I recently spoke in Melbourne to a meeting of emergency services workers. 

In thanking them for their incredible contribution to our nation, I spoke about the times I had seen them doing their all to help communities shattered by natural disaster. Standing on the scorched earth after Black Saturday. Wading through flood waters in Queensland in the summer between 2010 and 2011. Picking up the pieces after Cyclone Yasi.

But all the heartbreaking stories of farming families and rural communities struggling to cope in the face of terrible drought have made me think again about how disaster strikes. It doesn’t always happen in a few catastrophic hours.

Instead, it can build up over many, many months. Day after day of no rain. Day after day of dwindling hope. Day after day of mounting financial and emotional pressure. As Australians, we know that takes a toll. We have lived through droughts before and seen the weariness and worry etched on the faces of country Australians.

At beyondblue, we have been thinking through how we can particularly help farming families and regional communities at this very difficult time. 

On average, one in five people experience mental health issues every year, and those in rural and remote communities are no less affected. Indeed, in times of great hardship, they could be more affected. And the tragic fact is that the suicide rate in very remote Australia is more than double that of our major cities.

Yet, finding a professional to help you get through is harder if you are in the bush. Only 3.5 per cent of Australia’s psychiatric workforce services outer regional, remote and very remote areas. No wonder half of regional Australians surveyed describe access to mental health specialist services as ‘poor’.

But increasingly there are ways to access support other than sitting in the same room as a health professional. Many mental health organisations and counselling services are working hard to create options for people in regional communities. It was terrific to see the Federal Government build on this work and add more flexible service access options and new resources for mental health in yesterday’s drought assistance package.

For our part, beyondblue operates its Support Service (1300 224 636) where mental health professionals answer about 150,000 calls each year, with about one third from regional and rural areas.

Our online forums – where people anonymously discuss their experiences with others who have seen hard times themselves – attract more than 110,000 users each month, 45 percent of them from non-metropolitan areas. This is significant when you consider 35 percent of the population lives in these areas.

Our NewAccess services, where people can find free, practical advice about how to keep their mental health on track rather than getting on a downwards spiral, are available in several regional locations – Roma, Mt Isa, Longreach, Wagga Wagga, Deniliquin and Griffith – with more to come. NewAccess coaches can also be reached by phone or Skype.

And if the worst happens, and someone is hospitalised after trying to take their life, our Way Back Support Service is there to help. Right now, it’s operating in nine areas, six of them regional. With support from the Commonwealth, we are working on getting more of these services off the ground in more places.

My message is a simple one. Please reach out. Here are some practical ways to find help.

Related reading: A word with Julia

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