People in the regions are more likely to experience mental ill-health than people in the cities, and yet we are 26% less likely to see a psychologist. That’s not because we don’t need it, it’s because the services simply aren’t there.
Regional Australia has always suffered from higher rates of ill-health than our city cousins, and yet we do not get the same level of services.
As a former nurse and rural health researcher, I have spent my professional life researching the issues of regional ill-health and what can be done about it. It’s one of the main reasons I decided to run for Parliament in the first place – to try and secure proper investment into our regional mental healthcare system.
The events of the last two years have only made clearer why this type of investment is needed. Regional Australians have long known we need to deliver proper mental healthcare for the regions. Now is the time to get it done.
Attracting mental health workers to the regions
Accessing mental healthcare has always been difficult in the regions. The impact of the bushfires, border closures, and the pandemic on the mental health of so many in our region has only added to this. In a survey I conducted of people in Indi, 71% of respondents said the Government needs to do more on mental health. It’s one of the top issues that people raise with me wherever I go from Kinglake to Corryong.
It’s not hard to see why. The wait time to see a psychologist in our region can be months long. Accessing specialised treatment, for instance for complex psychiatric conditions, is even more difficult. Many parts of Indi struggle to find the qualified professionals to fill the positions they do have, and a result, too many parts of our region have sub-standard access to care. Even when you can access care, it is often expensive, requiring hefty out-of-pocket costs.
We’ve also had some real wins in funding local mental health programs. We helped bring forward a Government commitment for a $2.5 million specialist mental health clinic in Albury-Wodonga, and we secured $800,000 to support mental health programs in the Upper Murray as part of the bushfire recovery. But we need to go further – to properly address mental health in Indi, we need to fix the mental health workforce problem. There simply are not enough psychologists and, mental health workers, social workers, or psychiatrists in our community.
I am calling on the Government to incentivise mental healthcare workers to live and work here in the regions. There is a huge imbalance in where mental healthcare workforce lives in Australia – and it is not acceptable that regional Australia continues to have less access to mental healthcare than in the cities.
I am calling on the Government to bring more mental health workers to the regions by offering university debt relief to psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health nurses and social workers who live and work in the regions. It’s a smart, targeted policy that will help fix our chronic mental health workforce shortage.
New services for eating disorder treatment and recovery
Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions with serious physical consequences. The number of people in Australia living with an eating disorder at any given time is estimated to be around 1 million, or approximately 4% of the population. It is not just young people who are affected by eating disorders – people living with eating disorders can come from any age, gender, socio-economic or cultural background. And there are many different types of eating disorders – no two people’s experiences will be the same.
In North East Victoria, we do not have firm data on the number of people living with eating disorders because Governments have not funded that type of research. But over the last two years, I have spoken with many clinicians and people with lived experience of eating disorders, and they tell me that since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a spike in the prevalence of eating disorders especially in the Border region. Experts and families with lived experience all say the same thing: there is a chronic and urgent lack of treatment and recovery services in regional Victoria and the Border region. There are not enough trained psychologists, dieticians, and other medical professionals with specialist training in eating disorder treatment. Too often, people have to travel to Melbourne for treatment and when they return home, there simply are not the local services to support the ongoing recovery journey.
The Government has funded seven new residential treatment centres for people living with eating disorders around the country. But the closest one is in Melbourne. After the difficulties that our region has experienced over the last two years, with bushfires, border closures, and the pandemic, we need to seriously invest in local treatment services so that people living in Indi have the same access to quality treatment as people in the cities.