“Geography should not be a barrier to access or a cause for disadvantage for rural and remote children.” – Royal Far West

While most young people are generally happy and cope with daily life confidently, some are more vulnerable and need extra assistance. In particular, children in rural and remote areas need more and specific types of support.

Recent studies have shown that rural and remote young people are at a higher risk of mental illness and suicide. Unfortunately, by the time they require assistance, they can’t access help quickly or easily. The services they need are too far away, not appropriate or have long waitlists.

This mental health crisis is having wider impacts on rural families, schools and communities. We need to understand why this is occurring and how we can improve mental health outcomes for these vulnerable children. Early intervention is vital to identify potential issues and provide assistance as soon as possible – but it’s only one part of the solution.

Differences in urban and rural areas

Several recent studies have highlighted the dramatic difference in mental health outcomes for young people in urban and rural areas.

A 2019 study found that children in urban areas of NSW had better psychological wellness than those in rural areas. In particular, rural children from families with lower incomes or unemployed parents, or with a low connection to their community, had poorer psychological wellness.

Additionally, male children tended to have worse outcomes than females, and younger children were considered to have poorer psychological wellness than older children.

Another study by not-for-profit organisation Royal Far West (RFW) supports these findings with alarming statistics:

  • 27% of children in outer regional, remote and very remote areas are likely to be developmentally vulnerable, compared with 21% in towns and cities.
  • 2% of young people aged 4 to 17 in rural areas have mental health issues, and 19% in outer regional areas.
  • 42% of Indigenous children are vulnerable in various developmental areas.
  • 32% of children in rural or remote NSW can’t access the health services they need.

RFW staff working in these areas believe that things are getting worse for rural and remote children, including:

  • increasing behavioural issues
  • increasing mental health issues at an earlier age
  • increasing demand for RFW programs and services
  • disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous children with negative developmental outcomes
  • more obvious trauma among young children and their families.

Why rural and remote children are struggling

The cause of the disparity in mental health outcomes between urban and rural areas is complex. Every rural area is unique but there are some similarities, such as:

  • events like drought, bushfires and the pandemic creating stress and uncertainty
  • isolation and lack of connection to the community, especially in very remote areas
  • for Indigenous children, the impact of inter-generational trauma
  • family stress, including poverty, violence, drugs and alcohol, and parental mental health issues
  • poor access to allied health and mental health services.

This combination of factors leaves rural and remote children particularly vulnerable to mental health disorders. The services must be available to identify and treat these as early as possible, but unfortunately they are not.

Where are the mental health services?

The unique issues experienced by rural and remote young people are compounded by limited or no access to paediatricians, or allied health and mental health professionals.

These providers are often distributed across a broad region, servicing a population five times larger than in urban areas. They may also service many different clients and address many different problems, rather than specialise. For Indigenous children, there is also a lack of culturally appropriate services.

Even when services are available or within driving distance, there are often long waitlists – sometimes more than a year. While this is a serious issue for all demographics, the impact on young children could be significant. Without early intervention, there is less opportunity to identify and resolve issues before they become serious and change the trajectory of a child’s life.

This lack of early and appropriate support for young people could have broader impacts for Australian society as a whole. The Australian Paediatric Society argues that the lack of child mental health services in rural and remote areas will result in a generation of ‘disturbed adolescents and dysfunctional adults’. This could lead to huge costs in ‘education, unemployment, health, social welfare and criminal justice’.

The mental health issues facing young people in rural and remote areas could have knock-on effects for decades if something doesn’t change.

Organisations supporting young people

However, all is not lost. Currently, a range of organisations work with and advocate for rural and remote communities and families to improve outcomes for young people.

One is Country Education Partnership (CEP), a not-for-profit organisation that supports rural and remote schools and students by delivering high-quality learning for all students. They prioritise local solutions to local challenges, including locally developed partnerships to give young people in communities access to the highest quality education across both government and non-government organisations.

CEP believes that schools must cooperate, share resources and build networks in their local area. By working together, they can create more opportunities and better outcomes for students. CEP also provides programs across Australia on leaderships, school support and professional development.

Similarly Royal Far West works to support children’s developmental, mental and behavioural health by addressing service gaps and supporting vulnerable families and communities. They have more than 90 paediatric clinicians and utilise current technology to reach the remotest communities. Their telehealth sessions have never been more popular.

RFW recommends multiple solutions to the current mental health crisis for rural and remote young people, including:

  • increased data and information to get a better picture of the situation
  • better use of technology
  • national targets set by government
  • health literacy education for families and communities
  • better integrated services.

And both organisations are passionate about the need for early identification and intervention to improve mental health outcomes for young people.

Earlier intervention for rural and remote children

Early intervention has been proven to improve the developmental and health outcomes of young children, particularly up to five years of age.

Half of all mental health problems start before the age of 15, and symptoms of emotional and behavioural issues can develop for years before they start showing. Therefore, early intervention can make a critical difference to social and behavioural development, mental health outcomes and academic success. It can literally transform a child’s life.

Schools are important hubs in small communities, making them ideal for early intervention programs for young children. When rural and remote schools have a program like Kinnections as part of their wellbeing toolkit, they can help identify and monitor children at risk earlier, and provide meaningful and timely supports and intervention when required.

The earlier we can identify rural and remote children who are declining, the earlier we can get them support and the better their chances of getting back on track with improved wellbeing and positive mental health.

Book a 30-minute meeting with us to find out more about using Kinnections in your school.

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