THE federal government has confirmed it will extend funding for vital mental health services introduced as part of the drought relief package beyond the December 30 funding deadline.
No end date has been given for the program but the news will be warmly welcomed by north Queensland mental health advocate Alison Fairleigh, who had been calling on the government to continue fund the $10.7 million Social and Community Support Package into the New Year.
"We are hoping it will be continued into 2014 but we just don't know and it's very frustrating for us," Ms Fairleigh said before confirmation of the funding extension on Wednesday.
"We want to be able to provide that continuity of care because we know that even when it does rain that people will still be under tremendous hardship and will still require these services."
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce confirmed that the funding would continue in response to questions from Queensland Country Life this week.
"The government is aware the services funded under this element are being taken up by many in the drought affected areas of NSW and Queensland," he said.
"The two programs administered by the Department of Social Services will continue. The Federal Government appreciates the work of both the State Government and other organisations such as the Salvation Army and Centacare to support those farmers doing it tough."
Ms Fairleigh is the Townsville area manager for the Mental Illness Fellowship of North Queensland, one of several service providers delivering the Targeted Community Care (TCC) and Family Support Programs funded under the drought package.
The Mental Illness Fellowship of North Queensland has been working in the Croydon, Flinders and Etheridge Shires where there had been a fourfold increase in the number of people accessing mental health services since the program began in May.
Ms Fairleigh said her organisation was taking a "low key" approach to maximise the number of people accessing the services.
"We are going into communities and perhaps sponsoring or attending existing events," she said.
"Our primary focus is talking to as many people as possible and getting information out there about the services we can provide.
"Through that process we can identify people that may need extra support and we can then refer them to the Family Support Program."
Ms Fairleigh said the Family Support Program was run by qualified councillors, social workers and psychologists who could arrange to make private on-farm visits.
She said the program was discrete and subtle.
"The staff are always in plain clothes and unmarked cars and the whole idea is create as little fanfare as possible," she said. "We don't use logos, we don't do a lot of media.
"We don't want to create stigma around people accessing our services. We want them to have faith in us that we aren't promoting a cause - that we are simply there to help them."
Ms Fairleigh said various agencies were working together to deliver the programs with great success but she said the need remained great.
"People are really suffering, mostly because of the financial burden that they are carrying," she said.
"We are getting new people referred to us all the time."
While the need for mental health services is significant, Ms Fairleigh said she didn't believe suicide rates had escalated because of the drought.
"The evidence shows us that suicide rates don't increase during drought," she said.
"People are at a higher risk of suicide but there is no pattern to suggest that there is a higher rate of suicide during drought compared to other times in our farming communities."
For a full list of mental health service providers in your area visit www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/mental-health