Awareness of the challenges facing Australia’s rural and remote communities is growing. This has been amplified by media coverage and community concern regarding the plight of farmers embattled by prolonged drought and natural disasters. The social, environmental and economic concerns faced by these communities, can exacerbate problems with mental ill-health and access to supports.
There remains a general paucity of targeted mental health services in rural and remote communities, yet the identified need is strong. Suicide is a leading cause of death in Australia. In rural and remote communities, the rate of suicide is considerably higher - almost double that of major cities, depending on the region and with prevalence increasing relative to remoteness. People in rural and remote communities also tend to experience higher levels of psychological distress than their metropolitan counterparts.
In particular, statistics suggest that male workers in industries, such as, farming and agriculture, mining, forestry and other primary industries, are a high priority. These industries are often typified by challenges such as: physical demands; long-hours; fly-in-fly-out/drive-in-drive-out work; isolation from support networks; financial pressures; and stigma around mental ill-health characteristic of an Aussie ‘toughen up’ culture.
Ensuring these workers have access to support means getting creative with program design and delivery. OzHelp provides a full-service approach that includes: individual health screening; health, wellbeing and suicide prevention education and training; and ongoing support and counselling. OzHelp utilises a blended delivery model that includes site visits, online screening using a tool known as the Workplace Tune Up, and face-to-face and telephone based counselling, underpinned by referral pathways to other relevant services.
A significant challenge for program delivery in hard-to-reach communities is bridging gaps in service networks and geography, and overcoming isolation factors. Digital and telecommunication tools can help create this connection, and OzHelp is seeking new ways to adapt these for rural and remote workers.
OzHelp’s Workplace Tune Up is an easily accessible digital tool that complements OzHelp’s education and training programs - improving wellbeing, health literacy and skills to boost resilience. It is also a gateway to options for ongoing and support. This tool can highlight the health and wellbeing concerns of workers in an easy, confidential and practical way. In larger workplaces, it can also provide deidentified, real-time data that can be used to tailor support for the workforce by giving employers a snapshot of their workplace’s overall health and wellbeing, and areas for improvement.
While OzHelp have demonstrated impact across various industries, the question of how to reach dispersed and remote workers, such as farmers, has inspired pilot activities that will test new networks and access points. This involves collaborating with funders, governments, peak bodies, and agricultural and farming businesses.
The next step is to look at the datasets and lessons-learned from our various sites, and to seek cost-effective and high impact ways for scaling these programs for rollout into new communities. To make this happen, OzHelp will be calling on new funders to invest in these initiatives.
Cross-sector collaboration, service innovation, and well targeted and tested programs are imperative to suicide prevention and mental health support in rural and remote Australia – particularly for ‘high risk’ workforces.