Mental health: rural health workers need more training and support

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Health professionals and workers from other sectors in rural and remote Australia who are caring for people with a mental illness need more training in mental health, and more of that training should be delivered face-to-face locally. This is a key finding of a recent survey by the National Rural Health Alliance that forms the basis of the Alliance’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s current inquiry into mental health in Australia.

The Alliance undertook a survey of the rural, regional and remote workforce to determine what the mental health training needs are. Altogether 393 respondents from a diverse range disciplines participated in the survey, with a majority coming from allied health, nursing and medicine (GPs). Other respondents included mental health consumers, carers, and people working in non-health sectors such as education, local government, and non-government/not-for-profit organisations.

 While a majority of respondents had attended some form of mental health training, respondents felt there were many areas where they needed more training. As one respondent said:

“Although I've personally studied to fill any gaps I've noticed, my university training was insufficient for providing training in emotional dysregulation, strategies to help with alcohol and substance abuse, and general trauma.”

Areas where respondents identified they needed more training included: working with adolescents and children; with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; suicide prevention and self-harm; and dealing with severe and enduring mental illness.  

While continuing professional development is seen as an essential part of providing mental health care, the efforts made by different employers in providing access to training and professional development are far from consistent. Most respondents had undertaken some form of mental health training, usually as part of their undergraduate and higher degree training. Others had received mental health training on-the-job or as part of continuing professional development in one-day seminars or online.

Respondents were well aware of the benefits of training and had an appreciation of the magnitude of mental health, their skills deficits, and the kinds of supports they needed to perform more effectively and efficiently to support people with a mental illness.

The costs associated with training, including travel, accommodation and study time, were thought to be too high and prohibitive for most workers in rural, regional and remote areas. Training should be fully covered or heavily subsidised and delivered on-site in these areas to enable more people to participate. Professional development costs should be incorporated into organisational budgets, with clear planning for leave days and backfilling.

There is a dire need for mental health training to be provided in rural, regional and remote areas. There were specific concerns that training was mainly concentrated in the major cities and thus benefiting only a fraction of the workforce.

Most respondents indicated that they just did not have the time to attend training. As one respondent said:

“Of course it (training) could be improved, but how is a difficult question. … expecting people to do additional professional development in [their] own time is not acceptable as people are overworked with multiple responsibilities… there needs to be a structured and professional development program that incorporates all required learning…”

This indicates the need for professional development and training to be integrated as core business with systems in place at organisational level to assess individual employee circumstances and training needs.  

Face-to-face training provided locally is preferred over online courses or webinars. Connectivity issues are a barriers to digital health and online training in rural, regional, and remote areas.

Resources, including evidence-based online resources, are also needed for workers to keep up to date with emerging research and best practice.

Interpreters and translators should be made available to assist with working with clients from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Providing higher levels of remuneration and incentives could assist in increasing and maintaining the mental health workforce in rural, remote and regional areas.

Those providing mental health services need their mental health looked after as well. Mental health training should address the mental health needs of those health professionals and other workers with a role in mental health.

The Alliance’s submission to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry includes a full report on the survey.


Need to talk to someone? If you need immediate assistance, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression, contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.


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