We’ve recently got back from a whirlwind tour of SA where we visited nine towns and regions to bring the written applications for the Our Town initiative to life.

Our Town is a mental health funding initiative which will ultimately see us provide 10 years of funding and support to two SA towns. Six towns and regions will soon be announced for the first round funding, which aims to help them explore their vision for mental health.

We were joined on this fascinating and inspiring tour by members of The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. Our itinerary took us to the banks of the River Murray, into pastoral land on Eyre Peninsula, wine country in the Barossa Valley, the Murray Mallee region and onto Kangaroo Island. The landscape changed significantly but many of the stories were the same. We heard about the devastating impact of suicide on small communities, the battle to cope with a lack of mental health services and, in many cases, a roll up your sleeves resolve that ‘if no one else is going to help us, we’ll do it ourselves!’

All the communities we met have been able to achieve so much with so little such was their commitment to making a difference. There was a clear demonstration to us that they were all ready to embrace change and try something different.

The rates of volunteering in these communities was among the biggest strengths that we saw.

We met people who were holding down so many volunteer roles that just listing them made our heads spin.

This was a real positive for their communities but we also heard about the risk of ‘volunteer burnout’ which was a mental health challenge in itself.

We saw the way towns were able to create shared community spaces that were embraced by their residents. These included libraries that could be used by both schools and community members and sporting complexes where several codes shared clubrooms.

However, we also saw some of the obstacles to change that we’re hoping the Our Town initiative will help to tackle.

In their applications many people mentioned the stigma that still exists around discussing mental health. There is so much pride in these towns and regions – particularly in our farming communities. This could make it difficult for people to talk about what was really going on under the surface.

We also heard about the challenges of engaging some of the harder to reach groups in rural and regional communities. These could include LGBTIQ communities, isolated residents or those who might have moved to the regions more recently seeking relief from increasing cost of living.

Isolation was a prevalent issue and this wasn’t just isolation from the city, there was also isolation within communities especially for people without transport. This could prevent the meaningful connections that are essential for good mental health.

Other barriers to community connection included the impact of inter-generational trauma and the issue of identity and belonging within communities. There were many discussions about what it meant to be a local and how long someone needed to live in a community to be seen as local.

Despite all of the challenges, the people we met showed incredible drive and hope for the future. We saw so many examples of people working tirelessly to make their communities even better places to live. We are excited to partner with SA communities for Our Town and see just how much can be achieved.

Stay tuned for the announcement of the final six towns and insights on the Our Town visits and selection process in 2020.