After three men in her small sugarcane community committed suicide within three weeks, Alison Fairleigh was moved to help improve the state of rural mental health services in the bush.
"It was the first time I had encountered the effects of suicide in a small community," she told ABC News Online.
"It was absolutely shocking and confronting and rocked my world - it really impacted on the community very, very heavily."
But when she got involved in mental health in her tiny far north Queensland town of Clare in the Burdekin, Ms Fairleigh was struck by the lack of awareness.
"There's still that attitude of 'That's a load of rot, you need to toughen up' - that doesn't help," she said.
"We can't label and say 'she'll be right mate' - it doesn't work like that."
Ms Fairleigh is now involved in a new initiative aiming to provide a space for people across rural Australia to discuss mental health and strategies for improving rural health services.
Through fortnightly Twitter chats, Rural Mental Health (RMH) wants to break down stigmas and raise awareness in communities.
"We want to get the discussion going, to let people know it is a very real thing; it's not just all made-up mumbo jumbo for the sake of modern society," Ms Fairleigh said.
"This is very real and we want people to know it's OK to talk openly about it."
Mental illness affects one in four people in rural areas, but Ms Fairleigh says people often find it difficult to talk about.
"One of the things I've noticed in being in an area like I am is the social isolation people in rural areas feel," Ms Fairleigh said.
"There are a lot of people out there who do not know what resources are available to them; if we can just get the message out to people, not even people themselves who may be suffering, but people in communities or their families who can pick up the information."
Chris Pycroft, who co-founded RMH with Ms Fairleigh and two other advocates, says the response to their first forum, held on April 6, has been "quite overwhelming".
"Effectively we had a new message in the discussion by participants every four seconds and it was actually the second highest trending topic in Australia on Twitter shortly after the commencement of the chat," he told ABC News Online.
"We were truly able to engage in with a rural audience - we had people from six different states take part in our first chat. We were quite surprised by the response; it really emphasised to us that something like this does need to exist.
"The message we got from our first chat is the outlook for mental health is quite bleak and it does need a lot of funding help. We will [be] doing everything we can."
Queensland University of Technology professor David Kavanagh, a fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, says using social media is a great way to reach people in rural areas.
"There's really opportunity for this (RMH) to have a major impact," he told ABC News Online.
"One of the problems we have is as you get out of the cities, there's fewer and fewer mental health professionals and we know that the Commonwealth Government is concerned about this issue and about ways we can try to ensure there's more equity and access to services once you get away from the cities; there's long waiting lists for psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are also thinner on the ground.
"So online services provide a way of bridging that - and this is only one way of doing this."
The Rural Mental Health Twitter chats will be held every second Wednesday between 7:30pm and 9.00pm (AEST). To get involved, follow the Twitter hashtag #ruralmh.
Monday, April 11, 2011
From ABC News in Australia:
Posted by BA Haller at 9:30 PM