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Lessons from Australia’s largest rural mental health survey: looking back and moving forward

Date: December 8, 2020
Author: Dr Tonelle Handley & Angela Booth

Living in a rural area can bring challenges and struggles, but also a unique strength and sense of community that often helps people get through the tough times. Despite the fact that rural areas differ to cities in many ways, there was very little mental health research that focused on rural and remote areas, until the Australian Rural Mental Health Study began back in 2006.


What is the Australian Rural Mental Health Study?


The Australian Rural Mental Health Study (or ARMHS), is a postal survey mailed to residents of rural and remote NSW from 2006-2012. The survey explored many aspects of rural life, including lifestyle and employment, the impacts of drought or other climate extremes, depression, alcohol use, social support and connection to community. The same people completed the same survey four times over the six years, which allowed us to look at how changes in circumstances may be associated with changes in mental health and wellbeing.


What did it find?


Over 2,600 people participated in ARMHS. This resulted in over 35 published papers covering topics such as the patterns and symptoms of mental illness, the effects of climate adversity on mental health, service use and barriers to health care, and rural children and young people.

While the findings of ARMHS are diverse, some consistent results were observed. Strong social and community support was common among ARMHS participants, and was related to positive mental health, life adjustments and coping. A sense of purpose, either through meaningful employment or involvement in family or community groups was also an important factor that contributed to wellbeing. For people who reported mental health concerns, difficulties in accessing acceptable local treatment was sometimes reported, and insights to improve this were obtained.

These findings have been communicated to government and policy-making bodies, and have informed the approach and resources dedicated to rural mental health. The contribution of ARMHS participants ensured that policy makers had the opportunity to receive evidence based on the actual experiences of rural people.


Where to from here?


It has been almost ten years since ARMHS finished collecting data. The world has changed a lot since then, and so have the things that affect rural communities and our mental health and wellbeing. We are planning a new rural mental health survey and want to make sure that we are tapping into the things that matter to rural communities. To tell us your opinion on what is affecting the mental health of rural people, please click the link below – we would love to hear from you.


Dr Tonelle Handley
Research Fellow, Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health
(02) 4033 5622


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