Understanding barriers to mental health service utilization for adolescents in rural Australia

D L Aisbett, C P Boyd, K J Francis, K Newnham, K Newnham
Rural and Remote Health 2007, 7 (1): 624

INTRODUCTION: There is a general paucity of research in the area of rural adolescent mental health in Australia, and in particular a lack of data regarding the experiences of rural adolescents who seek help for mental health problems. This study used a qualitative approach to data collection and analysis in order to assist understanding of the barriers to mental health service utilization for young people in rural communities.

METHOD: A series of interviews were conducted with each of the study's participants, who ranged in age from 15 to 17 years. All participants were clients of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in the rural cities of Horsham and Ararat, Victoria, Australia.

RESULTS: Participants described how the lack of reliable transport to and from the mental health service affected the utilization of the service by rural young people. They also expressed concern regarding a lack of qualified professionals in their region who specialize in child and adolescent mental health. Participants reported frustration at long waiting lists and the lack of an after-hours service. One participant shared her experiences of deliberate self-harm to in order to gain access. Results also revealed that rural gossip networks and social visibility within rural communities compounded the experience of stigma and social exclusion for these young people. Furthermore, participants explained how these experiences negatively impacted on their utilization of the mental health service and their progress towards recovery.

CONCLUSIONS: There are several barriers to mental health service utilization for rural adolescents which affect both their decision to access help as well as their ability to engage effectively with mental health services over time. Clinicians who work with rural adolescents need to be mindful of the influence of rural culture on mental health service utilization by young people. The co-location of mental health services and general health services is suggested as one way to reduce the fear associated with 'being seen' entering a stand-alone mental health service. It is suggested that treatment programs for adolescents in rural areas address the different types of stigma that these young people are likely to encounter. Furthermore, community and school-based interventions aimed at reducing the social stigma of young people with mental illness in rural areas is recommended.

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