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Study reveals lack of rural mental health specialists for older people

A new study has highlighted the lack of rural health services available for older people living with mental health conditions.

Researchers from Flinders University surveyed 6000 older people in remote South Australia and found that 13 per cent lived with medium to severe levels of psychological distress. 

Study lead Dr Vivian Isaac and PhD student Dennis Asante say there is an urgent need for increased healthcare access, particularly for older people with multiple health conditions.

"Health professionals may not have adequate training to identify psychological distress in patients with physical problems," Isaac says.

"They might slip in the gap and miss those services. 

"We need better training for professionals to recognise mental health issues and public understanding for these conditions."

Psychological stress can be extremely harmful as it affects a person's quality of life and ability to overcome diseases such as obesity and depression, the survey found.

Isaac says that many respondents living with psychological distress also had multiple chronic conditions.

"And as the number of chronic conditions grew for individuals, we saw that they also experienced higher psychological distress."

Over two-thirds of older Australians have two or more lifelong illnesses, and the chance of multimorbidity becomes higher as geographical remoteness increases.

"Healthcare challenges in remote areas, particularly the lack of specialised care doctors and long travelling times, are reported to affect the overall physical and mental wellbeing of rural locales," he says.

"These challenges exacerbate for the rural older population who have complex health needs."

Older people also seem less likely to visit their local GP to address their mental health issues. 

A 2021 study found that only 8.7 per cent of older people sought help from a specialist to speak about their psychological problems.

"Older people go to the doctor prioritising physical symptoms but seldom talk about their psychological symptoms," Isaac says.

"They ​​might sometimes lack the awareness to recognise psychological distress as an issue and confuse it with the stress of daily life.

"Or they try to normalise it and neglect to address psychological issues because they do not differentiate."

Isaac says rethinking the rural healthcare system provides a great opportunity for clinicians to intervene and start supporting rural Australians better.

Early detection of older people's psychological stress may also help reduce pressure on health professionals and emergency departments.

"Currently, there are not enough services to address these issues at that early stage, like access to mental health services or specialist services in rural locations."

Plugging the gaps in the rural healthcare system can ease psychological distress and improve older people's quality of life, Isaac says.

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