Social workers ease pressure on Gold Coast’s extended mental health services

Social workers are now on the front lines of the fight to ease Queensland’s mental health care crisis amid a national shortage of psychologists.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2020 there were 5,811 psychologists in the state, which equates to approximately one psychologist for every 800 Queenslanders.

The latest demographic data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 50,162 people migrated into Queensland from the highway in the 12 months to December last year.

Bond University psychology clinic director Will Drotsky said the recent spike in population on the Gold Coast meant many clinics could not keep up with demand.

“For well-known and established clinics on the Gold Coast, you’re looking at a wait time of four weeks to six months,” he said.

His comments came a year after the Australian Association of Psychologists said allowing provisional psychologists to provide services reimbursed by Medicare would ease the burden on the system.

Increase in home services

Certified mental health social worker Monica Lord, who specializes in child and family therapy, worked to fill the void.

She has seen a huge influx of patients take her mobile service, which treats people at home from Tweed Heads to Eagleby and west to Canungra.

Monica Lord says social workers provide a holistic assessment to mental health patients.(Provided: Monica Lord)

Ms Lord said the mental health crisis is an opportunity for other allied health professionals to step in and pick up the slack.

“I’m seeing a big increase in people being referred to my practice, and I’m also hearing among my professional groups from social workers from Queensland and across Australia,” she said.

Ms. Lord says the community is starting to recognize that there are more choices when it comes to mental health care.

“Historically, people have always heard of psychology as their primary choice for mental health care, but that’s not always right for everyone,” she said.

“We really look at the person and how they fit into their environment, their community – how things affect them on a more systemic level.”

A multidisciplinary approach

Mr. Drotsky said a multidisciplinary approach to mental health care is becoming increasingly popular in the public sector.

A woman with dark curly hair, wearing red rimmed glasses and standing against greenery
Victoria Shiel says social workers can provide unique mental health support.(Provided: Victoria Shiel)

The Gold Coast Community Legal Center recently began using allied health professionals as a preventive measure to support staff and clients dealing with traumatic situations.

Social workers help clients assimilate legal information and connect them to other services, such as Centrelink.

The centre’s director, Victoria Spiel, said the integration of social workers into the Gold Coast office has created a holistic and integrated service for clients after receiving funding for two positions in 2020.

“It really benefited both the community and our lawyers,” she said.

“Because they don’t feel like they’re left alone to deal with really complex and difficult issues that people bring to our center.”

Last year, Community Legal Centers in Queensland helped more than 53,000 clients, but another 80,000 were turned away due to a lack of resources.

Management of “trauma by proxy”

Queensland Community Legal Centers director Roslyn Monroe said social workers are also supporting lawyers at the centres.

“They work to ensure our staff and volunteers are protected from vicarious trauma from hearing difficult stories day in and day out,” she said.

Over the past year, social workers at the center have seen nearly 245 clients. Of these, 50% live with a disability, 14% speak a language other than English at home and 40% are victims of domestic or family violence.

“We brought in a client who had suffered from domestic violence for over 10 years,” Ms. Spiel said.

“Talking to the lawyer, she was saying it was all her fault, that she should have left sooner – things like that.

“We quickly referred her to the social work team who spoke to her about the cycle of domestic violence and the trauma associated with it.”

For most legal center clients, their social worker is the only mental health service they have access to.

A blue, white and green sign in front of the building indicating Gold Coast Community Legal Center
The Gold Coast Community Legal Center is bringing in social workers to help meet the demand.(Provided: Victoria Shiel)

Ms Spiel says social work sessions give clients the support they need and help them take “the steps to create a better position in life”.

Mr. Drotsky said the availability of social workers could enrich the treatment of clients, but should not replace the role of psychologists when they were needed.

“Mental health issues can be complex and sometimes life-threatening, so there is a need for adequate training and support for these practitioners,” he said.

“I don’t think we want to replace each other but we want to contribute to the mental well-being of the people of Australia.”

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