Rural Mental Health In Australia: The Shameful Reality

Content warning: mental health, suicide, depression

Mental Health has become a very important topic of late, for me and for others. With shows like 13 Reasons Why causing an uproar, an increase in diagnoses of mental health conditions in younger people and a much wider knowledge of what mental illness is and why the stigma around it is outdated and dangerous. This is good progress, a march toward equality for people with mental illnesses who often suffer discrimination at the hands of those who don’t understand the reality of living with mental illness, but society has a long way to go, especially in rural isolated towns in Australia.

I grew up in a very small rural town up until I turned 12, and as a kid, mental illness was either not talked about or I was sheltered from it due to my age, either way, I was woefully unprepared for my teenage years and the depression that would ensue. By that point my family had moved to a larger town with more mental health services and I was at a larger school with a counsellor, which was lucky because as it turns out, the year I turned 16, everything went to absolute hell for me and I was in dire need of help. I can’t help but wonder, if I had still lived in that tiny, isolated rural town of my younger years whether I would have gotten the help I so badly needed as a teenager? It’s hard to know, that small town was where I grew up throughout the 1990’s and whether it was because it was the 1990’s and mental health was still very much stigmatised and not spoken about or whether it was because it was such a small town with a frightening lack of services, but I have my doubts that I would have gotten the help I needed.

It would be easy to blame that small town for being close minded or backward thinking but really the people there were caring and considerate and would do anything for someone who needed help, but the education about mental health was poor, the services non existent and the feeling of shame at having a mental illness was sky high.

I saw this for myself when I worked in another small town not far from my childhood home town in 2015, it was my first “adult” job and frankly it was awful. I worked in a high school as a “Student Support Officer” and in my first week there I dealt with a suicidal 14 year old who was treated as an attention seeker and as a waste of time to help. By law, we had to notify her parents, take her to the hospital, where we waited over 3 hours for her to be assessed by a psychiatric nurse via video link, and the end result was “no action to be taken”. I went home and called my parents and said “what have I done?! Coming here was a mistake” because I felt so helpless, here was this young girl who clearly felt disenfranchised by the community she lived in, crying out for help and being ignored by an overstretched, underfunded mental health service because she wasn’t “acutely affected”. To add insult to injury, when I called her parents again the next day to check in, this young girl’s mother said to me “next time, just call me and I’ll take her home and have a talk with her about this bullshit”. That to me, summed up my next 5 and a half months in that town and in that job. This pervasive culture of “we don’t talk about our problems, we deal with them at home” and dealing with them at home was also a case of “let’s not talk about it right now”.

I was appalled, disappointed and most of all I was furious. In the 12 months prior to my starting at that job, a young girl of 16 had taken her own life after being bullied at the school I worked at, a young man had taken his life after cutbacks at his job, and countless farmers had received mental health assessments as a result of depression stemming from a crippling drought, debt and a declining economy, all in one very small town.

The problem here is that those farmers never spoke to anyone else about their struggles and only ever reached out for help when they reached breaking point, and by that point they already had a plan in place for how they would take their own life but by some miracle they had reached out and stopped themselves from making a god awful mistake.

This town had a population of about 3,000 and to have 2 suicides in 12 months, and countless others receiving mental health assessments is unfathomable in terms of mental health statistics. This was a town that was struggling under the weight of a mental health crisis they were not equipped to combat.

During my time in that job, I struggled, I was having my own mental health issues which culminated in me seeing a mental health nurse during one of his trips from a larger centre. He was very helpful, understanding and kind. We discussed mental health both on a personal note for me as well as on a professional note as a social worker to a mental health nurse and the conclusion we drew was that this town was isolating, enclosed in its own reality and struggling to combat a crisis that was occurring at a national level as well.

This entire experience left me with a feeling that I couldn’t shake: mental health carries such a stigma, especially in small isolated communities, that it makes it almost impossible for those who need it to seek help. The stigma is so strong that mental health issues are still spoken about in hushed tones even by those who profess to be mental health professionals. I had one nurse ask me how I could possibly be a social worker and help others if I was struggling with my own mental health, and that mentality needs to end, because people will die before they get help when even the professionals are judging those in need.

Mental health in Australia, particularly in rural communities, needs to improve and it needs to do so before more people lose their lives because of lack of funds, lack of services and frankly staff who are under qualified for the task at hand.

If this post has raised mental health concerns for you, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or your nearest Mental Health hotline.

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