Researcher and nutritionist, Dr Jessica Davis spends her weekends bushwalking in the Otway Ranges she calls home and her weekdays researching innovative mental health treatments at the Food and Mood Centre, Deakin University. Living in a small town of 900 people in the south-west of Victoria, Dr Davis is all too familiar with the difficulties people face when trying to access mental health care and treatment in a rural setting.
Dr Davis acknowledges the longstanding difficulties faced by those living in rural and remote communities when accessing mental health support. She and her team of researchers at the Food and Mood Centre have witnessed firsthand the benefits of telehealth therapies, particularly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in tackling difficulties such as service accessibility, availability and affordability.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many allied health therapies have been adapted to be provided over a telehealth platform for a broad range of health conditions. Research conducted over the past few years has demonstrated that telehealth is a useful and effective alternative to face-to-face therapy across many allied health disciplines, including dietetics, exercise physiology and psychotherapy. Of particular interest to the researchers at the Food and Mood Centre, there is growing evidence to support the use of telehealth lifestyle interventions, delivered by allied health professionals, as effective mental health treatments.
Dr Megan Turner, research psychologist at the Centre, has witnessed firsthand the positive impact telehealth-delivered therapies can have on a person’s mental wellbeing and encourages people to consider accessing these services as a viable alternative to face-to-face sessions.
Dr Davis and Dr Turner are both mental health researchers working on the HARMON-E study that is looking into the effectiveness of group-based, telehealth-delivered mental health treatments – run by accredited practicing dietitians, accredited exercise physiologists and clinical psychologists – for people experiencing depression or bipolar disorder. These group-based, online programs offer an opportunity for rural-living Australians to connect and communicate with others with similar experiences while accessing free, evidence-based mental health treatment.
Participants in the study receive either a lifestyle-focused mental health intervention delivered by allied health professionals, or a psychological therapy intervention delivered by clinical psychologists. To date, participants have already joined the trial from rural and urban areas across almost every state in Australia.
The HARMON-E team is led by health professionals who have experience in delivering telehealth mental health programs and are passionate about providing advice and support that is both shared among group members and relatable and applicable to people from all walks of life. Sophie Mahoney, the study’s lead research dietitian, understands the challenges for people in improving their food choices in environments where access to fresh and diverse food options may be limited. Sophie promotes a flexible approach to nutrition that includes the use of affordable and accessible food options.
Alongside Sophie, the study’s lead research exercise physiologist, Dean Saunders, is passionate about helping people find physical activity options that are enjoyable for individuals. Dean’s approach to physical activity for mental health promotes a focus on enjoyable activities that can be adapted for people who already work in active, strenuous jobs such the agricultural and mining industries.
Increasing investment and research into the use of lifestyle interventions and telehealth therapies gives hope for increased accessibility to evidence-based mental health treatment for rural communities in the not-so-distant future. If you are a healthcare professional or are currently experiencing depression or bipolar disorder and are interested in finding out more about participating in the trial, reach out to the research team on 03 5227 2380 or at [email protected].