Critical need for rural mental health care

Meeting the growing demand for mental healthcare in the bush will be critical for the long-term wellbeing of rural and remote patients, and will require the continuing strong focus of governments, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia has warned during Mental Health Week.

"More rural and remote patients are visiting their local rural doctor for mental healthcare, with this area of care becoming a much larger component of general practice care than it was even five years ago," RDAA president Dr Ewen McPhee said.

"It is fantastic that more rural and remote Australians, like their urban counterparts, are realising they need to look after their mental as well as physical health — and we strongly encourage this — but now more than ever, there is a crucial need to ensure they can access the mental healthcare they need, when they need it.

"A major report released recently by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners on general practice care in Australia – General Practice: Health of the Nation – shows that the most frequent care provided by GPs is for psychological care, demonstrating that the sector plays a critical role in helping patients with their mental health as well as physical health.

"Importantly, many patients don't realise that they are struggling mentally, and it is only through a consultation for a physical health concern that their doctor will uncover a mental health concern and recommend treatment for that. It is often only through their doctor taking extra time and careful observation in the consultation that mental health concerns, and any underlying problems, are discovered.

“This is even more prevalent in rural and remote communities where the general practitioner is often a central provider of care in town.

"And with a shortage of psychologists and other mental health professionals in rural and remote areas, the role of rural doctors in providing mental healthcare is already absolutely critical, and is becoming more so.

"Many rural doctors already undertake additional upskilling in advanced mental healthcare — and it will be important that federal and state governments continue to strongly support this upskilling going forward.

"Under the National Rural Generalist Pathway that the Federal Government is progressing, medical graduates training as Rural Generalist doctors will be able to undertake advanced mental healthcare as a key element of their training, alongside other advanced skills.

"Earlier this year, we also welcomed an announcement by the federal government that, from November, it will increase access for rural and remote Australians to Medicare-rebated psychological care delivered by video consultations.

"While these are very welcome measures, it will be imperative for the federal and state governments to continue to focus on ensuring there are more doctors, psychologists and other mental health professionals on-the-ground in rural and remote Australia to provide face-to-face mental healthcare, and meet the demand for mental healthcare in our country communities, in the years to come."