Fostering compassionate care: Multidisciplinary psychiatry education for community

  • West Wimmera Health Service building at night

West Wimmera Health Service

In Victoria's vast Wimmera region, covering 28,041 sq km and serving a population of 35,989 across West Wimmera, Yarriambiack, Hindmarsh, and Horsham Rural City, a transformative initiative emerged as the community came out of COVID lockdowns. The goal was to enhance and improve mental health literacy and care in the local rural communities, originating from within the corridors of West Wimmera Health Service at Nhill. This initiative, supported by collaborative efforts between health services and interdisciplinary work, sought to address the pressing mental health challenges faced by the community.

Before the onset of COVID-19, community snapshots revealed prominent mental health and well-being issues, accompanied by high rates of violence. These challenges were evident across various indicators, emphasising the critical need for intervention. Mental health, particularly prevalent anxiety or depression affecting, posed a substantial challenge. Yarriambiack faced high levels of psychological distress, and an overall low proportion of the region's population sought help for mental health-related problems, indicative of either limited access or high levels of stigma in accessing support services. Rates of hospitalisations for intentional self-harm and suicide exceeded the State average in Hindmarsh, Horsham RC, and Yarriambiack, underscoring the gravity of mental health issues in the region.

In response to these challenges, which seemed even more entrenched after COVID, Cheree Schneider Executive Director Clinical Services, West Wimmera Health Service, recognized the need to provide broad education to build capacity and compassion within the local workforce.

Seeking expertise, Cheree reached out to Associate Professor Hieu Pham in the Psychiatry Department at Mildura Base Public Hospital (MBPH) and Deputy Director of the Northwest Victoria Regional Training Hub at Monash Rural Health, for his knowledge and skills in delivering mental health education to the MBPH Junior Medical Officers and RANZCP registrars. Accompanied by MBPH's invaluable Psychiatric Nurse, Erin Fisher, the three collaborated to spearhead a successful multidisciplinary psychiatry education program at West Wimmera Health Service.

The program aimed not only to address specific mental health concerns identified by the data but also to empower the entire healthcare community with the knowledge and skills necessary to improve the region's health outcomes. The sessions were publicised and open to all staff and local primary care services. Conducted over the year with key face-to-face sessions and supplemented by Microsoft Team meetings, the program became a beacon of togetherness for the community, fostering mental health literacy and capacity.

By actively involving department heads, nursing and allied health professionals, local GPs, non-clinical executives and staff, the initiative aimed to break down silos, encouraging collaboration and shared understanding across the healthcare spectrum. The program's popularity sparked broader conversations within the community about change and has become an ongoing collaboration, offering compassionate understanding and support for patients.

The impact of the program extended beyond the walls of West Wimmera Health Service, reaching the Murray PHN region. Associate Professor Hieu Pham and Erin Fisher's skills are now being leveraged for a similar program being developed with Echuca regional GPs and health services. As the echoes of collaboration and knowledge exchange reverberated through the Wimmera Primary Care Partnership region, the program not only addressed immediate health concerns but also planted seeds for a sustainable, community-led approach to rural mental health. The transformative journey undertaken by West Wimmera Health Service serves as an inspiring model for other regions grappling with similar health challenges, illustrating that, even in the face of adversity, communities can come together to forge a healthier, brighter future.

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