Rural Australians have access to fewer mental health services than their city counterparts, record a higher rate of mental health hospitalisation, and are much more likely to die by suicide.
Access to mental health services in rural, regional and remote areas has for decades been recognised by successive governments as a serious issue. In 2018 it remains a matter of national concern, as evident by the fact that in March the Senate called for public submissions. Specifically, the senate called for public submissions on “the accessibility and quality of mental health services in rural and remote Australia”.
Mental health challenges in rural areas
On the Line’s submission can be viewed here, along with those from other parties.
On the Line’s position is that delivering high quality mental health services in rural, regional and remote areas is characterised by several challenges, of which the following are the most significant:
- There are fewer mental health services, overall and per capita, in rural areas compared to major urban centres.
- People must travel longer distances to access services. Vast areas also have limited or no public transport.
- The close-knit nature of small communities means people may be reluctant to seek help.
There are many factors that exacerbate the above. For example, many regional areas have a high incidence of socio-economic disadvantage while the local population tends to have more chronic ill health conditions. A lack of services, coupled with the long travel distances of the rural landscape, can result in social isolation and loneliness compounding or exacerbating underlying mental health issues.
In addition, a high incidence of acute mental health conditions has long been identified among many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
New ways to deliver mental health services
On the Line believes that the best way to address the imbalance of mental health services between rural and urban areas is to address the physical scarcity of services; eliminate barriers posed by travel distances; and overcome concerns about confidentiality and anonymity within close-knit communities.
On the Line believes that greater availability of telehealth services in rural areas, along with the development of new digital and telephony-based services, can significantly improve the quality and access to mental and social health services in rural areas. Key benefits include the following:
- More telehealth and digital mental health services mean uptake is likely to increase among people concerned about privacy and discretion.
- Access to psychologists, case workers and other mental health professionals will inherently increase by making their services available via telephone and digital channels.
- Telephone and digital channels can reduce the burden on a limited mental health workforce by providing alternatives to face-to-face contact.
- Greater uptake of telephone and digital services will likely lead to a decrease in the acuteness of mental health conditions among people who require support, as they are more likely to obtain preventative help.
- New technologies based on telephone, SMS text and digital applications (e.g. video counselling, web chat, mobile self-help apps) and which are staffed and administered by mental health professionals can further reduce the need for face-to-face contact.
On the Line’s submission to the Senate can be downloaded here. The Senate’s official date for reporting is currently set as October 17, 2018.