Rural immersion and student mental health

  • Students walking towards farm shed with industrial sprinkler in the background
    Brockton farm tour
  • Welcome to country ceremony being performed in front of multiple students in a bush setting
    Welcome to country
  • Group of students pose for photo in front of farm
    Year two medical students on farm
By
Terena Solomons
Research Officer,
Curtin School of Medicine Rural Health Campus,
Curtin University
Issue
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Recruiting health professionals to rural and remote regions of Australia is a constant challenge. One strategy for encouraging students to consider living and working in rural and remote regions of Australia are rural immersion programs. These programs are designed to immerse students in rural and remote communities and expose them to the unique joys, challenges and opportunities of rural life and rural healthcare settings. A positive rural experience and one which supports students' mental health and wellbeing is vitally important as it increases their openness to practise rurally.  

The Curtin School of Medicine Rural Health Campus is undertaking a literature review of the published and grey literature on short rural immersion programs for pre-clinical students to inform the development of future rural immersion programs in the Wheatbelt and Goldfields regions of Western Australia. Preliminary findings indicate that students who feel well supported during rural immersion programs and connect with the people in rural communities are more likely to pursue a rural lifestyle and rural health practice.  One study found that students who perceived respect from supervisors, had regular check-ins and access to counselling services were associated with higher levels of wellbeing. Students who do rural immersion programs report being able to let go of fear and push outside their comfort zone because they feel supported by the community and program organisers. 

Students learn about the social determinants of health and the unique challenges faced by rural and indigenous populations and the importance of preventive and community-centred care. This broader perspective can instill a sense of empathy and cultural competence that is invaluable. Understanding the context in which patients live and the challenges they face can empower students to be more compassionate and culturally sensitive. 

Rural immersion programs embed students in close-knit communities where everyone knows each other, fostering a supportive atmosphere. Students are often billeted with farmers, aboriginal communities and local residents which provides personal connections that have an impact. Students undertaking rural immersion programs report feeling a sense of belonging and connection to the community that stays with the students and the rural community members well beyond the program.  

Some rural immersion programs require students to do farm work like drenching cattle, fixing fences and working in aboriginal communities teaching primary school children and coaching sport. Understanding rural communities in context allows students to understand a different perspective. It is important that programs include support structures for students mental health with regular check-ins. Self-reflection journals and debriefing sessions provide a platform for students to share their experiences, seek guidance and express any concerns they may have. 

In an era where demands on medical professionals are constantly evolving, it is crucial to equip students not only with the necessary clinical skills but also with resilience and adaptability. One of the benefits of rural immersion programs is the respite they provide from the high stress environment often associated with medical university education. The demands of medical education can be overwhelming with students grappling with rigorous coursework and long hours of study. Rural immersion programs can offer a reprieve from this intensity and allow students to step back and reconnect with their passion for medicine in a more relaxed setting. This change can be a breath of fresh air for students who may feel overwhelmed by the relentless pace and pressure of academic study. The slower pace of life and calming influence of rural nature can have a profound impact on mental health and wellbeing. 

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