The Shoalhaven community has suffered more than most over the past two years with natural disasters and the pandemic which has resulted in increasing mental health issues.
But help is at hand through the MIND the GaP (Mental Illness in Nowra District: Goals and Prevention) initiative which is working alongside the community to contribute to better mental health and wellbeing outcomes within the region.
Launched in 2018, the MIND the GaP initiative is an innovative facility designed to improve mental health and wellbeing for the people of the Shoalhaven, located at the University of Wollongong (UOW) Shoalhaven Campus.
It is a joint project between the Australian Federal Government, Shoalhaven City Council and UOW to address the higher-than-state-average level of mental health needs in the Shoalhaven, particularly among vulnerable and younger people.
Glenn Williams opening the MIND the GaP program in 2018
MIND the GaP aims to deliver effective evidence-based medical and allied healthcare outcomes, undertake innovative research that informs practice and develop strong community engagement strategies specific to the community that it serves.
Since its launch, MIND the GaP has had to put its theory into practice more quickly than it had anticipated – first with the Black Summer bushfires of 2019, which devastated the environment and community, followed quickly by floods and then two years of the pandemic.
MIND the GaP manager Glenn Williams, who has been with the project since the official opening, said the community support has been very positive about having another health service in the area, especially one whose main purpose is to identify the gaps in the mental health system and find ways to close them.
“The community support has been wonderful. Initially, we connected with a range of mental health services that already existed. We reached out to mainstream services that are based in the Shoalhaven Hospital,” he said.
“We have also connected with a range of community organisations that work in all areas of mental health. One of our research agendas includes suicide prevention, so we have connected with the Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention and Awareness Network (SSPAN), and the Illawarra and Shoalhaven Suicide Prevention Collaborative.”
More recently, the project team joined forces with the South Coast Medical Service Aboriginal Corporation to develop and provide culturally tailored suicide prevention training to the region’s Aboriginal community.
Known as “Community Linker”, this collaboration aims to reduce suicide by bridging the gap between an at-risk community member and professional services through knowledge pathways of connectivity.
“I guess some of the gaps we found when we started were things like lengthy waiting lists to access services,” Mr Williams said.
“Even accessing a psychologist can take months as waiting lists are simply too long, and we found that people were leaving the Shoalhaven to get chronic critical care because service provision is limited within the Shoalhaven.
“We try to help everyone who contacts us. Having a psychological background I am able to direct and guide people back to their GP, or to more appropriate services.
“We do provide a small psychology service from MIND the GaP which is bulk-billed to Medicare in recognition of the social justice model MIND the GaP is based on.
“The Indigenous population experience above average poor mental health. MIND the GaP is about addressing all these community needs in a way that does not impede on other privately run businesses in the area that offer similar services.”
While services offered by MIND the GaP were impacted by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, Mr Williams said it is now back on track in fulfilling its mission and is primarily focussing on creating a multi-disciplinary service.
The MIND the GaP building in the Shoalhaven
As part of this initiative, Mr Williams said MIND the GaP is trying to integrate with UOW students across a number of health school disciplines to provide students a unique training opportunity.
“It will help us provide a broader range of services, but it also provides opportunities for students seeking professional registration as well as building a workforce better equipped and exposed to elements of mental health.”
Over the past two years, Mr Williams said the project deliverables struggled, as did most people and businesses in the community, to keep up the initial momentum it had achieved at its launch in 2018.
“We were trying to build momentum before the pandemic, but we lost that momentum because we couldn’t access students. We were just then trying to maintain a small stream of services, mainly through technology like Zoom,” he said.
“We noticed with the fires, the floods and then the pandemic, that the trauma people were experiencing had grown exponentially and that put a lot of stress on the community.
“There was funding to a variety of organisations to address that, but then the pandemic hit and we weren’t able to access people to provide those services.
“One of the things we did during the pandemic was to establish the Community Linkers program, and train community members in suicide prevention.
“Again we couldn’t access people face-to-face during the pandemic, so we had to rethink the way we were going to achieve the goals of the project and started using technologies that weren’t well utilised before, like Zoom.
“Now those technologies are standard practice and we can meet and communicate with the community. That was a huge learning curve for us.”
Mr Williams said in the next 12 months, he is planning to regain momentum with the potential of clinical services being expanded.
“We want to offer services other than psychology services. We want to bring in allied health services like exercise physiology, social work, and dieticians adding another dimension into the therapy we can offer clients in managing their mental health, so they can develop a range of skills. We are developing a multidiscipline model along the lines of being a one-stop shop.
“MIND the GaP aspires to be a safe space for people who simply are not well and need to access a range of services to support their social and emotional wellbeing.
“And for them to know that the professionals they will access here are going to be competent and the service provides the appropriate outcomes.”