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  • Mental Health Support: The Role of Allied Health Professionals

    Author: Felicity Frankish

In recent years the emphasis on mental health and its importance has risen significantly thanks to the rise of mental health disorders, ranging from anxiety to depression and more. It has highlighted the need for accessible mental health support systems offered by allied health professionals, including diagnosis, therapy, rehabilitation and patient education. We explore the vital role that allied health professionals play in supporting mental health in Australia, delving into their diverse roles, the challenges they face, and the collaborative efforts required to provide effective mental health care.

Allied health professionals cover a broad group of health workers who play a fundamental role in the healthcare system, including psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, speech pathologists and counsellors. These essential professionals fill the gaps in healthcare offering specialised support and therapies that are critical in the treatment and management of mental health conditions. Their expertise is not only in treating the symptoms but also in addressing the underlying causes of mental health issues, prompting long-term well-being.

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In recent years, Australia, like many countries worldwide, has seen a significant increase in the demand for mental health support thanks to various factors, ranging from greater public awareness and reduced stigma around mental health issues to the impact of global events such as COVID-19. Mental health conditions are among the leading causes of disability and illness in the country. For instance, it is estimated two in five Australians aged 16 to 85 experience a mental illness in any given year, with anxiety and depression being the most common.

The demand for mental health support has been further driven by recent events, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic brought about many challenges, including social isolation, job losses and general uncertainty, all of which had a huge impact on the mental health of many Australians. However, there is a silver lining. The growing demand for mental health support is partly due to reduced stigma surrounding mental health issues. Public awareness campaigns, advocacy by mental health organisations, and open discussions in media and public forums have contributed to a more open and supportive attitude towards mental health. As a result, more people are seeking help.

Allied health professionals in Australia play a crucial role in the mental health care sector, offering a range of services that are vital for the comprehensive treatment and management of mental health issues.

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  • Providing therapy and counselling: One of the main roles of allied health professionals, particularly psychologists, counsellors and social workers, is to provide therapy and counselling services. They offer a safe and confidential environment where clients can explore their feelings, thoughts and behaviours, and develop strategies to cope with their mental health challenges.
  • Assessment and diagnosis: For many mental health conditions, early assessment and accurate diagnosis are essential. Allied health professionals like psychologists and some specialised social workers are trained to assess mental health conditions and provide diagnoses. This assessment is often the first step in developing an effective treatment plan tailored to the individual’s needs.
  • Rehabilitation and recovery support: Occupational therapists and some specialised social workers play a significant role in the rehabilitation and recovery of those with mental health issues. They assist clients in developing the skills needed for daily living and work, which may have been affected by their mental health condition.
  • Advocacy and social support: Social workers and other allied health professionals often act as advocates for their clients. They help individuals navigate the complex healthcare and social services systems, ensuring that they have access to the resources and support they need.
Collaboration with other healthcare professionals: Allied health professionals work collaboratively with other healthcare providers, such as psychiatrists, GPs and nurses, to ensure a holistic approach to mental health care.

Allied health professionals in Australia's mental health sector face plenty of challenges that can impact their ability to deliver effective care. One of the primary challenges is the limitation of resources and funding. This can include limited access to necessary tools, inadequate staffing and insufficient funding for programs.

Despite growing awareness, there remains a significant level of stigma and misunderstanding about mental health. This can affect the way allied health professionals’ work is perceived and valued, potentially leading to the underutilisation of their services and undervaluing of their expertise. Allied health professionals are also facing high workloads, with large caseloads and extensive administrative responsibilities. This can lead to burnout, particularly in environments where there is a high demand for mental health services but insufficient staff to meet this demand.

As we look to the future of mental healthcare in Australia, it is clear that interdisciplinary collaboration is key. It involves the integration of various healthcare professionals, including allied health workers, general practitioners (GPs), psychiatrists, nurses and others, working cohesively to provide comprehensive care. This approach recognises that mental health issues are multi-dimensional, often requiring a range of interventions and perspectives for effective management.

The primary benefit of interdisciplinary collaboration is the delivery of patient-centred care. For instance, while a psychiatrist may focus on medication management, an occupational therapist might work on functional skills, and a psychologist could provide therapy for underlying psychological issues. This ensures a more comprehensive treatment plan, catering to the varied needs of the patient.

The future of mental health care in Australia, particularly concerning the role of allied health professionals, relies on effective policy and advocacy.
  • Increased funding and resources: One of the most pressing needs is for increased government funding and resources dedicated to mental health services. This includes funding for more positions for allied health professionals in public health settings, greater investment in mental health research, and resources for community-based mental health programs.
  • Policy reform for better integration: Policy reform is needed to facilitate better integration of allied health services within the broader healthcare system. This includes policies that encourage collaboration between different healthcare providers, ensure clear referral pathways, and support an interdisciplinary approach to mental health care.
  • Expanding access to mental health services: Policies should aim to expand access to mental health services, particularly for underserved and vulnerable populations. This includes improving mental health care in rural and remote areas, for Indigenous communities, and for culturally and linguistically diverse groups. Telehealth and mobile health services can be part of this solution, making mental health support more accessible.

Allied health professionals play a vital role in addressing the mental health needs of the population and providing essential services from direct patient care and therapy to advocacy and policy development. Their dedication and expertise significantly impact the lives of their patients. As we move forward, it is crucial to continue supporting, recognising and investing in these professionals, ensuring they can continue their essential work in improving the nation's mental health.

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Felicity Frankish

Flick Frankish is an experienced Editor and Marketing Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the publishing industry. After studying journalism and digital media, she naturally fell into the online world - and hasn't left since!
She is skilled in running successful social media campaigns and generating leads and sales. Combines skills of editing, SEO copywriting, email campaigns and social media marketing for success.

Before moving into the freelance world, Felicity worked as Senior Subeditor at CHILD Magazines, International Marketing Manager at QualityTrade and Marketing Manager for Children’s Tumor Foundation.