Rural virtual placement experiences as social work students

  • Man and son with black swan
  • Double rainbow over lake with grass foreground
University of Melbourne
Sai-Priya Paladee & Fazza Fuad,
Master of Social Work students

When the initial impacts of COVID-19 hit Australia, the knock-on effects meant significant changes to the time-honoured course plans of our Masters of Social Work degrees. 

We had been in the excited midst of placement applications, filling forms and ticking requirements for rural opportunities. So, when the news of mandatory lockdown came, our neatly-drawn colour-coded schedules collapsed in dejected heaps as placements became temporary impossibilities.

After a month adrift, we received word of the chance to do a rural placement with NCN Health. Even though it was entirely virtual, we immediately jumped at the chance. This particular branch was in Numurkah, a gorgeous town in Moira Shire, Victoria.

As part of the ongoing more4moira initiative, we engaged with the primary healthcare team to create a community profile geared towards early intervention regarding Numurkah’s youth mental health needs.

A place-based approach was perfect here as it allows particular focus on community concerns. Using this, we investigated statistical trends relevant to Numurkah and identified four priority areas.

Physical health and exercise
There has been an increasing number of overweight and obese young people, showing increasing amounts of screen-time and decreasing levels of daily physical activity.

Diet and eating habits
There has been an increase in daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and a decreasing trend in daily fruit intake and water consumption.

Bullying and youth mental health
Student reports of bullying is high, but the level has significantly reduced since 2017. Concerning youth mental health, statistics show increased levels of psychological distress, and decreased levels of life satisfaction and positive psychological development, with sharp reductions in youth access to mental health services.

Family violence
Incidents of family violence have been increasing in Moira Shire from 2016 onwards, with significantly higher rates than the state average. Statistics from 2020 indicate a 4% increase compared to 2019.

As youth mental health could particularly benefit from support and advocacy, we committed to exploring ‘youth pathways through the system’ by harnessing pre-existing resources within the populace. Accordingly, we generated surveys, flyers and a distribution-directory. We also contacted the local high school to hear young people’s viewpoints on their own mental health needs.

This inspired our recommendation: A ‘Youth Voices’ program to create continuing opportunities for youth contribution and ensure that youth needs aren’t just ‘heard’, but proactively addressed.

Suggested activities included:

  • youth-driven wellbeing projects
  • fun social events to engage young people and make them comfortable enough to be involved, and
  •  ‘youth summits’ to share ideas and opinions regarding initiatives.

By giving young people the power to guide projects that directly involve them, we would pave the way for a positive cycle of trust and reciprocal understanding that will strengthen responsivity to Numurkah’s youth mental health needs.

Overall, a virtual placement wasn’t something we had anticipated walking through the university doors. This came with significant challenges, but equivalently brought along many learning opportunities.

The virtual aspect made it difficult to really understand the community context, leaving us a bit detached/isolated at times. However, we were given some excellent opportunities to engage in interactive sessions with allied health professionals at NCN Health and other stakeholder agencies in Numurkah. This provided an invaluable chance to hear varied experiences around youth-oriented practice and working within multidisciplinary teams. More broadly, we’ve gained greater understandings of the challenges faced by rural communities and social work's role in such care settings.

Alongside a stellar supervision experience, this placement has equipped us with advantageous telecommuting skills, ergonomic techniques and self-care strategies, all great assets in the post-COVID era’s landscape of employment. All-in-all, we are really grateful to have had this lovely opportunity!

Acknowledgements: NCN Health; University of Melbourne; fellow placement peers Kai Wen Cheong & Yu Qiu (Jocelyn); Field/task supervisors Carol Reid & Jenny Burrows; Placement Allied Health Educator/student support Brooke Ferguson; University supervisor Jennifer McConachy.

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