By Simon Canny MAPS, clinical psychologist in private practice, Associate Professor Timothy A. Carey MAPS, Centre for Remote Health and Central Australian Mental Health Service, and Professor Don Thomson FAPS, Deakin University
This article highlights three key organisations across regional Australia that offer opportunities, skills sharing and resources for psychologists and other professionals to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians living and working in ‘the bush’. Psychologists are not often the first point of call for people living in rural and remote areas, and neither is the profession the backbone of the community in the same way as a GP, the pastor or the sports club might be. However, psychologists have an advanced level of understanding of people and their ‘fit’ within the physical, social, ecological and political landscape, so should take the opportunity to spread psychological knowledge through regional organisations to assist in improving the lives and relationships of those in regional, rural and remote (RRR) Australia.
The National Rural Health Alliance (NRHA) has as its goal that all Australians should have equitable access to appropriate health services, regardless of where they live. Similarly, the primary objective of Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health (SARRAH) is to advocate for, develop and provide services to enable allied health professionals who live and work in rural and remote areas of Australia to confidently and competently carry out their professional duties in providing a variety of health services. The National Farmers Federation (NHF) supports 135,000 farms which produce 93 per cent of Australia’s domestic food supply from 61 per cent of the landmass, and this vital activity requires reciprocity from all of us. These three regional organisations already have psychologists working within them, but more are required.
The NRHA is the peak non-government rural and remote health organisation in Australia, with 33 member bodies including the APS through the participation of the APS Rural and Remote Interest Group. This membership enables representation of what psychology has to offer to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities in rural and remote Australia. NRHA has a bimonthly, peer reviewed journal – Australian Journal of Rural Health – and a large conference every two years.
The health of rural Australia will continue to be a focus of governments’ initiatives across the next decade, and the application of psychological knowledge and decision making is crucial to ensure evidence-based models are developed and implemented effectively. Representatives of the NRHA member bodies meet throughout the year via teleconferencing and have one face-to-face meeting with Government Ministers in Canberra each year to discuss health priorities in the bush. A number of issues relevant to psychology have received attention from parliamentarians and policy makers over recent years. In addition to the ongoing plea for better mental health services, the under-representation of psychologists has resulted in other health professionals asking for greater psychological input and collaborative care in areas such as neuropsychological services and management of dieting behaviours.
SARRAH offers its members an online training package to assist with transitioning to rural and remote practice and free online access to a cultural orientation program and the Australian Journal of Rural Health. It also provides Australia-wide access to continuing professional development through the Victorian Department of Health’s Allied Health Education Program (AHEP), designed to improve rural recruitment and retention rates. As an organisation, SARRAH is critically located in a position of trust and respect with access to Federal Government Ministers and the Department of Health and Ageing, and provides the opportunity to guide initiatives funded through Australia’s rural health budget.
The NFF is a body representing farming organisations based in the various States, and rural commodity organisations. A key aim of the NFF is to obtain better access to services for people – farmers, businesses and communities – in regional Australia. Through individual members’ initiatives like the NSW Farmers’ Mental Health Network and Rural Mental Health Support Line, this goal has been brought to fruition. As a result of lobbying, the Federal Government introduced additional services and financial and personal counselling to the wide regions of Australia affected by flood, drought and natural disaster. In addition to mental health services, psychologists’ participation in the NFF or its member organisations can also enable greater access to organisational, environmental and community psychology principles.
As psychologists, we don’t just have to undertake research or practise as clinicians to make a difference in RRR Australia, but can join key regional organisations and share our knowledge, skills and unique ability to understand the biopsychosocial approach to the development of solutions for people in their context. The wellbeing of the nation depends on psychologists contributing their knowledge, and the future of the profession requires it.
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