'Dire' mental health care in flood-ravaged communities

Regional communities left traumatised by repeat disasters are facing a shortage of mental health workers while existing staff face burnout, an inquiry has been told.

A NSW parliamentary inquiry is examining the equity and accessibility of outpatient community mental health care in the state.

Support workers in areas devastated by natural disasters are experiencing trauma of their own as they try to support others with limited resources, a hearing in flood-ravaged Lismore was told on Tuesday.

"We can talk about all of these issues, but if the workforce isn’t there to deliver the service it’s a problem," Northern Rivers Women and Children’s Services chief executive Kelly Bannister said.

Signs on the Community Hub in Lismore (file image)
Traumatised communities are finding it hard to get the proper help they need.

Many workers in the sector were holding down multiple part-time roles at different organisations, creating widespread burnout, she said.

“We’re all drawing from the same workforce to try and deliver services,” Ms Bannister said.

Service provision and staffing was noticeably lacking, trauma counsellor and psychologist Sonja Habenicht told the inquiry.

“There’s a high reliance on temporary workforces unfortunately, which then poses a risk to continuity of care, particularly for trauma-affected clients,” she said.

People who had experienced trauma needed predictability and certainty, but government and non-government organisations were “handballing” clients to one another.

“It can undermine the care because it’s so fractured,” Ms Habenicht said.

Some people were not seeking help because they did not think they would get it due to a lack of available support programs, she said.

“The further west you go, the sparser it gets,” Ms Habenicht said.

Lismore has dealt with repeat floods, as well as bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic since 2017, leaving young people in urgent need of support.

Floodwaters in Lismore (file image)
Lismore has been battered by multiple natural disasters.

North Coast Allied Health executive officer Rob Curry said there was a dearth of support for children under 12 and their parents, with high rates of medication being prescribed to kids because general practitioners had no one to refer them to.

"There is a shocking lack of services," he said.

Former NSW Mental Health Commission deputy Fay Jackson said all rural and remote areas suffered from inequitable access to health care, but the situation in the Northern Rivers was uniquely dire.

“While we had a high percentage of people who are homeless and suffering severe mental health issues and suicidality before the floods and landslides, these events have dramatically increased the gravity of despair and hopelessness our community is experiencing," she wrote in her submission to the inquiry.

“Unless you live here, you cannot realistically conceive of the desperate situation we are in."

Another hearing is scheduled in Sydney on Thursday to take evidence from social services organisations and NSW chief psychiatrist Murray Wright, among other witnesses.

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