After a concerted effort over a number of months, and in the face of increasing desperation by landholders facing relentless drought, the federal government has announced it will provide $1m for the Aussie Helpers Virtual Psychologist counselling service.
The announcement was the only one made by Malcolm Turnbull during his drought listening tour to parts of Queensland and NSW this week.
The service offers private, convenient mental health advice from trained professionals that people can access at any time of the day or night, from any location, and has been described as a literal life-saver in rural Australia.
According to Aussie Helpers founder, Brian Egan, the news was a victory after a long fight to get help for people in the bush.
Speaking from Dubbo, where he was coordinating assistance for the latest region to feel the desperation of no rain, Brian said the need for the service that allows people to access counselling assistance via text messages was growing.
“The service is taking 50 calls a week – people are distraught,” he said. “It’s not often men ring up and break down, saying they are going to lose the lot.”
Aussie Helpers had pledged $500,000 to ensure the service could offer assistance, but both Brian and Virtual Psychologist founder, Dervla Loughnane met with federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, in February to seek his government’s assistance.
As recently as last week, Mr Hunt said he saw merit in the proposal to support a 24 hour SMS and phone counselling service for rural and remote communities and advice/referral service for local practitioners, and was considering the proposal.
Speaking at Blackall on Tuesday, the Prime Minister said that while there were a lot of services for mental health assistance, both locally and via telehealth, the government would be providing the Aussie Helpers Virtual Psychologist with $1m over two years.
”You've got be prepared to use technology as creatively as possible,” he said. “It's clearly becoming a very popular service and they're doing a good job. You can't stop thinking and using your imagination to deliver new and better services.”
The founder of the service, Dervla Loughnane, said it was “an absolute dream come true”.
“I feel both honoured and overwhelmed to be a part of such an amazing journey.
“This funding means that we get to save more lives and support more people in rural and remote areas who have limited or no access to mental health services.”
She said the latest statistics, showing people were texting at 2am, and saying they couldn’t express themselves in a face to face situation, meant the idea was really making a difference to people in rural Australia.
In April, 68 per cent of the users were male, and 42pc of those engaging with the service were in the 22-29 year age bracket. The next biggest user group, 22pc, was aged between 41 and 50.
“Every hour of the day – 24 hours, seven days a week – we received at least one text message,” Dervla said.
The most common presenting problems among the 1320 texts in May were depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
“Together, we are saving lives,” she said.
Maranoa MP, David Littleproud, whose electorate covers much of the drought-stricken parts of Queensland, said the government was also giving a Medicare rebate for telehealth mental health services.
He said that was an enormous step forward for people in remote areas.
“They must have one of their first four consultations face to face so you can build that trust and rapport with the professional,” he said. “After that you can stay in the comfort of your own home. What we're trying to do is break down the stigma of mental illness.”
He said the extra $2m the government put on the table on Tuesday would help with that, because it would let people access help in the privacy of their own homes.
“If you feel as though you need help, reach out,” he said. “Mental illness is something that worries me deeply and it's one of the significant impacts of the drought.”