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From 1st July 2022, Australians experiencing mental ill-health will no longer have access to some aspects of telehealth after the federal government failed to extend the measures introduced during the COVID19 pandemic.

In 2020-2021, according to the ABS, 15.8% of Australians (over 4 million) accessed a health professional for their mental health. Of these, 30.5% accessed these via telehealth, and 12% reporting delaying access to services due to cost. Many Australians struggle to access mental health services, to access them in a timely way, or with taking the first steps to seek help for mental health concerns, due to cost and perceived stigma and self-stigma.

Lived Experience Australia (LEA) welcomes the decision by the Australian Government to extend access to many video-conference options for people to connect with their General Practitioner and Specialist Psychiatrist, and increasing the video-conference option to many other MBS items. However, LEA is extremely concerned about the decision to remove the option of utilising the telephone for telehealth services from health professionals providing essential mental health care.

In 2021 LEA undertook a national survey with mental health consumers and carers about their experiences with telehealth psychiatry services. LEA Executive Director Professor Sharon Lawn reports, “Many identified the benefits of this technology which included convenience, a significant reduction in travel, waiting time, and costs to the person and any family or carers involved in helping navigate the system.” She said, “It is particularly helpful for those who might have difficulties travelling and getting out of the house either due to mobility/transport issues or anxiety triggers when leaving the house.”

Professor Lawn emphasised that removing the access to telephone services ignores the challenges related to video technology.

“Many people do not have limitless data or even access to a computer or smart phone with the appropriate technology. It is not uncommon for video technology or connectivity to fail, leaving those on the call floundering with the added anxiety of fixing technology issues.

For many people understanding how to use the technology itself can be a significant barrier.”

One carer who took the LEA telehealth survey commented: “The person I care for could not have sorted the link and process themselves. They were too anxious about the steps and were quickly overwhelmed, even though the process is relatively straightforward for those familiar with Zoom.”

For those in rural and remote areas, accessing mental health services can be more challenging. Many in these areas are using Satellite internet which can be affected by weather, meaning video access is intermittent at best, or unavailable at worst. Mobile phone black spots are problematic in rural locations meaning mobile data is unavailable.

Professor Lawn continues: “Having no option for telephone consultation, and a reliance on video technology to access services, is problematic for continuity of mental health care. During consultations where the person may be raising sensitive or distressing concerns with their provider, to be cut off at a critical moment due to technology failure can have a serious impact.”

One of the consumers who completed the LEA survey responded that they experienced technical glitches with the video conferencing at least 50% of the time.

Another issue LEA identified through the survey was about who else may become privy to the consultation. This is particularly crucial for individuals who may live in the context of family violence, homelessness, or individuals who have fewer options for help-seeking for their mental health concerns. Having a discreet phone conversation is sometimes the only option to support their privacy.

LEA recognises there are fiscal decisions to be made as the ongoing costs of the COVID pandemic make themselves felt. We urge the government to reconsider the many circumstances where telephone contact is essential in supporting the most vulnerable within our communities, particularly with current cost-of-living increases. Telephone support meets practical needs in many scenarios where face-to-face and video conferencing are just not practicable and may in fact help to save lives.

Original content from AAP. Note: Content has been edited for style and length.

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