Online treatment programs are being flagged as a solution to the high rates of suicide in remote and rural Australia.
Mental health experts say people living in remote, regional and rural parts of Australia are more vulnerable to mental health problems because of poor socio-economic conditions and a lack of accessible services.
The Mental Health Commission’s chief executive David Butt said bad housing, high unemployment and chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease all add up to increased levels of psychological distress.
“Access to health services, access to employment, education, all the other things that enable you to have a contributing life are really much lower,” he said.
As a result, suicide rates are 66 per cent higher out of the cities and Indigenous Australians living remotely are three times more likely to commit suicide than non-Indigenous city dwellers.
But the accessibility of mental health services in those areas is scarce.
Data from the National Rural Health Alliance shows the number of psychiatrists, mental health nurses and psychologists in regional areas is respectively 33 per cent, 82 per cent and 54 per cent of what it is in major cities.
The comparisons are even poorer in remote areas.
Medicare expenditure on mental health in remote areas is 11 per cent of what it is in major cities.
E-mental health treatment could help remote areas, expert says
Mr Butt and other mental health experts have said one solution to the accessibility gap is online treatment programs, otherwise known as E-mental health.
“We need to look at E-mental health as part of an overall treatment plan, not something separate. You’ll never have all the blocks and mortar in place to treat people face to face,” Mr Butt said.
Australia is the leader in creating programs such as online chat rooms and connectivity to practitioners, online questionnaires, mood trackers and interactive, educational programs.
The online treatment is based on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which is designed to change negative patterns of thinking.
Mr Butt said evidence shows online programs are just as effective as face-to-face CBT.
“It’s certainly more effective than putting people on medications, particularly in the mild to moderate category of anxiety or depression,” he said.
“Drugs have shown to not really be that effective with that group, where as CBT online has shown to be much more effective.”
But delegates at the National Rural Health Conference in Darwin this week, who are also on-the-ground mental health workers, have said online therapy needs to be used in conjunction with traditional methods, medication and practitioners that are community or locally based.
Mr Butt agreed and said the next stage is ensuring an integrated roll-out, along with technological infrastructure in the remote areas.
Federal Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash said the Government is considering how to support E-mental health as part of its aim to plug the accessibility gap in remote Australia.