Today is World Mental Health Day. It is a day dedicated to promoting open discussion about how mental illness impacts on people across the world and encouraging people to seek help when they need it.
One in five Australians will experience mental illness this year. For people in rural and remote areas, the prevalence of mental illness is on par with those in the cities. However, remote Australians face far greater challenges in accessing the support they need.
The National Rural Health Alliance has published research which shows that if you live in a rural area, it is likely there will be fewer professionals, a much smaller choice of health service providers and scarce community support services.
At the same time, natural disasters, such as drought, flood, cyclone and bushfire, have a direct impact on the income and wellbeing of people in the bush.
While the people of remote Australia have shown their resilience over and over again and their ability to get back up and press on in the face of adversity, it is important they have the support and resources they need to maintain good mental health.
As people across remote Australia face mental health issues, Frontier Services is often there, on the ground, providing support and care.
In the Pilbara, carers of people with a mental illness can access respite services, including a mobile team which travels across the vast desert country providing support to people in isolated places.
In Alice Springs, the Commonwealth Respite and Carelink Centre provides respite to carers in the community who look after a family member or friend with a mental illness.
Meanwhile, the Frontier Services Patrol Ministers play an important role in the support network for people in remote places. They are there simply as someone people can talk to and when appropriate refer them to other services if they need some extra help.
Cunnamulla Patrol Minister Rev Dennis Cousens has closely observed the mental health issues born out of exasperation as people faced years of drought, flood and fire.
“When I arrived in the Patrol in 2008, the community was already seven or eight years into the drought,” he said.
“One elderly couple sold the last of their breeding rams to the market. Just as they closed the gate the rain came. And it rained and rained for about a week. But now they had nothing.”
“Others borrowed and borrowed money and ended up with a $2 million mortgage.”
Dennis said the constant strain on finances and relationships left people with a feeling of hollowness.
“It’s very different to the city. Because the resources aren’t there, people tend to handle things themselves.”
In Dennis’ patch, for people to go and see a mental health specialist, it can mean a 1000km trip. It means two or three tanks of fuel and the cost of accommodation. The lack of reliable and constant medical services is also a deterrent to seeking help.
“There have been 42 different doctors come and go during the time I’ve been here. When you rock up to a new doctor, you’re not going to talk about anything unless it’s swollen, weeping or broken.”
Dennis has been a constant presence for people in the community.
“You go to someone’s place and you are a different face. You’re not the stockman or the butcher, you’re just somebody who is there as a friend. When people talk about what’s worrying them, it’s kind of like they hand this stuff to you, like a handful of pebbles, and you take it. Often people say it is like a great load has been lifted or you came at just the right time.”
“I come with no strings attached, you know when it’s time to go, you do not need to know the outcome, you’ve just done what you needed to do at that time. People can download, let it all out.”
The Frontier Services Patrol Ministers have all participated in mental health training to assist them to identify mental illness and to better support people who experience mental health issues.
In addition to supporting their communities, many of the Patrol Ministers provide pastoral support to Frontier Services staff working in remote areas who also face the challenges of accessing services close to home.
As they continually carry the weight of other’s needs and problems, it is important staff have the support they need to take care of their own mental health.
Frontier Services also has an employee assistance program which staff can access at times of need.