High anxiety for North West psychologists

AN award-winning support program for psychologists is on the verge of collapse, potentially leaving rural areas at risk of losing mental health services.

The Rural and Remote Area Psychologist Program has helped provide the training, supervision and mentoring necessary for psychologists to retain accreditation to about 150 – or one in five – rural practitioners in NSW.

The program has been running since 2010 with a $250,000 grant from the NSW Psychologists Board (now the Psychology Council of NSW), followed by another $150,000 boost in its second year.

But the Psychology Council of NSW is no longer allowed to provide that level of funding, putting the program at risk.

It is barely surviving on a $5000 donation from the Country Women’s Association, which has gone towards keeping a networking blog running.

Former project officer Graham Parry said the travelling and costs incurred by rural psychologists when undertaking the necessary supervision and professional development were prohibitive.

If the program were to fold, he said, it would be more difficult for psychologists to remain accredited, with requirements they receive 30-hours of professional development, including 10-hours of supervision, each year.

“We find it an incredible shame to lose the momentum of what is clearly a vital service for psychologists,” Mr Parry said.

Linda McDouall, a registered psychologist in Barraba, said the loss of the program was an “absolute tragedy” and feared rural areas would lose their psychologists if they could not maintain their accreditation.

Having worked in Barraba for more than 22 years, she said attracting new psychologists to the country was already hard.

Warren Bartik, a clinical psychologist from Armidale, said the most critical issue was the potential lack of ongoing support, particularly for those practitioners in more isolated or remote areas, or single-practitioner settings.

Mr Bartik said if these psychologists could not get the support they needed, they might be forced to move to a larger area where this was available.

Newer psychologists, who tended to work in rural areas because of job availability, had particularly benefited from the program, he said.

Tamworth registered psychologist Jodi ((corr sp)) Barton said as well as the professional development, the informal support from colleagues was invaluable for the well-being of the psychologists themselves.

She said rural communities were already more vulnerable to mental health problems and the loss of this program risked exacerbating that, which could lead to such social problems as loss of productivity and employment, alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

Mr Parry told The Leader the program could run for three years on $500,000.

The federal government turned down a submission to fund and extend it to other states because it supports the Mental Health Professionals Network.

The state government has also declined.

Mental Health and Western NSW Minister Kevin Humphries said professional development was the responsibility of the health professional and the employer.

Mr Humphries said for those in the public health system, local health districts had to “source adequate mechanisms to maintain ongoing standards”.

But Ms Barton said given the potential negative flow-on effects to the community, the support of psychologists was a shared responsibility.

“It’s a very low-cost initiative for such large and significant returns,” Ms Barton said.

The attraction and retention of psychologists in rural areas has been found to be difficult because of professional isolation, insufficient supervision and poor access to professional development.

“As a regional member of Parliament, coming from an area covering a third of the state, I am well aware of the challenges facing regional communities,” Mr Humphries said.

He said the government had introduced initiatives to improve access to mental health services in regional areas, including a program in the northern region that improved the collaboration between police, ambulance and health services in responding to mental health emergencies.

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