Complete rethink needed to address rural mental health crisis

There are just two psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in remote Australia, according to a report from the National Rural Health Alliance.

Mark Diamond, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Alliance, is calling for Australia to overhaul the way it trains and supports mental health professionals to boost numbers in rural and remote areas. 

“We need to both attract country kids to the professions and train them in rural areas to maximize the chance they’ll stay and work in the country,” he said.

“Rural Australia is not only short of GPs; all of the mental health professions are scarce.”

The report compares the number of mental health workers in major cities and country areas. 

In major cities there are 120 psychologists for every 100,000 people. 

In very remote areas there are 25 psychologists for every 100,000 people.

For mental health nurses there are 94 per 100,000 people in cities, compared to 29 per 100,000 people living in very remote areas. 

Very remote areas include Bourke and Cobar in NSW, Ceduna and Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Kalgoorlie in WA, and Cunnamulla and Charleville in Qld. 

The National Rural Health Alliance analysis also reveals that Medicare spending on mental health is $52.42 per person in cities, and $8.26 per person in very remote areas. 

“The Alliance has dug into different sets of data, and built a picture that Australia hasn’t yet seen of the rural mental health crisis,” Mr Diamond said.

“Nearly twice the number of people in remote areas end up in emergency for a mental health issue because there is simply no one else to help them.

“If the emergency department of your nearest hospital is the only service available, country people are more likely to delay seeking help, especially if they have to travel long distances to a hospital.

“It makes it much more likely their mental health illness has reached crisis point before they seek help, making it that much harder to recover.”   

The Alliance said they welcome the recent announcement by the Federal Government to fund extra online and phone counselling services for country Australia.

“Technology is a part of the solution,” Mr Diamond said.

“But it’s only a part. 

“We need significantly more mental health workers on the ground. 

“They also need extra training to prepare them for the particular needs and challenges of working in a rural or remote setting.”

The report is part of the Alliance’s submission to a Senate Inquiry into The Accessibility and Quality of Mental Health Service in Rural and Remote Australia.

The submission makes seven recommendations including a call to: 

  • Overhaul the way mental health professionals are trained to both attract and retain them in country areas.
  • Ensure they have additional generalist skills needed to address the unique needs of rural and remote Australia.
  • Ensure rural and remote areas receive the same mental health funding per capita as major cities. 
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of current federal and state mental health programs.
  • Ensure guidelines are used to decide whether or not telehealth services are appropriate.