Country life is said to create a happier living space than that of the ‘rat race’ city lifestyle. Even so, rural Australians are not invulnerable to mental health issues, and a lack of mental health services in comparison to the city can make it a challenging situation. As Harry Easton writes, WayAhead’s anxiety forums are aiming to bring much needed information and clarity on mental health topics to these rural areas…
After visiting numerous townships across rural NSW, the free WayAhead Anxiety Forum has enjoyed continuing success in educating hundreds of people on the facts of mental health. The forums have provided a chance for locals of remote townships to listen to comprehensive information on mental health in a public setting where attendees were given the opportunity to have their personal questions answered.
The free service presented three speakers who spoke on a range of mental health topics, from diagnosis to the experiences of the carer. Julie Leitch, anxiety information officer at WayAhead, was one of the presenters at the forum. WayAhead’s Directory Coordinator Jamie Saltoon, Vice President of ARAFMI Jenny Learmont and Senior Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor at Charles Sturt University Rocco Crino have spoken as well.
Most of the forums are held after personal requests are made from members of rural communities. Julie believes that the forums help to provide clarity on mental health issues that get limited attention in these areas.
“Rural and remote communities don’t have a lot of treatment options in the area so we go in and raise awareness of what an anxiety disorder is and hopefully provide them with information on where they can go locally for help. My role was speaking as a consumer. So I spoke about my experience of living with OCD, my treatment and how I’ve been 24 years free of OCD. My main aim is to let people know that there is help out there and that they can get it under control.”
A combined total of over 400 people attended the Anxiety Forums held in Albury, Mittagong, Coffs Harbour and Macksville. In this time, forums have been held across the state, from Dubbo to Gilgandra to Moree.
In these communities there is an alarming lack of mental health services that individuals can access. According to the National Rural Health Alliance, GP mental health service occasions declined from 668 per 1000 people in major Australian cities to only 241 in remote areas. Julie says this can create frustration for people in these areas suffering from mental ill health.
“That’s the thing we find most when we do these forums, people asking ‘Where do I go for help?’ If there is treatment, there are 6-12 month waiting lists. So I always provide them with the online treatment programs, which are Australia-wide. I don’t think it’s as good as one-on-one but it’s certainly something.”
Julie says her personal stories as someone with OCD, as well as Jamie’s and Jenny’s stories as mental health carers, help enlighten the forum’s audiences.
“I think as good as professional information and talks are, when people hear the consumer and the carer speak it makes it real. They’re not just listening to facts and figures. And they may be able to relate that to a family member, a friend or a work colleague.”
The Albury Anxiety Forum was met with praise and admiration from those who attended, with many complementing the question time period that is open to the floor.
“I was so impressed by the turn out. I loved the Q & A. I loved the evening… so helpful,” read one of the comments, whilst others were impressed with the breadth of knowledge of the presenters. “I really appreciated the way Julie & Jamie were so open and honest with what they have been through. Dr Rocco was so informative and specific in his presentation.”
Karen Purtle, a local Albury resident living with bipolar disorder, says all three presenters were very informative.
“I thought it was very helpful. It was well structured. Rocco gave a good grounding and overview of the ‘science’ of anxiety. I was riveted by Julie’s and Jamie’s personal stories. They made the issue real. It was also a good crowd (in terms of numbers) and they participated well with questions.”
Whilst the forums are mostly organised on a request basis, there are hopes that future forums will be held more frequently across NSW and that there will be a wider range of presenters.
The forums are having a lasting impact on the communities, with some taking positive steps towards improving mental health services.
“The setting up of 3 new support groups in Coffs Harbour and Macksville is exciting,” says Julie. “After the forum they decided that they needed to have their own anxiety support groups. These groups will commence after a training day in March”.