The Royal Flying Doctor Service says mental health services in rural and remote Australia are in a state of “crisis”.
The charity’s chief executive Martin Laverty said major disparities between country and city services still existed, despite numerous government reviews designed to address the problem.
“We see [more remote] people only accessing mental health services at … 20 per cent the rate of those who access services in the city,” Mr Laverty said.
“If that’s not a crisis, I don’t know what a crisis is.”
The charity provides 24-hour medical care to people in rural and remote Australia, but its doctors are finding themselves overwhelmed by the amount of psychological support they need to provide to their patients.
“Last year the Flying Doctors saw 24,500 people to provide mental health counselling, but we could double or triple that service tomorrow and still not touch the surface,” Mr Laverty said.
Data from the Department of Health showed the number of registered psychologists across the country increased in 2015/16. But there were no registered psychologists in 15 rural and remote areas.
Mr Laverty said areas like west coast Tasmania, central Australia, western Queensland and the Kimberley in Western Australia missed out.
“Areas where perhaps you’re not surprised to see that there aren’t health professionals in abundance,” he said.
“That should be no excuse in a country of universal access to healthcare.”
Mental Health Australia chief executive Frank Quinlan said doctors were not always the best people to provide mental health support.
“It is not necessarily the best way for us to be spending our resources — to have GPs with 10 years or more of training — delivering basic brief interventions and counselling interventions that could be delivered by other professionals and trained peer workers,” he said.
Suicide rates in rural areas are 40 per cent higher than in major cities, and in remote areas, the rate is almost double.
Mental health advocates call for greater commitment
The Coalition allocated $80 million for psychosocial support services in last year’s federal budget.
The program would help people suffering from severe mental illness — who are not eligible for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) — find housing, education and better care.
But the Government will not release the money unless states and territories stump up funds too, and Mr Quinlan said that was yet to happen.
“That’s in spite of the fact that we know that with the roll-out of the NDIS and the roll-back of previous Commonwealth programs, people are already starting to fall into the gaps,” he said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has acknowledged more assistance is needed for people in the bush.
“I do believe there is a very significant challenge and this is because there are four million Australians every year who have some form of mental health challenge and in the rural areas this is a significant challenge which is precisely why we are looking at additional services,” he said.
The Federal Government recently announced more than $100 million for the youth mental health service Headspace.
It is also spending $9 million improving tele-health services in rural areas.
But mental health advocates are calling for a bigger commitment to such initiatives in this year’s federal budget.
“The Minister — Greg Hunt — was relatively new to the ministry when the 2017 budget was released,” Mr Quinlan said.
“So I think the sector quite broadly and quite rightly, now, 12 months on, will be looking to the 2018 budget to see whether the Government is actually able to prioritise a lot of the concerns and issues that have been addressed.”