Rural Sector News — 02 September 2016

Drought-stricken areas of Australia are still waiting for crucial mental health services to be restored, leaving many in the bush dangerously vulnerable.

Services funded by the Federal Department of Agriculture ended in July and included door-to-door counselling and community events.

The Government has handed responsibility for commissioning mental health services to the Public Health Networks, but providers said it could be up to 18 months before the gap in drought-affected areas was closed.

Alison Fairleigh from the Mental Illness Fellowship North Queensland (MIFNQ) said the decision to stop services when people needed them most was “mind boggling”.

“They [rural communities] don’t have referral sources and they certainly don’t have the ability for one-on-one counselling and support to families,” she said.

“They don’t have somebody there to build up the community events.”

The MIFNQ was one of many organisations across Australia offering targeted support to drought-impacted communities.

“It had never been communicated to service providers or communities that it was once-off funding.”

Ms Fairleigh said access to the nearest psychologist or counsellor could be hours away and phone counselling was not an adequate solution.

‘Rug pulled out from under you’

Eva Luther, who lives on a remote cattle station in north-west Queensland, said she used to receive counselling services provided under the federal funding.

“If there was someone who desperately needed that care or needed someone to talk to, what state are they in now? If they’re still alive,” Ms Luther said.

“This is almost like pulling the rug out from under you, just when you start finding something that’s working then it’s gone. What were they thinking?”

State governments fund some mental health services but they are not available in all areas.

Meanwhile, Primary Health Networks (PHN) have begun recommissioning some services, but it is a slow process as they undertake a needs analysis for each individual area.

Ms Fairleigh welcomed the decision to involve the PHNs as a long-term solution, but is concerned about the time it will take to replace services in all areas and build up vital trust in communities.

“In the meantime, those communities have been left floating in the middle of a drought, high crisis around financial stress,” she said.

“Many of those properties have had rain recently, which is lovely, but they cannot afford to restock.”

Rural Health assistant minister Dr David Gillespie said the first year of implementation was one of transition, and the PHNs were focused on ensuring services continued while commissioning arrangements were established.

“In the meanwhile, services continue to be provided in rural and remote areas,” Dr Gillespie said.

This article first appeared on ‘ABC‘ on 2 September 2016.

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