By Graham Parry MAPS, Illawarra and South East Region Department of Education and Community, and John Hambridge MAPS, Chris Willcox MAPS and Wayne Clarke, Hunter New England Local Health District

Psychologists in rural and remote Australia frequently work in great geographical and professional isolation yet deal with complex presentations, resource issues and ethical dilemmas related to their situation. The rural workforce has many junior and inexperienced psychologists and it is difficult to attract and retain psychologists, to the detriment of the mental health needs of rural and remote communities.

Recognising the need to provide and maintain quality psychological services in rural and remote areas, the NSW Psychologists Registration Board (now the Psychology Council of NSW) awarded a grant of $250K to a team of psychologists from Hunter New England Local Health District. The original grant proposal was to develop and implement a mentoring scheme for approximately 25 rural and remote area psychologists (RRAPs) in NSW, supplemented by educational initiatives. The aims were to decrease the sense of isolation experienced by RRAPs and enhance their skill level and knowledge base. It was also hoped this might help to sustain and increase the psychology workforce in rural and remote areas. Two part-time psychologists were employed to develop and implement the program.

The project commenced in August 2010 and in just two weeks 98 RRAPs had completed an online survey outlining their experience and needs, and enrolled in the program. The cohort consisted of 22 senior and clinical, 50 general and 26 provisionally registered psychologists. The level of demand meant that the original proposal was modified and quickly evolved into a range of support options across four platforms: supervision, mentoring, online support and training. Direct supervision delivered by the two psychologists working part-time on the project provided a total of 371 hours of supervision to 45 general psychologists over a 12-month period.

Participants were introduced to the world of blogging through a wordpress site (an interactive blog site) and later through a NING (a blog specifically designed to enable individual blog pages and direct connection to upcoming workshop presenters).
 Seventy-six RRAPs attended a ‘country week’ in Sydney and participated in a range of subsidised workshops including: Interpersonal Therapy; Grief and Loss; Image Reprocessing and Rescripting Therapy; Beginner and Advanced Level Acceptance and Commitment Therapy; Ethics in Rural Practice; and Giving and Receiving Good Supervision. Twenty-four psychologists joined a voluntary mentoring program either as mentors and/or mentees. Psychologists from as far away as Dareton, Broken Hill and Lightning Ridge connected with their rural colleagues through the project and formed many personal and professional links.

With the new Psychology Board of Australia requirements for psychologists to have a continuing professional development (CPD) learning plan, and to log training and supervision events in order to retain registration, there are additional pressures on isolated remote and rural psychologists. Those in the Rural and Remote Area Psychologists Program (RRAPP) have been able to:

  • Receive inexpensive and targeted training both live and online
  • Receive direct supervision counting towards CPD hours
  • Participate in peer mentoring
  • Access an array of focused webcast learning opportunities via in-house blogs
  • Participate in a forum to discuss casework and share resources
  • Overcome isolation through participation in an online community.

Evaluation of the program

Survey responses indicate that the RRAPP succeeded in reducing burnout and the sense of isolation, increased skill levels and formed networks amongst RRAPs. Individual feedback has confirmed that RRAPs need and appreciate any extra support they can get. An Illustrative comment from the survey makes this point.

“It is very difficult to access supervision, resources and training in a rural area, as the options and costs often prohibit participation. This program makes supervision, training, connection and resources accessible, all of which are crucial for our role. These aspects are even more pertinent with the new Registration Board requirements, and this program will facilitate continued (and improved) practice for many rural psychologists.”

The program has just received an additional grant from the Psychology Council of NSW to carry the project through until 2012 and in the future is hoping to partner with national bodies. Psychologists in NSW who would like to find out more about the current project and any rurally-based psychologists who would like to express an interest in joining any future funded national project should email the principal author of this article. n

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the NSW Psychologists Registration Board and Psychology Council of NSW for their continued interest and support for the project.

The principal author can be contacted at graham.parry@det.nsw.edu.au.