $60 billion!

However, in an extremely welcome and encouraging move, the government has established Australia’s first-ever Productivity Commission to ‘examine the effect of mental health on people’s ability to participate in and prosper in the community and workplace, and the effects it has more generally on our economy and productivity’. 

Initial submissions are open until 5 April this year, and I encourage everyone to make their voices and concerns heard during this important process. 

But, given the staggering economic impact of mental health on Australia’s economy why has this commission taken so long to be convened? Well, recognising and diagnosing mental health issues is much more difficult than identifying physical hazards in the workplace – we struggle as people to fix what we can’t see. And, importantly, solutions for improving the mental health of employees aren’t as easy to come by as clearly marking fire exits and limiting work hours.  

REMOVING BARRIERS

In 2014, an IBIS report on the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) sector suggested that the usage rate of EAP services in certain industries could be as low as five per cent. The research indicated that employees generally don’t trust EAP services, are concerned about the confidentiality of such programs, and that they are perceived to have a poor quality of care – practitioners are inexperienced, or not well-matched with their clients. 

In this environment, many businesses are increasingly looking to alternative solutions. Digital health is easy for employees to access, especially remote workers or those in rural areas, and can be used at their convenience, so after hours or even on weekends. 

Most importantly, digital health platforms like Cyber Clinic use sophisticated algorithms to better match practitioners with patients, measure quality of care, and ensure trust and confidentiality are the foundation of all practitioner-patient relationships. 

A 2019 report identified that a barrier to using telehealth in Australia was the perception of the loss of the ‘human touch’ aspect of care – only 14 per cent of the population said remote appointments using hologram doctors in their home would have the most impact on improving healthcare today.

But we don’t need to beam doctors into homes or workplaces to see positive outcomes – the digital health platforms that connect patients and practitioners via video can be just the right mix of technological innovation and human care. Digital health can change lives, improve productivity and increase Australia’s GDP, and my hope is that one day mental health support in the workplace will be as clearly visible as a well-marked fire exit.

 

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