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SA country leaders call for mental health help

Seven years ago, a young Renmark North man took his own life. Community leaders are now calling time on “terrible, damning statistics” that show country South Australians are still being let down by poor mental health services.

Nov 22, 2023, updated Nov 22, 2023
Renmark Mayor Peter Hunter inspects barriers which protected the town from River Murray flooding. He's now calling for urgent mental health services to help struggling locals. Photo: Belinda Willis

Renmark Mayor Peter Hunter inspects barriers which protected the town from River Murray flooding. He's now calling for urgent mental health services to help struggling locals. Photo: Belinda Willis

Renmark Paringa Council called a special meeting last week that unanimously called on the state’s Local Government Association to lobby for urgent action on addressing a mental health service that members fear is failing their region.

Mayor Peter Hunter said the death of local man Theo Papageorgiou was the subject of a coronial inquiry in 2021, which led to a damning report finding that mental health resources in regional South Australia were woefully inadequate.

“It paints a terrible picture,” Hunter said of the findings.

“This needs to be taken to state level and seriously considered, we have, for example, 300 sites in Adelaide offer mental health services and we have (few) in the entire area of rural South Australia.

“It’s one of the most terrible, damning statistics.”

SA Health’s website lists 16 regional mental health services.

However, the local council is stepping up at an opportune time; last month, the Riverland Mallee Coorong Local Health Network launched its inaugural Mental Health Services Plan for the next five years in a bid to lift regional support for struggling locals.

It followed the 97-page Review of Rural Mental Health Services South Australia.

Prompted by the death of 27-year-old Papageorgiou in January 2016, the review described a failure of successive governments to “appreciate rural mental health challenges” and an urgent need to tackle the problem.

In the two weeks before his death, Papageorgiou was found to have presented to the Riverland General Hospital in Berri twice feeling depressed and suffering from poor mental health, but was sent home.

A coronial inquest ultimately ruled his suicide was preventable.

It found major deficiencies in the mental health system where there are 19.3 full-time positions in SA’s rural psychiatry workforce, most of them based in Adelaide, with just three living in a rural community.

Papageorgiou’s parents, Jack and Poppy, have fought for better services ever since they lost their son.

Hunter said the family was well known in the Riverland community and the “work that they have done is amazing, for people so traumatised by such an event to give themselves in a way to fight for others in the community in the future”.

Not only did their son’s death affect people deeply in the Riverland but many others were also dealing with their own mental health issues or those of family, friends or colleagues in the community.

“We think there needs to be urgent action,” Hunter said.

“How this has slipped under the radar just amazes me, when we talk about suicide so many people have so many stories.”

The review found a rural psychiatrist workforce deficit of more than 50. Mental health nurses and allied health workforce suffer similar scale deficits, numbered in the hundreds.

As community leaders, Hunter said councillors had committed to lobby for solutions in rural SA and were now asking representatives from the local health network to attend a meeting to advise what was happening in the sector.

I don’t think the knowledge is the driving force, I think the driving force is for us to be in a position to advocate for residents in our region

It has been a tough year for the Riverland.

There is much talk about how business and homeowners affected by River Murray floods along with grape growers dealing with challenging market conditions are coping.

In the town of Loxton, a tree is painted blue on a riverfront island with a seat of reflection nearby as a permanent symbol recognising community members struggling with mental health.

At the Riverland Mallee Coorong Local Health Network, chief executive Wayne Champion is well aware of the challenges, with new work undertaken to improve services.

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“We have employed two additional psychiatrists, a psychologist and mental health nurses to work across the community and our two busiest emergency departments,” he said.

The Riverland Mallee Coorong Local Health Network launched the inaugural Mental Health Services Plan for communities as a five-year blueprint last month based on recommendations from an advisory group that spoke with consumers, clinicians and community members.

“(It) details how high-quality specialist mental health services across the region will be developed which promote dignity, choice, and independence,” Champion said.

This included building stronger recruitment and retention practices to develop a workforce the community needs.

The plan identified strong demand, with data showing that among the 70,661 people the Murray Mallee service covers, 15,571 were estimated to have mental or behavioural conditions.

Champion said there was a continued rollout of Sunrise Electronic Medical Record across all regional local health networks, in response to the inquest into Papageorgiou’s death.

This addressed recommendations to improve the accessibility of patients’ records and treatment plans regardless of where patients previously received treatment within SA Health.

Chief Psychiatrist Dr John Brayley also listed work underway to improve services more broadly across country SA.

He said the State Government was investing in new units (a six-bed unit at Mt Gambier and a 12-bed unit in Mount Barker), with plans to relocate some rehabilitation beds to regional Local Health Networks (LHNs).

“In addition, new Community Mental Health funding of $3 million has been allocated to country areas – in particular for older people’s mental health – a decision which reflects recommendations from an earlier review from our office, which will create eight new community mental health positions,” he said.

Brayley also said that the Health and Wellbeing Department and “our six regional LHNs are currently working to implement the review’s agreed recommendations, which will be in consultation with local communities. This will increase the level of care available locally”.

Renmark Paringa Mayor Peter Hunter simply wants to see more on-the-ground action in country communities across the state happening now.

“It’s not just an issue in Renmark, this is a rural South Australia issue, it’s such a big issue,” he said.

“It needs to be taken to state level.”

To get help 24/7, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467. If you or someone you know are in immediate danger, phone 000 for emergency services.

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