New research has reinforced the benefits of online mental health services for rural and regional communities that continue to feel the impacts of a string of crises facing their communities and livelihoods.
In the last five years, online mental health service ReachOut found the proportion of rural and regional young people stressed about the future grew dramatically from 15% in 2016 to 33% this year. The organisation, part of the Future Generation Global not-for-profit network, also found probable serious mental illness amongst rural and regional young people increased from 20.9% in 2016 to 27.8% in 2021, with a peak of 37% among 18-19 year olds.
Despite this backdrop, provision of support services continues to be divided on geographic lines. On average, the further you live from a metropolitan centre, the less likely you are to have access to local mental health services including psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health nurses. Rates of suicide in the population also increase with remoteness.
Encouragingly though, young people in rural and regional communities are increasingly willing to engage with services that are appropriate and accessible to help manage their mental health concerns, particularly online services.
Case study: making a difference in rural and regional communities
Young people in rural and regional Australia face a unique set of challenges which are not, in the main, the same as those in metropolitan areas. Difficulty in safeguarding confidentiality in small communities and transport barriers are examples of issues young people face in accessing mental health services.
Backed by a five-year funding commitment from Future Generation Global, ReachOut conducted research in rural and regional Australia to understand young people’s service preferences and the best way to engage with them.
In that time, ReachOut found a positive response to online-based services, with the benefits of confidentiality, no geographic limitations, and a self-help model being well received. The research found that there were many positive changes for young people over the past five years, including an improvement in their understanding of mental health issues, changes in attitudes towards mental health services (particularly online services), and increased use of online services. ReachOut also found that young people using their service felt they were not alone (84%) and part of a safe and supportive community (70%).
The research suggests online support is a crucial tool in rural and regional communities, playing a complementary role alongside face-to-face services. Online self-help tools and community forums are also designed with prevention in mind – ultimately aiming to reduce the need for crisis-based services.
Ashley de Silva, CEO of ReachOut, said that this report demonstrates the complexity of mental health challenges for young people living in rural areas across Australia and the need for ongoing and tailored support.
“The findings of ReachOut’s new report about the mental health of young people in rural areas are sadly not surprising. During this time, communities have faced drought, natural disasters and a global pandemic.
“These figures reinforce the need to focus on rural populations as a priority for mental health services. There can be many challenges associated with accessing mental health support in regional areas, which is why free, easy to access online services are so vital.”
The challenge ahead
The volume of funding for mental health services has increased substantially following a $2.3 billion allocation in the May Federal Budget and much work has been done to reduce the stigma around mental ill-health in national debate. However, the gains are being outpaced by increasing instances of mental ill-health in Australia, particularly among young people.
True to the experience of the broader mental health sector, securing adequate funding to work beyond crisis and into prevention is an ongoing challenge despite the enormity of Australia’s mental health crisis. Funding is often short-term and disparate, with ebbs and flows dictated by economic conditions.
Co-ordinated long-term policy, and the funding that accompanies it, is critical to ensuring effective mental health services in rural and regional Australia. The National Federation Reform Council is currently consulting on how to address the complexity of mental health service delivery and accessibility through a national agreement, intended to act as a cornerstone of public policy on mental health, due to be delivered in November 2021.
There is no shortage of dedication and innovation among the not-for-profit community that supports youth experiencing mental ill-health. The need for their services will only continue to grow, especially as New South Wales and Victoria are currently experiencing extended lockdowns, including in rural and regional communities. Continuing reform and investment which urgently arms Australian young people with both preventative and crisis-response tools and services will edge Australia closer to improving mental health outcomes for young people now and into the future.
You can access the full research report from ReachOut here.