If you’ve needed to organise an appointment with a counsellor or psychologist then you know how difficult it can be, what with long wait lists and nationwide shortages of psychologists and psychiatrists. Chances are if you live in a remote area, you’ll be even less likely to get the help you need without delays. 

Suicide prevention and mental health advocate Glenn Cotter has lived experience with mental health and is a peer worker. He said a lack of knowledge of services contributes to delays in people seeking help. 

“The issue is that there are still so many people who avoid reaching out because they don’t know what services are available and feel like they’re not part of the group that gets support,” Glenn said. 

“A lot of it comes down to accessibility and in regional and remote areas, there just isn’t the services around.”

The Australian Government’s 2023 National Health Workforce Strategy found that Australia needed to nearly double the number of psychiatrists available to meet demand for the service across the country.

The need for appropriate and accessible mental health care remains a prevalent issue nationwide, with two in five adults in Australia reported to have experienced a mental health condition in 2023 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABC).

Despite the need for mental health care professionals, the actual percentage of people accessing the help they need remains low. 

In the ABS’ National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing report released in October 2023, statistics showed that only 17.4 per cent of the Australian population aged between 16 and 85 saw a health professional for their mental health in the last year. 

Of the 3.4 million people that did, 21.6 per cent were females, almost double the number of men with only 12.9 per cent recorded for visiting a health professional for mental health.

Source: ABS: National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020-2022 

Mr Cotter said men are often reluctant to talk about their mental health with their inner circle and are even less likely to seek professional help. 

“For a lot of women and girls, they are so much better at connecting and supporting each other. They often get together and have social gatherings that encourage them to talk whereas a lot of men don’t feel like they have the time in their work life,” he said. 

The ABS report also showed that certain age groups made use of mental health services more than others.

Statistics showed that people aged 16 to 34 were most likely to visit a health professional than people aged 35 to 64, with very few aged 65 to 85 consulting about their mental health at all.

Source: ABS: National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2020 – 2022

Mr Cotter said that over the years, he’d noticed a trend of Government money being directed primarily at the younger age bracket. 

“Every time you see the government, be it state or federal, talking about injecting money into mental health, it’s all going into youth in the age group of people aged 35 and under,” he said. 

“It’s an ongoing trend that money is not being directed adequately enough towards the older age group.” 

“There’s very few support services available for people aged 55 and over.”

Recent findings from the Mental Health Productivity Commission Inquiry Report confirm that one of the main barriers needing to be addressed in mental health care is the difficulty for individuals to find and access suitable support. The report notes that relevant and culturally relevant services did not exist in the regions and the long wait list for these services made it hard for people to get the care they needed. 

The report also noted the “missing middle”, referring to a service gap encountered by people who have symptoms that are too complex to be adequately treated by a General Practitioner (GP). 

Jeanette Atkins, 57, lives in a remote part of NSW and said, in her experience, it’s very difficult to see someone urgently. 

“The only options I have is Beyond Blue or Lifeline, I can also see my GP for a mental health plan but can usually do Teams with psychological services in other states and only a max of two sessions under government funding,” she said. 

“Many people in the far South Coast [of NSW] are crying out for immediate help but it’s not easily accessible”. 

Jeanette’s story exemplifies the so-called missing middle—the group of people who are most likely to fall through the gaps in the system.

Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, recently published a report titled ‘Defining the missing middle’ which noted that of the 3.1 per cent of people experiencing severe mental ill-health in the Australian population only 1.8 per cent of the population received state or territory-funded community mental health care in 2017-18. 

The report found that, during those years, there was a gap in community specialist public health care provision for approximately 328,700 Australians. 

In addition, a further 1.2 million Australians with moderate mental ill-health were largely underserved by Medicare-subsidised mental health supports and may have required secondary or tertiary care.

So with the lack of mental health services being an issue at the forefront of society in Australia, what is the government doing about it? The answer lies in a new digital mental health service. 

In the current fiscal plan, the federal government announced a significant overhaul of the mental health system, marking one of the most substantial reforms in almost twenty years. 

The initiative introduces a digital early intervention service aimed at alleviating Australians’ initial psychological distress before it escalates into mental illness.

Set to be released in 2026, the program draws inspiration from the United Kingdom’s Talking Therapies model.

It is anticipated to provide a blend of applications, online platforms, and complimentary telehealth therapy sessions, offering a form of cognitive behavioural therapy known as “low-intensity psychological interventions”.

If you or someone you know needs support, the following free helplines are readily available: Lifeline 13 11 14, Mensline 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800, Beyondblue 1300 224 636 and 1800-RESPECT 1800 737 732.