Editorial: Towards improved accessibility for mental health care

  • Rural street with cars parked each side an ambulance drives doen the middle

The prevalence of mental illness is significant in Australia, with worrying statistics from across the country showing this is a reality a large part of the population deals with daily.

Even though data shows that the reported prevalence of mental illness in rural and remote Australia appears similar to that of major cities, rural communities have less access to mental health services than cities and rates of self-harm and suicide increase with remoteness.

Australia marked a significant date on 10 October, World Mental Health Day. It was a reminder of the importance of treating mental health equally with physical health, eliminating the associated stigma and making mental health and wellbeing a priority.

Given the role of the National Rural Health Alliance (the Alliance) in advancing health reform, together with our stakeholders, to achieve equitable health outcomes for rural, regional and remote communities, it was an opportune time to engage our readers with this important issue.

It is pleasing to note the many organisations from all areas of the health sector across Australia that responded to our call for submissions. They have provided a wealth of information about mental health challenges in rural Australia and innovative models of care adopted where the market fails.

We value the thoughts of the National Rural Health Commissioner Dr Ruth Stewart calling for bold action to increase healthcare accessibility in rural Australia. The need for hybrid telehealth and face-to-face models of care is highlighted while cautioning that blanketing rural and remote Australia with telehealth care will not solve the problem of accessibility, nor provide the best care. The article urges a rethink of existing strategies, along with communities, to achieve the best healthcare outcomes.

Our Member, Royal Far West, gives concerning statistics of children in the future taking the major brunt of natural disasters. Today’s babies will grow up to experience twice as many droughts and wildfires and three times more river floods and crop failures than someone who is 60 years old today. We appreciate the efforts of Royal Far West in designing a program to improve the resilience and wellbeing of children and decrease the likelihood of long-term adverse effects of natural disasters. 

Another Alliance Member, the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association, underlines the public health priority of hospitalisation due to self-harm. It is the strongest independent indicator for a later suicide attempt, and self-harm alone results in over 30,000 hospital admissions annually. The matter is worse for regional Australians as they are twice as likely to die by suicide as their metropolitan counterparts.

The Alliance policy team has contributed a piece, citing our direction on mental health and wellbeing. We are aware that minimal access to health care results in more acute health conditions when patients seek help. It causes more burdens on the system and poorer outcomes for rural communities.

This resonates with the fact that presentations to hospital emergency departments for mental-health-related conditions were more than twice the rate in remote and very remote areas compared with major cities, as pointed out by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 

The Alliance values rural health practitioners for their commitment to putting their patients at the centre of medical and health care – often providing a greater range and depth of services than their city counterparts – as emphasised by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

As always, Partyline presents a diverse range of important views, including pharmacists, community outreach and social workers, health services, the university sector, veterans, the LGBTIQ+ community and First Nations voices.

Among the many areas covered, this issue gives space to discuss different coping mechanisms – such as the creative arts, gardening, writing, companion animals, sport and exercise, as well as practising self-awareness to better deal with mental ill health and improve and sustain general wellbeing. We’re certain that our readers will find strategies worthy of incorporating into their lives. 

We trust this issue will shed light on the many aspects of mental health experiences and provide information about related services in rural Australia. We also hope that the gaps identified by our contributors will be helpful for strategic planning and innovation for better service access and resources to our rural communities.

Finally, our continued gratitude to our Members, Friends, strategic partners, as well as all other contributors and advertisers, for your support of Partyline, and above all rural, remote and regional communities. We look forward to your ongoing engagement in 2023 and hope that you have an enjoyable and safe Christmas break.

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