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Rural Mental Health Adjournment Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 21 Jun 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (22:16): I rise to speak tonight about the rural, remote and regional mental health consultations I am currently undertaking throughout Australia. As the national mental health spokesperson for the Australian Greens, working towards improving mental health services for people living in rural, remote and regional Australia is one of my key priorities. In order to do this effectively, I feel it is important to give people living in rural and regional Australia a say about the decisions and policies that affect them. This is particularly important at a time when we are living in what seems to be an increasingly divided Australia. I am keen to bridge the rural-city divide by learning about the needs of rural people and helping to advocate for better services on their behalf.

Over the coming months I will meet with individuals and organisations in rural and regional Australia to gain a better understanding of their access to mental health services, the quality of those services, workforce issues and unmet needs and gaps in service delivery. As part of this consultation process, l am conducting face-to-face meetings with individuals and organisations. So far, I have travelled to Albany and Geraldton in Western Australia, Hobart in Tasmania and Newcastle in New South Wales. I have also spoken with rural doctors networks across the country.

Soon, I will also kick off an online consultation process through which anyone living in rural, remote and regional Australia can provide their views to me on mental health issues and services in their community. This is an important opportunity for individuals and organisations in rural, remote and regional Australia to have a say about the provision of mental health services in their community and so participate in the development of policy that directly affects them as Australians living in rural, remote and regional areas. These consultations will significantly inform the Greens' policy development process, resulting in a comprehensive and robust policy that is underpinned by the voices of people affected by and with expertise in mental health issues in rural, remote and regional Australia—the real experts.

Access to quality health care, including mental health care, is a basic human right. With one in five Australians experiencing mental health issues in any given year, mental health policy goes to the heart of our nation's wellbeing and touches all of us. Generally, it is estimated that the prevalence of mental health conditions in rural and remote Australia is equivalent to that of our major cities, but the consequences of mental illness are often far greater for many people living in country areas, because access to services and specialist health professionals is extremely limited.

The National Rural Health Alliance has highlighted that:

… there is a general downward gradient in health and health services from major cities to remote areas: the more remote the community, the poorer the health status of its people and the less access it has to health services and health promoting infrastructure.

These are fellow Australians that we are talking about. The unequal distribution of mental health services in rural and regional Australia poses far-reaching consequences for both individuals and communities. An inability to obtain proper mental health care can affect a person's ability to complete their education, maintain employment, engage in social and community activities and form healthy relationships, and it also contributes to a greater risk of developing physical illnesses. It is therefore vital that adequate funding and attention is given to all aspects of mental health in Australia. In relation to rural and remote Australia, we must ensure that equal need equates to equal distribution of mental health services.

From my recent consultations and meetings with service providers and community leaders, it is clear that people living outside our capital cities face distinct challenges when it comes to mental health care. There are clear geographical challenges where distance can indeed be tyrannical when it comes to service delivery in rural and remote areas. As well, a shortage of specialist mental health professionals is a key problem for many communities—with general practices often having long waiting lists and limited referral options.

Privacy concerns, together with the stigma that is still attached to mental health issues everywhere, both urban and rural, and attitudes of stoicism and a 'she'll be right' approach to life mean that many people in small communities are reluctant to seek help when they need it. Suicides in rural Australia are reportedly as high as one a week. With changes to rural economies and farming practices, and climate variability predicted to worsen due to climate change, these numbers may well rise in the future. Suicide has a profound impact on small communities and it is vital that we consider the most effective ways to reverse this devastating trend.

Despite these significant challenges, I have constantly witnessed the creativity, initiative and strength of rural communities, where people see a need and join together to respond to it, rather than waiting for government or someone else to step in. This has been very evident in relation to responses to significant mental health and social issues facing the communities I have visited.

The Men's Resource Centre at Albany is a fine example. Their mission? To enable rural men to live healthier, happier lives and so reduce morbidity—and the risk of suicide in their peers. They do this by focusing on mental, physical and spiritual health through the Pitstop Wellness Check, which is designed to apply plenty of humour while they check a bloke's 'oil pressure', being their blood pressure, give them a 'chassis' check—which involves measuring their girth, a particularly challenging exercise when they tried it out on me in Albany!—and then check out their 'shock absorbers', by asking 10 'coping questions' to elicit how well a man is 'travelling' in his moods and wellbeing. Not content to wait for men to come to them, they now do outreach in local and far-flung towns, through GPs, schools, business and community groups—transforming their regular five to 10 contacts per month to 1,000 a year. The Men's Resource Centre works closely with the Regional Counselling & Mentoring Service in Albany, which support people experiencing mental health and drug and alcohol problems and also provide support to prisoners in the nearby facility and their families. They are also about to start providing crisis accommodation to meet a demand for homelessness services in Albany.

Fusion, in Geraldton, is a great example of community endeavour establishing a supported accommodation service for people recovering from mental illness. They provide support and a haven before those people move back into the community. In an atmosphere of safe encouragement and respect, they nurture people and allow them to develop the confidence to move back into the community. They also manage another supported accommodation facility for those on the verge of homelessness and low incomes.

Over in New South Wales, I was hugely impressed by the work of the Samaritans in Newcastle, who run Monet's Catering and Garden Maintenance Service. Set, ironically, on the site of an old psychiatric hospital, an historic building has been developed to provide catering services for community groups and businesses in the Newcastle area. They train people who are recovering from mental illness to be equipped with new skills in the workforce. As well they run a gardening maintenance facility that provides services for people in the community and, again, re-skills people who are recovering from difficult times in life and may have been unemployed for a long period of time and often have mental health issues as well. These sorts of initiatives indicate the degree of creativity and ingenuity that is out there among people in rural communities who are determined to help each other and to help themselves.

I will be continuing my tour until September this year and I look forward to talking and listening more to people in rural, regional and remote Australia about mental health services in their community. Throughout my visits, I am very keen to talk to people who have experiences of mental ill-health; after all, they are the real experts. As well as being entitled to be consulted about matters affecting them so directly, they will also bring practical insights and ideas to the development of effective policy. By the end of these consultations I will be identifying gaps in service delivery so we can determine what is needed to build across Australia healthier, more resilient communities where people with equal need have access to equal services.

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