Invest in Telehealth: Beyond Blue

By: Andrew Hobbs

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Expanding and investing in telehealth services could help reduce suicide rates in rural communities, mental health charity Beyond Blue says.

Invest in Telehealth: Beyond Blue
Derek Schoen, director of mental health charity Beyond Blue


At the Farmsafe Virtual Conference, hosted in November by the Public Health Association of Australia, Derek Schoen, director of mental health charity Beyond Blue, discussed the metal health challenges faced by regional and remote

He pointed out that seeking help for mental illness can be difficult, especially for those who live in rural communities, with one of the biggest barriers being distance, with just 3.5 per cent of psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals servicing outer regional, remote, or very remote areas nationwide.

This means that those services that are available are often at capacity or people have to travel a long way to get to them.

"We know people in remote and rural areas face unique mental health challenges. Isolation and financial pressures are an ongoing concern," Schoen explained.

"Years of drought have taken their toll on farming communities. A recent longitudinal study found particularly high rates of general and drought-related stress among young farmers under 35 in remotely located properties who experienced financial distress.

"I personally have heard heartbreaking stories of young people who have taken their own lives due to the crushing burden of shame they feel when losing a farm that has been in the family for generations.

"A lack of access to mental health care coupled with the reluctance to seek help for fear of being perceived as weak, particularly among men in country communities," he says.

Schoen pointed out that the suicide rate for Australian men who work in farming is about double the general male population, sitting at 32.2 compared to 16.6 per 100,000. 

However, he explained, there are ways to more effectively reach out and help those in need. It just requires a different approach.

Universal telehealth for example could provide people with care wherever they are, and in ways that take into account their unique circumstances.

"Telehealth has the potential to revolutionise the way that people in rural and remote areas access support," said Schoen, "but only if the digital technology is up to scratch and they can access it.

"At Beyond Blue we would like to see a greater investment in digital technology tools for mental health services. In the federal budget the Commonwealth committed $4.26 million towards rolling out access for small business, building a workforce of coaches with small business backgrounds delivering support by telehealth. The funding recognised that two thirds of small business owners, many in farming communities, said the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health.

"We are hopeful that the spirit of bipartisanship and agility that we have seen in the national cabinet can be applied more broadly to the creative solutions that we need to rebuild the psychological health of this nation.

"For rural mental health, that means investing in digital technology, new mental health workforces and expanding the capacity of primary health networks to fill the gaps at a local level. On an individual level, we can all do our bit by making sure we look out for those early warning signs that we are struggling.

Farmers can put steps in place to ensure their workplaces are as mentally safe and healthy as they can be."

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