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Government's Mental Health Cuts 'A Disaster Waiting To Happen'

“I’ve had one person say to me that that the reason they didn’t kill themselves was because of my help."

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Funding for a program that has saved lives in country Australia has been cut by the Coalition government, and the people who run it say it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Extra money was allocated to mental health by the federal government as part of a drought assistance package in 2014.

But that money has dried up just before an election in which the career of the deputy prime minister – who represents one of the country’s most high profile regional electorates – is on a knife-edge.

“I’ve had one person say to me that that the reason they didn’t kill themselves was because of my help,” Matthew Milne, a Tamworth-based psychologist for Centacare, told BuzzFeed News.

Marni Cordell / Buzzfeed

Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce is fighting for his political career in the seat of New England, and his constituents say rural mental health is just one of a grab-bag of areas in which their local member has let them down.

When the ABC’s Q&A was filmed in Tamworth last month the mother of a teenager who had been on suicide-watch delivered a heartfelt plea to the deputy PM.

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“Earlier this year, we had an acute need that saw one of our children hospitalised. The closest teen mental health in-patient service is at John Hunter Hospital, a five-hour drive from my house," said Rachael Sowden.

“What commitment will you give … to supporting mental health for teens?"

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Joyce told Sowden that the mental health funding in the drought package was never intended to be renewed.

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“We tried to be straight with people, so when it's one-off, it is one-off. But we do have further funding that is coming through now, and it'll start on 1 July. We've got $360 million that will go to the Primary Health Network,” he said.

But those who deliver mental healthcare in New England say the scrapping of the drought package will have dire consequences.

Marni Cordell / BuzzFeed

The key difference under the new system is that psychologists will no longer be funded to visit clients at their own homes, Milne said. “The flexibility of our drought package … was that we did all the travel.”

Under the new system, Milne’s clients will have to come to him, up to four hours’ drive away. “That’s a whole day’s work potentially that’s out the window.”

“We’re not talking getting on the 308 bus from Marrickville,” Milne’s colleague and drought support co-ordinator, Emelia Saban, said. “For a lot of these people it’s going to cost them $50 in fuel to get to the appointment.”

They’ll also need to get a GP’s referral before they come.

“Getting to a GP is sometimes difficult in itself,” Derani Barwick, who lives on a farm in Loomberah, 20km south of Tamworth, told BuzzFeed News. “With mental health, you can’t wait a week or two weeks.”

Marni Cordell / BuzzFeed

Barwick used the services at Centacare after having post-natal depression, but she also knows first-hand how crippling mental illness can be when help is not at hand.

“I grew up in an era when depression was ... locked away in a dark room.” As a kid, Barwick had a family member who suffered from mental illness. “The stigma behind it growing up was terrible. We didn’t talk about it, no one talked about it,” she said.

“It’s tough. Farmers are out there and they’ve seen their cattle die, and they’ve seen their income depleting, or they don’t have an income because they’ve had to spend everything on feeding their cattle or their sheep.”

“There’s [also] the loss of life when they have to put stock down – it’s not just a crop that has failed.”

Sean McInnes, another of Centacare’s clients, says there’s still a pervading mentality of “get over it” in rural areas.

Marni Cordell / BuzzFeed

He told BuzzFeed News that when he had a breakdown in 2013 he was worried about seeking help “because of the mentality of the area, the pressure to just harden up”.

Milne says the cliché of the stoic farmer is absolutely true. “Many of them see talking as a weakness.”

“But we’ve just spent two years developing a program that’s just getting its legs, and people are really on to it now, they’ve seen our ads, they know who we are.”

“In the last four weeks we’ve had a self-referral nearly every day from someone.”

But Milne is now having “heartbreaking conversations” with the remaining 200 clients, to tell them the service is no longer funded.

“Mostly I’m worried that the problems will still exist, but nothing will be done about it."