A new online course set to help build capacity and resilience of farmers is launching today.
The course, Navigate Together, has been set up by Mid North psychologist, farmer and 2020 SA Agrifutures Rural Women's Award winner Steph Schmidt, and builds on a pilot program Ms Schmidt developed last year as part of her initiative 'ACT for Ag'.
"The training course is aimed at male and female farmers, and really anyone rural or connected into agriculture, to build skills to face the challenges we encounter every day," Ms Schmidt said.
Navigate Together will involve four, one-hour live zoom sessions, which will be run once a week for four weeks. Discussion platforms will be available for participants, who will also be provided with printed and online resources, including a handbook which details tools and strategies for managing stress.
"The handbook is a physical tool to use everyday and work through yourself. Then, when you get comfortable in learning it, you can say to a partner or friend, 'I learnt this perspective, can I share it with you'," Ms Schmidt said.
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"If people are going through a tough time, you can share helpful ideas with them, without having to be trained as a counsellor."
Navigate Together has a "rural tweak", which sets it apart from other mental health support programs.
"There is a focus on the uncertainty that comes with farming. Instead of looking at ways to get rid of stress, it's about recognising that stress is inevitable, but manageable," Ms Schmidt said
"We can still have healthy relationships, and productive farms and businesses, even with all the challenges that farming brings."
Ms Schmidt said the need for mental health support in rural areas was continuing to rise.
Prevention is always better than a cure.
"It's not necessarily COVID-19 specifically causing the need to increase services, but drought, bushfires, and the day-to-day challenges that farming brings, all cause stress and anxiety to those in the regions," she said.
"We need programs to build resilience skills from the ground up, so we can reduce the burden at the top, on a clinical level, and bring waiting lists down.
"Prevention is always better than a cure."
In response to Stock Journal questions, an SA Health spokesperson confirmed SA Health currently funds 373 mental health staff for regional SA.
Through its six regional Local Health Networks, SA Health commissions 41 adult acute mental health beds, dedicated for people from rural and regional areas.
Of these, there are 23 beds at the Rural and Remote Mental Health Service in Adelaide, and six each at Berri, Whyalla, and Mount Gambier.
From the period of July 2020 to March 2021, 762 people have been discharged from the 41 acute mental health beds, an average of 85 per month.
The spokesperson said there had been 3507 mental health presentations to country emergency departments in the same time period.
Through the country Community Mental Health Service, SA Health has provided 83,680 face to face, video and phone contacts in the same period, an average of 9300 per month.
TELEHEALTH NOT NECESSARILY 'SILVER BULLET' ANSWER
Despite COVID-19 not being the sole contributor to a rising need for mental health services, the shutdown of face-to-face consultations and expansion of telehealth services has acted as a "leveller" between rural and urban residents accessing healthcare, according to Premier's Advocate for Suicide Prevention, Dan Cregan.
"We have all had to adapt, with lasting benefits for people who now communicate more frequently with friends, family and medical professionals," he said.
"COVID-19 has made it possible to deliver health and counselling services electronically and this is very important for rural and regional communities.
"The SA government moved speedily to set up the Covid Mental Health Telephone Support Line (1800 615 677), which offers telephone and video counselling, referrals to a range of services and follow-up check-in calls. In my view, the expansion of telehealth is a massive win for regional communities, especially those struggling to attract and retain health professionals."
But Mr Cregan said the benefits of telehealth should not be seen as a direct replacement to in-person consultations going forward.
Despite advances in technology, there is no substitute for a doctor or counsellor who lives and breathes the challenges of regional communities on a day-to-day basis.
"People know and understand the value of having doctors, counsellors and other allied health professionals based in regional communities," he said.
"Despite advances in technology, there is no substitute for a doctor or counsellor who lives and breathes the challenges of regional communities on a day-to-day basis."
- Make sure to check out our new monthly mental health and wellbeing column in Stock Journal's Our People section (page 24 in today's edition). It will be written by representatives of the National Enterprise for Rural Community Wellbeing, based on insights that emerged from a national study on tailoring strategies for farmer suicide prevention and from a co-design workshop with local suicide prevention group SOS Yorkes.
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