We recently spoke with Thelma Eather, coordinator of three MHPN networks that are each based in regional, rural, and remote areas, on what it's like to connect practitioners within Australia's rural and remote healthcare workforce.
Alongside her contributions to MHPN, Thelma is a Clinical Nurse Consultant within a rural and remote resource team. Thelma has an ongoing interest in the areas of: mental and physical health; early intervention and prevention mentoring; modelling and facilitating evidence based practices; and ensuring individual quality care delivery to each person who accesses mental health services.
Read on to learn more about Thelma's experience as a network coordinator.
1. You are the coordinator of three networks supported by MHPN. Can you tell us a bit about how you first became involved with MHPN’s networks and what motivated you to take on the coordination role?
THELMA EATHER: I first became aware of MHPN in 2009 during my role as Service Integration coordinator. I attended a MHPN network meeting in Townsville and after that I contacted MHPN [for more] information on [the purpose of MHPN and the networks program].
[In terms of coordinating networks] I initially became involved with through participating in case conferences at the Charters Towers Community Mental Health network. These conferences [were attended by] consultant psychiatrist/s in the Charters Towers area, local GPs, medical officers, hospital nursing staff, staff from Charters Towers Community Mental Health, people from employment agencies and other NGO service providers.
These [conferences provided] an opportunity for local medical staff to present complex cases from [the perspective] of a multidisplinary team when discussing presentations at both GPs, local hospitals and mental health services including patients biosocial, physical & mental health assessment needs.
2. Last year was a challenging time for many; with most of us having to adopt new models for connecting with others - both personally and professionally. What was it like coordinating a network during lockdown? Can you describe a specific or memorable challenge and highlight from last year?
THELMA EATHER: Between June to October of 2020, mental health education was provided on an adhoc basis due to the restrictions. I maintained catch-up re-education with both rural sites via video conferencing. Case management was also provided via video conferencing as “a new way of doing business”. The clients engaged well, so from a clinical perspective, there was little to no interruptions with clinical care. [It was a challenge] to not able to [conduct] face-to-face [consulations] in real life as at times, video conferencing software or [internet] connections would be slow or freeze.
3. As the coordinator of locally-driven networks based in rural, regional, and or remote areas; can you describe what’s involved?
THELMA EATHER: Planning is of the upmost importance. Currently I provide clinical therapy across the lifespan to patients [based in] rural sites and I travel approximately 1050 kilometres each fortnight. Staying overnight at each rural site allows opportunity to build relationships and check-in with local service providers and clinical staff [about] their interests or uncertainties through providing a space for them to verbalise their concerns, strengths and weakness when [working with] patients. [These spaces] set the platform for ongoing mental health education planning.
[This might take the form of] an after hours case conference on a presentation at the local hospital under the guidance of some amazing colleagues within my rural and remote resource team - including a senior psychologist working within child & youth mental health and a senior thearputic intervention coordinator.
4. As a nationwide program, MHPN networks comprise many diverse practitioners, many of whom are based outside of metropolitan areas. In your view, how does a network’s location shape or inform the networks’ purposes / reason for meeting, membership participation, and long-term goals?
THELMA EATHER: [It is important to develop an in-depth] understanding of rural sites and the services that visit these areas to build networks within the community [so we can tap] into what’s already working. [It's also important to] become familiar with [the area's] culture, its challenges and triumphs.
Having the opportunity to link with MHPN has [enabled the networks] to engage with participants [who are interested in gaining] professional recognition towar their own professional development. [Access to] education and professional resources from MHPN has been invaluable, [in particular], the access to special interest groups, further education and professional resources that supplement the provision of mental health education in rural sites.
5. Looking ahead to the rest of 2021, what are your hopes/plans/ideas for the networks you coordinate?
THELMA EATHER: [I hope to] continue providing mental health education and promoting general and physical health assessments at these rural sites on a regular basis. I would like to extend these opportunities to both GPs and hospital staff, so [all practitioners] can grow their basic knowledge of mental health [while developing clear referral] pathways to access more specialised input from other mental health clinicians if they are unsure of what to do, or if [a patient's] situation is more complex.
I would also like to continue to provide education and support to general health care organisations and their workforces (such as GPs and hospital staff) in rural sites. [It's important] to develop knowledge and networks [that practitioners can] refer to and consult with regarding the prevention of, and early intervention pathways for mental health issues. Together we can reduce the burden of poor mental health on individuals, their significant others and communities.
If like Thelma, you are interested in establishing a new network based in a regional, rural, or remote location, please contact Trish Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org
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