Armidale is a caring city, National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan believes - but its residents, as elsewhere, can have trouble accessing mental health and suicide prevention services.
"This is a community looking to build awareness of mental health," Ms Morgan said. "They're keen to try to break down the barriers around mental health, and build relationships of trust."
Ms Morgan and Lucinda Brogden AM, the NMHC's chair, visited New England on Wednesday on a three-month "Connections" tour of Australia to help develop mental health policy for the next decade.
They visited the UNE Medical Centre; held a workshop at the Town Hall; and met representatives from Hunter New England Health and One Door Mental Health.
Snapshots from the day will be available on the Commission's website later this week.
"We're taking all this information; we are really hearing you, trust me," Mrs Brogden said. "We don't sleep after these meetings, because our brains are whirring."
Federal Minister for Health Greg Hunt has asked Ms Morgan and Mrs Brogden to visit 26 communities; find out how locals want the mental health system changed; and so guide the Commission's 2030 Vision for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
"We need to hear from Australians," Ms Morgan said, "because at the end of the day, this has to be a mental health system that works for people where they are, and in real time."
While there were some underlying systematic issues, she said, the solutions would be shaped to the needs of particular communities.
Barriers to accessing mental health services, participants at the Town Hall workshop said, included:
- difficulty trusting services;
- lack of confidentiality (particularly in small towns);
- fear of stigma (being judged for having a mental illness);
- fear that they could lose their job or custody of their children if others knew they had mental problems;
- the "stiff upper lip" belief that sufferers could cope by themselves, without seeking help;
"We need to understand that sometimes it's particularly difficult for community to break down those barriers and seek help," Ms Morgan said. "In a small place, they may know the person socially; that makes it difficult to go to them professionally. They may also feel as though there's an expectation they can just cope."
Other problems included:
- not enough services (particularly outside the working week);
- long-waits on phone lines or at services;
- getting to and from services for people who lived out of town;
- lack of childcare for parents;
- inadequately funded services closing;
- a lack of culturally appropriate services (e.g. for Ezidi refugees suffering trauma)
"People are really looking for a solid community health system," Mrs Brogden said. "That's where we've lost our way over the last 20 or 30 years, and that's where we need to build what we're doing. That can come from a lot of peer support, mutual support, and interesting models."
To address these issues, workshop participants suggested:
- A nationwide campaign to promote positive mental health, like the 'Norm' campaign of the 1970s and '80s
- Multi-purpose health-centres - not just for mental health, but for physical / medical / holistic health and community classes
- A refocus from government on the well-being of clients, rather than on measurables
- A consumer-driven mental health service, based on lived experience, rather than driven by health professionals
- More collaboration between services (bringing specialist knowledge together) rather than competing for tenders
- Changing the 'sick' culture of our society, and focusing on mental health, well-being, and happiness
- Educating the public to recognise signs of mental illness (and the media to talk more appropriately about people with mental illness)
- More "soft" power - training hairdressers and baristas (good listeners) as counsellors
Ms Morgan and Mrs Brogden expect to finish their tour in early September. They will then reformulate the 2030 Vision, and put it out through the Commission's website: https://www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au/our-work/connections.aspx, with questions for consultation.
They will reshape the Vision until they get broadly a consensus to take to Mr Hunt before Christmas.
Ms Morgan and Mrs Brogden encouraged readers to visit the Commission's site and critique the day's findings, or to take part in an online survey (LINK). Readers can also follow the Commission on Facebook (@NMHCAustralia) or Twitter (@NMHC).
"Our mental health is an integral part of our very being," Ms Morgan said. "We should feel as though it is something that we can talk about; we can get help when we're not well; where it is just part of normal life.
"It is part of every Australian, and therefore it's every Australian's business."
If this has raised any issues for you, support is always available from:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636