03/09/2015 3:35 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Technology Can Help Fix The Mental Health Crisis In Rural Australia

The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images
(AUSTRALIA OUT, NEW ZEALAND OUT) Michael Milne, a farmer on his property, Fairview near Trundle [60 km from Parkes] has had major problems getting in his wheat crop, with drought, floods, hail and now rain. He hopes to harvest his crop soon if the rain stops, 29 November 2005. (Photo by Robert Pearce/Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Mental health experts admit the system is failing people with anxiety and depression in remote areas and say technology must become part of the solution.

Suicide in Australia has become a national crisis, with rates for Australian men aged 15-29 living in rural areas twice as high as that in major cities.

With nearly a third of our population living outside major cities, experts are now stepping up efforts to ensure those living in remote locations do not ‘fall through the gaps’ and get the help they need.

According to Associate Professor Jane Burns, founder of Young and Well, it’s all about getting the right support at the right time.

“Some people think, ‘My problem isn’t big enough to get help yet.’ And they don’t get help,” she said.

“People are educated as to what anxiety and depression look like, but the focus needs to be on what to do.”

“We lead the world in mental health services. We have a great system in Australia. But we are failing people living in remote areas. So what we need to do is use technology to reach out to those that need the help.”

Depression is higher in rural communities due to a number of factors: drought, floods, depression, anxiety and unemployment. There are also issues surrounding the isolation and loss of a support network when friends or family members leave town for the ‘big smoke.’

This week the World Meteorological Organisation said a “mature and strong” El Niño was now present in the tropical Pacific Ocean and predicted it would develop into the most severe event for 18 years, possibly 65 years. The pattern contributes to extreme events like droughts and flooding in different parts of the world, placing further stress on Australian farmers.

Dr Fiona Shand from The Black Dog Institute said often when we think of suicide, we think of people with depression.

“But not everybody who suicides has depression. And not everybody with depression has suicidal thoughts,” she said.

“We’ve found depression and anxiety increases the risk, but is not always associated with suicide attempts.”

Young and Well is focussing on ways to engage with young people in the bush, and the services they use.

“There is still a big stigma about mental illness in rural areas. But young people in remote locations use the internet daily, so we need to use technology to support the mental health of young people,” Burns said.

“That way, they can reach out from the comfort of their living room. We also need to focus on the mental health of young people, ensure they get enough exercise, get enough sleep and learn to manage stress. Technology can play a huge role.”

When 25-year-old ‘Sean’ was diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety, he was living in a remote Queensland town, with no access to mental health services.

“By the time I told my parents, it was almost too late. I wasn’t suicidal but I was at the stage where I didn’t know how I was going to keep going,” Sean said.

“Things eventually got under control but, living a four hour drive away from hospital made things more difficult. When I was at my worst, I had no internet access. So I think if I was at that stage right now, and was able to get help online, I would have reached out a lot earlier.”

Burns claims Australia is on the cusp of mental health reform. It’s all about integrating technology into face-to-face services.

“When it comes to rural communities, the solutions must be tailored towards individuals and ensure people no longer fall through the gaps,” Burns said.

“So there’s a big opportunity in our rural and regional communities to deliver that help that’s so desperately needed.”

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