Mental health practitioners are one of the greatest workforce needs across rural and remote Australia. Rural Victoria is no exception; mental health practitioners are few in number and there is significant unmet health need. There are client waiting lists for psychologists, social workers and other counsellors throughout Victoria as well as unfilled positions at hospitals, community health and mental health services.
As a workforce strategy, the University of Melbourne’s University Department of Rural Health (UoM-UDRH) has supported Master of Psychology students to undertake a part-time rural placement of two to three days per week for 40 days or more. These students are supported with funds for travel and accommodation each week and in some cases, contributions to supervisory costs are also made. Students come from a range of different universities and each week travel to a rural community for their placement for several days and return for course work. During their placement, these students carry a caseload and provide services to clients under supervision. This assists services to reduce their waiting lists and provides rural clinicians with teaching opportunities. These placements have been offered in a range of rural settings, including hospitals, child and adolescent mental health services, primary schools, student-led clinics and private practices, and therefore provide rural residents with increased access to mental health care.
Response to these placements has been positive. While the travel is extensive, students have indicated a greater use of skill, teamwork and significant learning in these placements. In a post-placement survey, students have indicated positive learning outcomes:
“It was a really great experience overall. It was really challenging, I learned a lot. It was an amazing experience. I felt supported, really supported and it built my confidence and obviously built my skills and knowledge and all of that stuff, but for me it built up my confidence up a lot as well.”
Some students identified teamwork as key to their learning:
“This placement was [a] huge learning opportunity, first because it was part of the hospital, …it was a multidisciplinary team, we could learn so much from each other.”
While teamwork was praised, students also appreciated the autonomy they were given and the support they received:
“I think it was good because the placement allowed for quite a lot of autonomy and independence, but there were also times where, you know, you could always consult and check-in with your supervisor if you were unsure. So it was flexible … it was [a] truly rewarding experience.”
Overall, students also felt valued, supported and enjoyed the opportunity to “make a difference.” One said:
“…it definitely was a challenging placement but well supported… I felt trusted that I was able to do assessments, I was able to have my own clients… So yeah, it was challenging but I felt supported doing it.”
Supervisors also indicated they enjoyed having a student and the opportunity to share their experience. While an added demand on their time, supervising practitioners could see the impact the student placements were having in providing additional mental health services in their rural area. Increasingly, practitioners are expressing an interest to UoM-UDRH in supporting student placements in their practices and services.
Many of these students have since gained employment in rural practice as a direct result of their placement. This program is ongoing and increasing mental health services across rural Victoria.
The UoM-UDRH gratefully acknowledges the Australian Government Department of Health Rural Health Multidisciplinary Training (RHMT) programme.