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Psychology clinic helps rural Australians

by Rachel Broadley

Dr Susan Simpson, Director of UniSA’s Psychology Clinic.UniSA’s Psychology Clinic is helping people in rural South Australia with the first video therapy service of its kind.

The video therapy program, run in conjunction with Country Health SA, offers free, unlimited psychology services to clients in Port Augusta and surrounding communities via video-link at the same time as teaching trainee psychology clinicians.

Dr Susan Simpson, Clinic Director (pictured right), developed the idea after providing a similar service to residents of the Scottish islands of Shetland and Orkney while working as part of the mental health team in Aberdeen, Scotland.

She says the thrice-weekly service, which launched earlier this year, could help to address a shortage of psychology services in rural and remote areas.

“This service grew out of an awareness that there is a distinct shortage of clinical psychologists working in remote and rural parts of Australia, and consequently there is an inequitable psychology service provided to people living in remote areas,” Dr Simpson says.

“Three days each week we offer sessions to people living in Port Augusta who are referred to us by the community mental health team, provided by our Master in Clinical Psychology students.

“The students are enrolled in a two-year postgraduate course that enables them to become clinical psychologists once they’ve finished.

“The system itself is very straightforward and easy to use; it’s like using a telephone, and both clients and clinicians find that after about five minutes using the system it’s just like talking face-to-face.

“People are sometimes apprehensive to start with but once you start focusing on the difficulties a person is having, you tend to forget about the technology, and it’s great for our students to get experience offering this sort of service.

“We train the psychologists to become aware of other ways of expressing empathy – to use their voice more and to use more non-verbal gestures, for example. You can’t hand a patient a box of tissues, but you can be more expressive in the way you support them with what you say.”

The students help clients with a variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-esteem issues, schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses, sleep disorders and eating disorders.

Each trainee is closely supervised by a qualified clinical psychologist, who observes the sessions under strict confidentiality.

Dr Simpson says the feedback has been encouraging.

“Research so far shows that clients are quite comfortable and consider the therapeutic relationship to be equal to the one they would have face-to-face – they aren’t inhibited by the technology at all,” she says.

“We’re conducting research over the year to see if a whole year of video therapy, with plenty of encouragement, support and supervision, will improve students’ confidence and competence using the technology to enable them to go on afterwards and offer that service to remote areas.

“We hope to continue with the project and expand to Roxby Downs, Quorn and other more remote areas where historically it has been difficult to access psychology services.

“The benefits for students are that they are learning an innovative new way of offering psychological therapies that they won’t get anywhere else.

“Clients get a service they wouldn’t otherwise get, and when we forge ahead to other remote areas that will be even more the case.

“Hopefully people living in remote areas will benefit in the longer-term because psychologists will feel more willing, able and confident to provide therapies using technology which they hadn’t been in the past.”

Shirley Rochford, team leader of the Community Mental Health Team in Port Augusta, says the service is invaluable to clients.

“This service is very important to us here in Port Augusta; I have already seen great benefits within our clients who are in the program,” she says.

“Their anxieties have reduced, their risks are minimal on updated assessments, we provide a debrief session for the clients afterwards if they wish to partake, and the staff feel supported in their endeavours to provide a holistic approach to their clients’ well-being and health outcomes.

“I feel that this service is now embedded into our working practices and programs. I foresee that UniSA video therapy will become a large part of our service delivery not only to ourselves but to the Port Augusta community and outlying areas of North and Far Western regions.”

UniSA’s Psychology Clinic also offers a psychological and counselling service available to the general public by appointment at Magill campus. For more information, click here.