Aussie Helpers is launching a mental health texting service on Thursday morning that it expects will be a lifesaver in rural Australia.
The brainchild of Zimbabwean expat, Dervla Loughnane, the Virtual Psychologist business is already connecting rural people with mental health professionals in a way that offers anonymity, convenience and an instant response.
Australia’s largest rural charity, Aussie Helpers has been partnering with Dervla’s startup business for the last 17 months, thanks to funding from Lions International, to trial and fine tune the innovative counselling service given the tag line ‘Let your fingers do the talking’.
In that time, over 1000 hours of texting have taken place between people of all ages and professions throughout rural Australia and professionally trained mental health clinicians, all with a minimum of five years service.
Aussie Helpers itself puts a major part of its resources into travelling out to properties to offer a listening ear and to find out what people need, whether it be financial assistance for items as varied as funeral expenses and boarding fees, or in the form of hay and grocery donations, or to be a sounding board.
Founder, Brian Egan, said the volunteers knew they wouldn’t be able to solve any major problems but wanted to leave a message of how special rural families and their work were.
He described it as a very personal interaction and said the knowledge gleaned from visits plus the increasingly desperate requests for assistance from rural areas as drought and crises in the dairy industry deepened, bringing on depression, domestic violence, loneliness, failure, burnout and grief, was the motivation for the new service.
“Somebody had to start doing something different,” he said. “This gives everybody an opportunity to reach out out for help.”
Testimonials from users in the trial said texting was less confronting than speaking with someone face to face, that it could be done from the privacy of the shed without family knowing, and that it overcame embarrassment, among other virtues.
Wives that were worried about husbands had questions answered, as did children either watching parents fighting or feeling suicidal themselves.
“It’s for people that are really stuck and reaching out,” Dervla said. “They might not be able to afford fuel, or they don’t want to be seen going in to the local centre.”
Statistics show 28 per cent of participants wouldn’t have sought out a doctor or other mental health service for help if the text-based counselling hadn’t been available.
Dervla said anyone with the ability to have a satellite phone connection could access the psychological program on a dedicated rural user number.
‘Don’t reinvent wheel’ – funding duplication
As far as quantifying how many people had benefited from the service to date, Dervla said they didn’t have the financial resources to explore outcomes.
According to Brian, a recent Aussie Helpers board meeting agreed to commit $250,000 to the service but would back it “as much as it takes” because of its belief in the Virtual Psychologist’s ability to give isolated people an access point they’ve not had until now.
He said it was too important a service to hold back waiting for government buy-in but he would ultimately like a 50:50 funding partnership arrangement.
Aussie Helpers is paying for the service of the clinicians, at cost price.
He and Dervla, an Optus Future Makers grant recipient, have been attempting to secure a meeting with federal health minister, Greg Hunt, both to obtain ongoing funding and to explain that there was no need to “reinvent the wheel” as far as funding a crisis texting service went.
The Coalition’s mental health care policy includes a $2.5 million provision for Lifeline to design and trial a ‘Crisis Text’ service.
“We want to tell Mr Hunt, don’t spend millions developing anything – we’ve already done it,” Dervla said.
She scaled up her idea of text-based crisis intervention with the $72,000 Optus Future Makers grant, and is working with corporates Australia-wide as well as social enterprises and youth organisations.
“The service is open to anyone but the biggest issue is funding,” she said.
“We’ve been in talks with Kids Helpline and we’ve said they could use the platform for free.
“We’d love veterans, everyone, like Lifeline, to use it.
“As far as cyber-bullying goes, it would be perfect for help because kids are glued to their phones all the time.
“We are trialling the service in 15 vulnerable schools in the Logan City Council region to see what uptake it has.
“We are the only organisation in Australia to offer this life-saving method of dealing with people who are too embarrassed or afraid to seek help.”
Another of the service’s innovative abilities will be that of using the depersonalised database they are legally bound to keep, to look for trends that can be shared with governments and other service providers.
“Up to now, we’ve not been able to do this,” Dervla said. “It will allow us to be more proactive and go out to areas before anxiety turns to suicide.”
She said Brian Egan was one of the few people she’d found who supported innovation.
“It’s been a good partnership.”
It came about when Brian visited her children’s Gold Coast school to accept money they’d raised for Aussie Helpers, and he spoke about the desperate straits rural families were in.
“I’m from Zimbabwe where they’ve had their fair share of farming issues, and I just asked, what can I do to help,” Dervla said.
Lions International came on board with funding and the partnership was born, and the capacity recently increased to boost the service from a trial to a full-blown help service.
Dervla said she was feeling nervous about Thursday’s launch.
“Brian is an amazingly inspirational man – he says just do it – but I’ve combed through the legal and clinical aspects, and run everything through lawyers.
“I’m very anxious to make it absolutely professional and not be seen as something that will only last a couple of months.”
No app is needed to access the service, and there’s no subscriber fee or joining fee.
People can go to virtualpsychologist.com.au/home/ to get instant help from a dedicated rural team.