On the front-line of the mental health battle

By Jamie Salter

Ongoing uncertainty around COVID-19 and difficulty seeking help is contributing to worrying mental health statistics for regional areas, according to a local outreach worker.

Benalla Rural City rural outreach worker Ivan Lister connects vulnerable people to mental health services and said uncertainty around coronavirus restrictions had escalated the number of people seeking help, especially since Mitchell Shire entered stage three restrictions.

In a week, Mr Lister will receive about 20 phone calls and make about three in-person visits to vulnerable people.

“A lot of calls I get are about relationship pressure now, one family member may be really frightened by COVID-19, and another might say it's not a big deal,” Mr Lister said.

“It’s a worry for farming families working near the Mitchell Shire, because you could have staff come from another area, or family members who work off-farm.”

Beyond Blue statistics reveal that those living regionally are more likely to suffer from mental illness and have a higher rate of suicide deaths when compared with major cities, but they are not always able to access the support they need.

About 960,000 remote and rural Australians experience a mental disorder each year, according to 2015 research from the Garvan Research Foundation.

“A lot of farmers don't do anything about mental health problems because you can have good days and bad days,” Mr Lister said.

“I get them through the bad days and show them that there is help out there.

“The first step after me is to get them diagnosed, and it's very difficult for some people to take that step.

“Because they are stressed, or anxious or depressed, it's harder for them to go see someone.”

Shepparton's Wyndham House Clinic general practitioner Sanil Nair said under the Department of Health's Medicare scheme, a mental health care plan was available for those who visit their local GP.

“We make a call to determine what the problem is and then make referrals to a psychologist or psychiatrist, who communicates back to the GP,” Dr Nair said.

“Through this care plan, the patients get better access to a psychologist and continued support.

“We’ve noticed with the current coronavirus situation, there is much more stress and anxiety that is undetected, and having a discussion with your GP could help.”

However, access to mental health services is much more limited in regional areas, according to the National Rural Health Alliance.

In 2015, the number of psychologists and mental health workers per 100,000 people in major cities was 73 and 83 respectively, compared to 33 psychologists and 46 mental health workers in outer regional areas.

Beyond Blue statistics found in 2016 to 2017, 20.5 per cent of people in outer regional, remote or very remote areas of Australia waited longer than they felt acceptable to get an appointment with a GP, compared to 17.8 per cent in major cities.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men are also three times more likely to die by suicide, and of the 3046 suicide deaths across Australia in 2018, 76 per cent occurred in males.

Mr Lister said communities needed to be aware of extra pressures and take care of each other.

“Ask if they're eating okay, sleeping okay and if their family is communicating,” he said.