Geraldton is a port city, 400km north of Perth, in the Mid-West, with a population of just over 40,000 including up to 7,000 Aboriginal residents. It is a centre for mining, fishing, wheat, sheep and tourism.
Thank-you to Geraldton!
Many thanks to the Geraldton community for their hospitality and sharing their ideas with us. We were made welcome everywhere we went. In the morning, as our small plane approached the regional airport, I was struck by how dry the land looked. But happily, not long after we arrived, the heavens opened and it rained all day. After a long rain-free period, the downpour was greeted with joy. Many were very glad, especially farmers who had 'dry-seeded' in the hope that it would rain in time to water their crops.
In Geraldton, I visited:
- Mayor Ian Carpenter and CEO of the City of Geraldton, Tony Brun
- Chrysalis Support Services
- Central West mental Health Service
- Midwest Community Living Association
Mayor Ian Carpenter and CEO Tony Brun, City of Geraldton
I started my visit to Geraldton by sharing a cup of coffee with Mayor Ian Carpenter and Tony Brun. It was great to hear about some community youth programs the Council is running, including a Youth Bus donated by the police and reconditioned from its past incarnation as a "Booze Bus"! Fitted out with a flat screen telly, computer games, sports equipment and parked down at the foreshore each Thursday night, with youth workers on hand, it's popular with local kids. There is also "Midnight Basketball" on Friday nights, which attracts an average of 35-40 kids, and the deal is that young people get a meal and take part in the basketball competition but also undertake a little education (in things like personal finances and health including STDs) along the way.
In both cases, the Council took on the funding of these programs after initial funding ran out. There are some particular social issues involving children in the community as young as 8 and this is an interesting example of the important role for local government to step in to more non-traditional areas of responsibility for social inclusion and mental wellbeing because the need is there.
Issues of concern raised by the Council included: the lack of social housing and affordable accommodation in the area, which has lead to increasing homelessness. The impact of FIFO (fly-in-fly-out) workers, and how this is leading to skilled workers leaving communities, which dilutes communities and causes disconnection within families and relationships. With respect to mental health care, there is a lack of early intervention services in the region and the expectation is that if someone becomes seriously unwell they will have to go to Perth, at a cost of $8,000 per transit with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Chrysalis Support Services
Chrysalis provides crisis accommodation and free counselling and support to people affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. When I met with Elizabeth Attridge and Dionne Herisson, they identified that one of the biggest barriers to providing effective mental health services is the limited knowledge that specialists have about the overlap between domestic violence, sexual assault and mental health. The pivotal role of past trauma in mental ill-health is becoming increasingly well-researched and recognised and there is a need for better education, awareness and understanding by health professionals about the link.
Central West Mental Health Services
Ken Thomson told me about the collaborative work that Central West is doing with communities. For example, in the town of Carnarvon they have established a partnership with an Indigenous GP service, based on the "hub and spoke" model. It is staffed by GPs and mental health nurses, who can both can make referrals to psychiatrists connected with the service.
This meeting really brought home to me the important role of mental health nurses in rural and remote communities. They provide essential services for people experiencing severe and persistent mental illness and liaise between GPs and clients, helping to break down barriers by visiting people away from surgeries in some cases and generally making services more accessible.
Ken also discussed some of the common challenges I am hearing about in rural mental health including the difficulty of recruitment and retention of qualified staff (with 2 Psychiatrists available to cover a region which is larger than Victoria), inability to meet the overall demand for services, inadequate housing and social service supports and the lack of inpatient facilities to manage people within their communities rather than sending them away. Better integration of drug and alcohol services with mental health services and the lack of NGOs to assist with recovery services were also gaps he identified.
I met with Andrew Braun, the State Director, and Anne Rickards, the Geraldton Manager, of Fusion - an organization which provides two kinds of supported accommodation: a guesthouse in Geraldton for people who are on low incomes or with few resources and supported residential units for people experiencing mental ill-health.
Fusion facilities are virtually the only supported accommodation in Geraldton for people experiencing disadvantage or mental health issues. In April this year 179 people needing crisis accommodation at their guesthouse were turned away, as it was full. With no other service within Geraldton that could respond to this level of demand, those 179 people were essentially homeless.
The severe lack of crisis accommodation and social housing in Geraldton became an emerging theme of my consultations with community stakeholders.
On a more positive note, I really enjoyed hearing about Fusion's supported accommodation for people experiencing mental ill-health - which provides people with recovery time - and space - so that they can then move back into community living. Anne told me of one resident who had been in and out of hospital every few months over many years but since moving into the supported units he had been doing very well and had not been readmitted to Graylands Hospital in Perth for 18 months. Welcoming, connecting, helping people feel valued and fostering trust - that's the secret.
This was a great example of the ‘step up/down' approach to ensure that people regain living skills and maintain connections with their community. I greatly enjoyed my tour of the facility, including the lovely herb and vegetable garden that offers fresh produce and therapeutic work for people living in the units.
Midwest Community Living Association
Run by the energetic, Angie Godden, Midwest Community Living Association supports individuals who have a disability to enable them to live in their own homes within the community to maximize their independence and community participation. Offering a whole range of services including intensive family support, school holiday support, non-residential support and respite for ageing carers, Angie is creative and a strong advocate for her clients. She identified the difficulty in obtaining the appropriate holistic care when there are overlapping conditions such as disability and mental health - and emphasised the importance of services collaborating to provide comprehensive and well-tailored care and support.
If you are feeling in distress, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.