The unique program, which evolved from the Monash School of Rural Health’s Department of Rural and Indigenous Health, is underpinned by a commitment to increasing the numbers of mental health professionals in Gippsland. Over the period of a week it introduces third and fourth year students – from nursing, psychology, social work, occupational therapy and speech pathology – to employment opportunities and professional work being undertaken in the region, and promotes the benefits of living and working locally.
The vacation school – which commenced in 2010 - is the product of a fruitful partnership between the SRH Department of Rural and Indigenous Health and Gippsland’s mental health service providers.
SRH Lecturer Keith Sutton said students from a range of institutions including Monash, the Universities of Melbourne and New England, Deakin and Swinburne, would spend the week visiting numerous Gippsland services which “all fall under the umbrella of behavioural health services” but vary in their nature.
“Services the students will visit include clinical and non-clinical organisations, alcohol and drug services and organisations such as Headspace and the Gippsland Centre Against Sexual Assault,” Mr Sutton said.
“We enjoy fantastic support from over 18 Gippsland organisations and when we approached them to be involved again this year, they all said yes.”
The program is the only one of its kind in Australia and, at its core, seeks to redress the imbalance in the proportion of mental health professionals working in rural and remote areas compared with metropolitan areas.
“The approach which has generally been relied upon is having students undertake placements in rural and regional areas but we know that there are low numbers of allied health workers taking up these opportunities so we developed a clear strategy around focusing on a short period of time and minimising the costs for students to participate, while also building in some social events and local outings,” Mr Sutton said.
The program aims to add an extra dimension to students’ existing courses and is careful to avoid duplication.
The testimonies of past participants, coupled with early indications from a longitudinal research program tracking students after their time in the program, suggest SRH Department of Rural and Indigenous Health is on the right track.
Former participant Matthew Jackman said his vacation school experience had been “inspiring” and shown him “there are great opportunities for innovation and creativity within a rural context”.
Firdous said she appreciated “exposure to the cross-cultural aspect” of the program, particularly the opportunity to visit Indigenous organisations and “watch them working on the ground.”
Rachael Humphries found her time in Gippsland “really helpful to experience how it would be to adjust to rural life.”
A critical component of the Gippsland Mental Health Vacation School is the continued connections SRH maintains with participants, usually through social media processes.
“We continue to feed these students information about employment opportunities in the region and other things that are happening in the field,” Mr Sutton said.
Research on the program’s longer-term impact is in its early stages but Mr Sutton said “we do know that exposure to the program, regardless of the student’s background – whether it is rural or metropolitan – has a positive effect on their perceptions of working rurally and of rural mental health work.”
The program has been inundated with applications this year and, in response, SRH will offer another intake over the summer months.