Community pharmacies providing a ‘mental health safe space’

  • Pictured: The PharMIbridge Research Team (L-R) Dr Sara McMillan, Dr Sarira El-Den, Professor Amanda Wheeler and Dr Claire O’Reilly.
    Pictured: The PharMIbridge Research Team (L-R) Dr Sara McMillan, Dr Sarira El-Den, Professor Amanda Wheeler and Dr Claire O’Reilly.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia
Peter Waterman, Communication Specialist

The benefits to patients from pharmacists working to their full scope of practice has been underscored through the work undertaken by community pharmacies to help patients living with mental illness.

This year has highlighted how drought, floods, bushfires and of course COVID-19 affect the mental health of all Australians, and none more so than those living in regional, rural and remote areas of the country.

As the most accessible healthcare professionals, community pharmacists and their staff are often the first point of contact for people dealing with mental health issues. Many pharmacists have undertaken a mental health first aid course to help them identify and assist patients in crisis, and to follow referral pathways for specialist treatment from other primary care providers when appropriate.

This critical role played by pharmacies is even more important in regional, rural and remote communities where the pharmacy is often a community hub as well as being a health hub.

The importance of pharmacies in these areas and in helping patients with mental health issues has been recognised by the NSW Government which has provided funding for community pharmacies in drought-affected areas of the State to take part in a program to deliver mental health training to pharmacists and staff.

The $1 million NSW Government ‘mental health safe space’ program aims to help pharmacy staff better understand issues such as suicide, depression, mental illness in men, and trauma.

The Government said that the impact of drought, bushfires and COVID-19 throughout the regions meant communities were dealing with stress and uncertain times.

The funding recognises that pharmacists in these areas were well placed to begin a conversation about mental health and want to be part of the broader effort to tackle stigma and promote help-seeking at a local level.

Paul JonesPharmacist in Charge and proprietor of Moodie’s Pharmacy, Bathurst, Paul Jones said additional mental health training for pharmacists and staff is very beneficial because a pharmacist can play a critical role in providing care and guidance to anyone who walks in the door.

“I have found that a person may have spent time with a doctor, or mental health worker, and that when getting their medication, they often think of other questions to ask, and I want to be able to help them,” he said.

He and his staff provide mental health support on a daily basis, and the training would help them become more comfortable having difficult conversations, as well as providing appropriate care and referrals to patients who are in need of support.

“I quite often refer patients back to their GP, either by telling them to make an appointment, or by calling the GP, mental health worker, or drug and alcohol worker, and letting them know the patient may need a little bit of extra help and support,” Mr Jones said.

Another development recognises that medications are a common treatment option for managing mental and physical illnesses, which are mostly obtained from community pharmacies.  

The PharMIbridge Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT), involving up to 48 community pharmacies including in rural areas, will test the effectiveness of an individualised, pharmacist-led support service (PharMIbridge intervention) for people living with severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI), compared to a standard in-pharmacy medication review service (MedsCheck). 

The PharMIbridge intervention involves an in-depth medicine support service delivered over six-months that is goal-oriented, flexible, and individualised. A MedsCheck involves a pharmacist reviewing a consumer’s medication to improve medication use and address any medication-related questions, with a report sent to and/or discussed with the consumer’s GP. Consumer participants will be provided with one of these services depending on the study arm that the community pharmacy is randomised into.

The PharMIbridge intervention aims to identify and address problems relating to psychotropic medication use or physical and psychological health concerns. Pharmacists will work collaboratively with a participant’s nominated health care professional/s and will regularly update them on progress throughout the six-month intervention period.

This RCT is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health as part of the Sixth Community Pharmacy Agreement.

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