Geography no barrier … Kevin Humphries. Photo: Tamara Dean
THREE months ago the successful rural psychologist training program was presented with an award for excellence by the NSW Minister for Mental Health. This month, it will be forced to close because of lack of funding.
The closure of the Rural and Remote Area Psychologists Project could force much-needed psychologists from the bush, locals and psychologists say.
They hold grave concerns that the mental health of rural NSW will be forgotten now the decade-long drought has broken.
The award-winning program provided about one in five rural and regional NSW psychologists' continuing education, which the federal medical regulator says they need to practise. The closure comes after federal cuts to psychological services under the Better Access program.
Lois Stalley, the vice-president of the Country Women's Association of NSW, said it took a huge effort to get country people to talk about their state of mind, but now they would be left with nowhere to turn.
''Now the drought has finished, I know that they're starting to relax [the focus on mental health] and lose momentum,'' she said. ''But the drought was was only part of the problem.''
Farmers say there has been a decline in mental health services.
Graham Parry, who helped develop the psychologists' project, said it cannot get funding from the NSW government, and funding from the Psychology Council of NSW - about $150,000 a year - could no longer be provided now the council has been absorbed into the federal medical registration system.
He said the project had tapped into goodwill and donations from groups including the Black Dog Institute and Swinburne University.
"Without this program it's just going to be more difficult and more expensive to keep the existing workforce in rural areas," he said.
Barbara Perry, the opposition spokeswoman on mental health, said the situation was astounding.
''This award-winning program has, on a shoestring budget, performed a vital role," she said. "[This] is not only illogical, but undermines the O'Farrell government's stated aims of doing something about the lack of resourcing, isolation and maintenance of skill levels for mental health practitioners in rural and remote areas.''
Linda McDouall, a psychologist in Barraba, said she did not know how she could continue working without the program.
"I don't have a plan, I'm just desperately hoping it will continue," she said.
People who work in agriculture have one of the highest rates of suicide in Australia.
Warren Bartik, a clinical psychologist with a part-time private practice in Armidale, said the program had been vital for helping psychologists deal with unique problems in rural areas.
The Minister for Mental Health, Kevin Humphries, said training was a matter for health professionals, employers, and local health districts.
"As a regional member of Parliament … I am well aware of the challenges facing regional communities," he said.
"Since coming into government we have made improving regional mental health a key priority, with new initiatives to ensure that geography is no longer a barrier to treatment."