The annual suicide rate is about 40 per cent higher in rural and regional areas of Victoria than in metropolitan Melbourne.
But these same rural and regional areas – places like East Gippsland – often have far less access to mental health support services.
That disparity is now not so great following the expansion of a suicide prevention service to the Bairnsdale area.
Parliamentary Secretary for Mental Health Steve Dimopoulos visited Bairnsdale Regional Health Service on Wednesday, April 28 to formally launch a Bairnsdale service of the Hospital Outreach Post-suicidal Engagement (HOPE) program.
What this means is that there is now a dedicated suicide prevention specialist in the Bairnsdale area that follows up immediately with people who arrive at hospital emergency departments or their GP following either a suicide attempt or suicidal ideation.
That follow up develops over the following weeks and months to provide ongoing support, and connection them with specialist mental health practitioners and resources.
“HOPE services provide holistic clinical and social support to help people get back on their feet is key part of building a better mental health system for all Victorians,” Parliamentary Secretary Dimopoulos said. “This new service in Bairnsdale means people who are in crisis can receive care and support in their community, when they need it.”
The HOPE program in Bairnsdale has actually been up and running since September of last year, during which time mental health clinician Kirsten Rabbitt has provided support to 18 people at risk of suicide, and their families.
“The expansion of the HOPE program to Bairnsdale is very timely,” said Owen Connolly, Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Latrobe Regional Hospital and the clinical lead of the HOPE projects. “With the community having gone through a lot lately, there has certainly been an increased need.”
Connolly said that while a lot more work still needed to be done to create a “suicide safe” health care system in East Gippsland, he was encouraged by the increased focus on mental by state and federal governments.
One of the strengths of the HOPE program, Connolly said, was its local and personal approach.
“Of the people that attempt suicide, half of them don’t have a mental health diagnosis,” he said. “Often it may be to do with a relationship breakdown, or homeless, job security, or problems with alcohol or other drugs. It’s important to be able to have the time to learn more about that person, in a holistic sense, in order to understand what the drivers of suicide ideation are for them.”
During his visit to BRHS, Parliamentary Secretary Dimopoulos was given a tour of the Emergency Department by Nurse Unit Manager Trish Young, during which he noted the remarkable job that BRHS nurses and medical staff were doing under less than ideal conditions.
Presentations to the BRHS Emergency Department, which is usually the frontline of mental health presentations in the Bairnsdale area, have increased markedly in the past few years, placing extreme pressure on staff, facilities and resources.
Last year’s tally of 21,879 presentations was the most on record, up from 18,395 in 2013, a 19 percent increase.
“The staff here do an extraordinary job,” Parliamentary Secretary Dimopoulos said in a message to staff. “Last year and this year, through the pandemic, you did the heavy lifting for the people in our community here. We appreciate the work you do every single day, all the people you help. I want to thank you for all the work you’ve done, and all the work you continue to do.”