Rural and remote Aussies left wanting in mental health funding

7 Oct 20
by Andy

Rural and remote Aussies left wanting in mental health funding

The 2020-21 Federal Budget shows promise for improved suicide prevention and mental health services, but Rural & Remote Mental Health has recognised a concerning oversight in its allocations.

The $485 million dollar investment, which also includes several previously announced measures, has numerous highlights including:

  • $6.9 million over two years to support digital mental health services
  • $50.3 million for trauma support services, telehealth services and community grants in areas impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires
  • $10.5 million for immediate frontline emergency counselling and hotline services in bushfire affected regions
  • $2.1 million for research into mental ill-health and suicide amongst at-risk populations
  • $100.8 million for people on a Mental Health Treatment Plan, doubling the cap on Medicare-subsidised psychologist visits from 10 to 20 per year
  • $2.3 million over four years to expand and improve the national headspace network

Whilst Rural & Remote Mental Health CEO Joe Hooper welcomed many of the initiatives, he noted a missed opportunity for our rural and remote communities.

“The bushfire measures are very welcome – people lost so much and many were left without support when the pandemic hampered emergency response efforts,” Mr Hooper said.

“We would like to see the remaining funds released quickly so affected communities can heal and rebuild.”

Most of the funding is going to services delivered under the Medicare Benefits Scheme (MBS), an approach that Mr Hooper says provides limited benefit to rural and remote Australians.

“Most Medicare-funded infrastructure and services are concentrated in our capital cities,” Mr Hooper explained.

“They are not as readily available in regional cities – and they are even less accessible in remote and very remote areas.

“We know that while 7.6% of people who live in major cities access Medicare-funded mental health services each year, that number drops to just 1.5% in very remote areas.”

Telehealth offers some real opportunities to improve mental health services in rural and remote Australia but is not without its barriers.

Poor internet access, difficulty finding a service provider, lower rates of digital literacy and resistance in adopting help-seeking behaviour limit telehealth as a total solution.

“What rural and remote Australians want is on the ground support from people who know the challenges and who they feel they can trust,” Mr Hooper said.

“We have seen very positive results delivering grassroots support programs aimed at early intervention and delivered by local mental health champions.

“We need to focus on prevention and raising awareness of those pathways to early help. Why wait until people reach crisis point?”.

Telemedicine by health professionals under the MBS should not be considered a panacea. Early intervention and building community resilience through increased local non-medicalised support deserves equal attention.

This creates greater access opportunities and less stigma for those seeking help, while supporting the MBS by diverting people to alternate supports when appropriate.

With more than a quarter of Australians living outside major cities, Rural & Remote Mental Health is seeking greater investment in early intervention and prevention activities in our rural communities.

Rural & Remote Mental Health is committed to increasing mental health literacy and supporting early intervention and prevention initiatives across rural and remote Australia.