This October, Jaime and Emma travelled to Tamworth to speak at the All Minds Matter Mental Health Expo. It was a fantastic night, with some inspiring local speakers talking about the important work they were doing in mental health.

While we were there, we also spoke to a group of local residents about their experiences of mental health services in Tamworth. Residents told us about the urgent need for more mental health services in this region, including an expansion of Inpatient Mental Health services, the ongoing challenge of mental health stigma, and the need for a streamlined process for help-seeking to make help accessible for everyone.

Tamworth, and other local towns such as Armidale, have a rapidly expanding population (http://www.northerndailyleader.com.au/story/2324597/tamworth-armidale-set-for-population-surges/) and with this has come an increasing demand for mental health services. People told us that the services in the area, both hospital and community, are stretched to capacity. Several people said they had waited from 3-12 months to access community services. They had difficulty accessing the services that would help them manage their recovery, such as counselling after a traumatic event. There is an urgent need for more trained healthcare providers, including a psychiatrist who lives in town.

We’ve got no resident psychiatrist here – we’ve got four fly-in psychiatrists, imagine what that costs, and they don’t have their roots in the community.

The local Mental Health Unit faced similar issues, with a lack of physical capacity and staff. As a result, we heard that patients were sometimes discharged before they were ready.

She told me that she was sent out of the unit way before she was ready to go. She said she should have never been sent out. And I’ve had other people say that they should’ve been kept in there, because they weren’t well enough. But sometimes they are so stretched to the limit that they’re letting people go.

The lack of resources was not just about space but also about staff time. People commented that staff in the unit were over-stretched and not always able to provide the help and support that people needed.

I think they’re doing quite a difficult job with limited resources, and from when I was up there I could see the staff were absolutely stretched to breaking point.

Residents are currently campaigning for a new Inpatient Mental Health Unit, particularly one for young people, who have to be taken out of area to specialist young people units.

An important aspect to decreasing pressure on the hospital system is increasing the level of community services, and improving the pathways that connect people with these services. We heard about the importance of having strong support networks after treatment, including with your family, friends, General Practitioner and other healthcare providers. People really valued having strong, lasting relationships with their healthcare professionals.

One local support provider is the Partners in Recovery program, which was working very well for people using it, but many people had not heard about it. There was also concern about the funding for this program being cut after the NDIS is fully implement.

PIR have been great. Just support wise, help with different stuff. Financial stuff, and just getting into services. Different services and stuff as well. When I came out of hospital two years ago they were there for me.

Finally, we discussed the ongoing stigma towards mental illness, including in schools and in employment. Several people had experiences of employers who were unsupportive or discriminated against them based on their mental health issues, with one person commenting “You tell a lot of employers that you’ve got mental issues and you’ve got no chance”. We urgently need to increase mental health literacy amongst the general public and to help employers support people with mental health issues.

We were inspired by the passion of these local residents and their dedication to improving the mental health system for everyone.

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