$47.7m investment in telehealth psychiatry for regions welcomed, but not a replacement for local, community-based support

UnitingSA has welcomed the Federal Government’s $47 million investment in bulk-billed psychiatry for rural and regional areas, but says telehealth shouldn’t replace locally based, face-to-face psychosocial mental health services.

UnitingSA CEO Jenny Hall said while the budget announcement handed down by Treasurer Jim Chalmers this week was absolutely critical, it is only one step towards building a better national response to meet the growing mental health needs of regional Australians.

“Telehealth should not be seen as a replacement for face-to-face, recovery based rehabilitation from local community mental health providers, where workers stand side-by-side with people facing mental health challenges to help them recover, reconnect and live their best life in their own communities,” Ms Hall said.

“People living in regional areas already face significant barriers in receiving this type of psychosocial mental health support, with limited services, staff and large distances to travel presenting a significant hurdle to overcome.

“Locally based, community mental health support is absolutely critical to helping people to overcome mental health challenges and live meaningful lives in their own home towns.”

The reinstated telehealth psychiatry funding, dropped by the former Liberal government, would provide around 410,000 consultations over four years. It will be reintroduced across the country from 1 November and will reinstate a 50 per cent fee loading to bulk billed Medicare video telehealth consultations.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers delivers the federal budget (Image: Nick Haggarty/ABC News)

Treasurer Jim Chalmers delivers the federal budget (Image: Nick Haggarty/ABC News)

“All Australians, no matter where they live, should have equal access to mental health support,” Ms Hall said. “While this funding will help fill this gap, more is needed to make sure local mental health services grow to meet demand.”

“Mental health services right across our country are stretched to breaking point, with lengthy wait lists, overflowing emergency departments and people not getting the local support they so desperately need.

“Reinstating this funding is very welcome, and it’s a positive sign that the government understands the criticality of improving access to mental health support, but it’s just the start of what we hope will be a major focus in this year’s budget.”

In the 2021 census, mental health challenges were identified as Australia’s most commonly diagnosed long-term health condition (2,231,543), followed by arthritis and asthma.

But it’s worse in regional Australia.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler recently said even before the Covid-19 pandemic, droughts and bushfires, people living in rural and regional areas had higher rates of hospitalisation due to mental health conditions and higher cases of suicide.

UnitingSA offers regional mental health support through its Individual Psychosocial Rehabilitation Support Service (IPRSS), with a team based in Whyalla and Kadina delivering support over a large service footprint stretching across the Spencer Gulf, Mid North, Flinders Ranges and Yorke Peninsula.

In metropolitan Adelaide, UnitingSA also offers IPRSS and a psychosocial support program called GP Access, which it would also like to extend into regional South Australia.

“Mental Health funding is critical for organisations like ours to be able to expand our services into regional areas to help bridge the gap between the city and the bush,” Ms Hall said.

“We also need more investment in training mental health staff to help meet the growing demand for mental health support to keep people from experiencing acute mental health episodes. This only adds to more hospital presentations, and more people without support in the community becoming stranded in SA hospital beds.”

Each year in South Australia there are around 20,700 mental health presentations to emergency departments, with 9,200 acute admissions to hospital beds.

Around 15 per cent of those people are readmitted within 28 days of being discharged, simply because they need support in their community to cope with the challenges of everyday life to stop them from spiralling back into the acute system.

The current average costs to provide care in the hospital setting in South Australia are higher than the national average. Across Australia, the average cost per inpatient bed day in a psychiatric hospital (non-acute wards) was $953.78, compared with a cost per day of $1,554.25 for South Australia.

For further information:
Gail Heritage, UnitingSA
P. 0466 419 528
E. gheritage@unitingsa.com.au

Need help now?

If you require urgent mental health support, or are experiencing a mental health emergency or crisis, please get in touch with one of these support services.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 or suicidecallbackservice.org.au
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au/forums

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800 or kidshelpline.com.au
headspace: 1800 650 890 or headspace.org.au
ReachOut: ReachOut.com

More resources can be found at the Mental Health Coalition of South Australia website.

If you are experiencing a medical emergency or are in immediate danger, call 000.