Stretching from the pristine South Coast beaches to the majestic Snowy Mountains, the region spanned by the Southern NSW LHD appears absolutely idyllic. Within its borders, though, are townships that have endured a string of adversities – drought, bushfires, floods and COVID-19.
Tight-knit communities have been left reeling from the physical, financial and emotional toll, so the introduction of the NSW Government’s Enhancement to Rural Counselling program comes at just the right time…and in just the right place.
Two counsellors, Julie Irwin and Samara Byrne, are on the ground in the Eurobodalla and Snowy Monaro shires respectively, supporting an increasing number of people who might otherwise have slipped through the gap between acute mental health services and private counselling.
Flood-damaged bridges, icy roads, landslides and pot-holed driveways are just some of the daily challenges that Julie and Samara take in their stride as part of the mobile, face-to-face service.
“There are high levels of stress and a general sense that things aren’t quite settled,” Samara says. “People are wondering ‘what’s going to hit us next?”. There’s also an accommodation shortage here because Snowy 2.0 has started and a lot of the rental housing has been taken up.”
Julie adds: “The timing of this initiative is perfect, and referrals are coming thick and fast. We have the capacity to go to where people live, and the fact that we’re a free service is really helpful.”
Julie has lived in the Eurobodalla community for 30 years, previously working in an Aboriginal medical service and in the child and adolescent family sector. She is also a person of lived experience – a bereaved mother from suicide – which provides profound motivation and context for her work.
“The community is aware of my loss and sometimes people will come to me, looking for support – I help them through the process of grieving in the early days,” Julie says.
Samara, meanwhile, has lived on a 100-acre property for the past four years, giving her a first-hand understanding of the farming community and an overview of the different demographics within the region.
“I run a private business at Berridale as well as being a Rural Counsellor,” she says. “I love working with my clients. They have all the answers themselves, but our job is to help them reach those answers, and to realise how resilient they are. I love to see that.”
Julie typically has around 20 people on her books at any given time, covering all lifespans, and she believes the Rural Counselling initiative has enhanced her ability to provide person-centred care over longer periods.
Referrals come from GPs, nursing staff, and groups such as Mission Australia, local youth councils and family support services. There’s also word of mouth from friends of former clients.
“We work with many people who’ve never previously had counselling and probably wouldn’t have even considered calling a mental health line,” Julie adds. “They invariably wish they’d done it sooner.”
Julie also chairs the Rural Counsellors Community of Practice, a forum where other rural counsellors from around NSW can support each other and get a sense of how each other’s projects are going. “Share the Care” is their philosophy.
“I love coming to work as a person of lived experience,” Julie concludes. “Having an opportunity to make a difference and be part of the Towards Zero Suicides initiative – that’s something very near and dear to me.
“Also, I learn so much from the clients I work with. It’s very rewarding to leave your job at the end of each day, know you’ve been able to make a difference in people’s lives. We hear that so often.”