A spike in demand for psychology services across central Victoria has seen wait times surge leaving residents waiting up to six months to access assistance.
Psychologist Naomi Malone said wait times for services had increased significantly over the past 18 months.
Dr Malone runs a psychology practice in her hometown of Boort, near Bendigo in Central Victoria, but also provides her services in a number of towns including Swan Hill, Wedderburn, Kerang and Cohuna.
She said during the past lockdown referrals to her clinic increased.
"Usually as a practice we would get one or two referrals each day but during the fifth lockdown, we had 30 referrals in a week," she said.
"In the last week or so we have started getting seven to nine each day."
Currently, Dr Malone is unable to take on any more clients and she said that was the same for many other clinicians across the region.
"Our waiting list for our practice depends on which location and what clinician, some of my new clinicians still have some spaces available but my books are closed and I can't take anyone else on," she said.
Dr Malone said waitlists are so long in Bendigo, many residents are travelling outside of the region to access care.
"I know in Bendigo most practices have closed their books and aren't taking anyone new and the waiting lists are much longer than that," she said. "We are starting to get calls for the Boort clinic from people in Bendigo just wanting to come and drive to see someone because they can't get in."
For 25-year-old Bendigo resident Emma* accessing mental health care has been stressful and difficult.
Emma said the process wasn't an easy one.
"I needed to find a GP first in order to get a mental health plan. Because, like many people, my mental health spiralled all at once, I needed swift action," she said.
"The earliest GP appointment I could find for a mental health plan was a week later. I had the consultation which was fantastic and had to come back a week later to go through blood results and complete my mental health care plan.
"In this second appointment my GP rang up three psychologists in the area asking them if they were taking new patients and none were.
"She then gave me the details of a clinic she knew was taking on new clients and when I called them, they said it was a four month waiting period."
Emma said when she found out that there was such a long waiting period, it felt like everything came crashing down.
"It takes a lot to go out and talk to a GP and say you have some mental health problems, but to have to wait months to receive the care you've been told you urgently need, it feels like I'm going right back to square one," she said.
Emma said there was a clear problem in regional Victoria.
"I really fear for people who are struggling," she said. "Some days definitely feel worse than others and without the appropriate care, it's a really hard road to navigate on my own.
"I think there just needs to be more funding for more psychologists and social workers so that people can at least get to see someone when their problems arise."
Impacts and solutions
Women's Health Loddon Mallee executive officer Tricia Currie said these increased waitlists have had a prolonged effect on women across the region.
"These high waitlists have a significant and high impact on women because when you reach out from a point of wanting support, and if that support is unable to be offered in a timely fashion then all of the things that are being experienced can get worse," she said.
"Waitlists do have a direct and compounding impact on women who are looking for mental health services in the region."
Ms Currie said she has seen first hand the impacts of these waitlists.
"We are certainly hearing of these impacts first hand and we have heard stories of women's lived experiences of mental health issues," she said.
"All of this is happening in a pandemic and so we know the overall impact of the pandemic is impacting and compounding the high prevalence of mental ill health in women.
"For us, our direct services have been impacted and the support we do provide tells us that lives are becoming more complex for regional women."
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists Victorian Branch spokesperson Raju Lakshmana said the solution wasn't simple.
These high waitlists have a significant and high impact on women because when you reach out from a point of wanting support.Women's Health Loddon Mallee executive officer Tricia Currie
"There has been a significant increase in demand with people presenting with mental health issues pand that has been high in young people," he said.
How do you fix the issue? Dr Lakshmana said that was the million dollar question many clinicians were asking across the nation.
"We are seeing in the whole of Australia that even though people are moving into regional areas, the healthcare professionals are staying closer to the city," he said.
"Regional centres don't have the infrastructure to support health professionals as the city. That's where we are seeing the shortage.
"Some of the models that work well in metro areas might not work well in regional areas and there isn't really lots of investment with working with regional areas to develop local models."
Emma's* name has been changed for privacy reasons.
Help is available
If you or a loved one need support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.
If you are looking for a mental health service, visit betterhealth.vic.gov.au