Improving teacher wellbeing in remote Queensland

  • Dr Anna Cunningham.

Dr Anna Cunningham.

Mount Isa GP Dr Anna Cunningham won the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Community Project of the Year Award in 2020 for establishing an innovative wellbeing clinic helping local teachers.

RACGP Awards recognise the value of GPs in our communities, celebrating the achievements of exceptional individuals who go above and beyond to care for their patients. RACGP's Community Project is undertaken over six to 12 months as part of the Fellowship in Advanced Rural General Practice, to evaluate or improve health care in a rural or remote community. It’s a valuable opportunity to get to know the community and improve health outcomes.

Dr Cunningham developed the wellbeing clinic at St Joseph's Catholic Primary School in Mount Isa, in remote Queensland, after seeing a pattern of high presentation rates among teachers experiencing mental health concerns, and related physical complaints such as exhaustion and stress. In remote locations, such as Mount Isa, many early career teachers get jobs in the region and move from more urban areas without their usual supports and access to services. This places them at risk of these kinds of presentations.

Having worked as a GP for seven years in Mount Isa, Anna first established the clinic as a pilot after having discussions with locals and finding that teachers struggled to access after-hours health care.

Research into teacher mental health revealed that this is a significant issue, particularly for early career teachers, and that developing some supports and a prevention approach that fosters wellbeing and resilience may prevent the current high levels of teacher distress, burn out and mental illness. Additionally, fostering the wellbeing of teachers has a flow-on effect to the rest of the community, particularly the child and adolescent student population. Anna’s pilot was aimed at early career teachers, particularly those who hadn't accessed local health services, and ran for six months.

The initial session introduced the clinic, explaining the availability of local health services, and providing psychoeducation on teacher wellbeing and some strategies to enhance teachers’ own overall physical and mental health.

Over two school terms, two confidential onsite school clinics for teachers were held, to help them identify and discuss ways and referral pathways to address any issues they felt were impacting on their function. The clinic appointments resulted in referrals to local psychologists, specialists and allied health practitioners for most of the participants. In between these clinics she provided timely access to GP care and follow-up to discuss results and review treatment and correspondence.

The wellbeing outcome was measured using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale and the majority of participants identified an improvement in their overall wellbeing scores. The primary school recognised the benefits and requested that the clinic continue and be expanded to capture more teaching and support staff. Other local schools also approached Anna, wanting clinics at their sites.

Anna’s wellbeing clinic is a great example of rural general practice and how it is not only there to help patients when they are sick, it also helps keep them healthy and happy.

RACGP’s 2021 award nominations are now open online until 11.59pm (AEST), Monday 19 July.

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