Two weeks ago – in mid March – we planned an important milestone for the Our Town initiative. People from our six shortlisted towns and regions would come together face-to-face for the very first time on beautiful Kangaroo Island. This would be a time for meeting, sharing meals and stories, and officially starting this important mental health initiative.

The flights and accommodation were booked, the agenda was ready, the coffee was practically poured. However, in the midst of all of this, the world as we knew it was changing. Things were moving rapidly and, it was decided that flying our townspeople from around country South Australia and bringing partner organisations from interstate for several days was not the best plan. And, as this was a mental health initiative, the welfare of everyone was always going to be our number one priority.

As luck would have it, we were working closely with the team from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation who rapidly formulated a Plan B. We would take the entire face-to-face retreat – from workshops to afternoon teas – and plug it into the virtual world. As a result, about 20 of our rural and regional town participants were beamed in from Berri, Ceduna, Cummins, Kangaroo Island, Kimba and the Mid Murray region. They were joined by our support team members in both South Australia and the eastern states, including our evaluation partner Clear Horizon. Over two days everyone was guided through a series of workshop activities and discussions.  The technology allowed for real time collaboration on key issues, whole of group conversations and even small group video chatrooms.

Although our rural and regional representatives may have had some initial misgivings and were disappointed they didn’t get the chance to meet in person, they were really surprised at what could be achieved online.

Here are some of the things they said:

‘I feel like we are all one big family now. Again, online is just not the same as face to face but I think we took advantage of every break out to really connect.’

‘Everyone was very accommodating and able to share airtime. Very important for the introverts in the room. We were able to make comments in the chatbox and the document if we didn’t get a chance to speak.’

 The town and regional representatives were even taken through an online video editing session and here is one of the great results from someone who was initially sceptical about her own talents! Even though we couldn’t fly over there in person, Jeanette was able to take us to her beautiful home in Kangaroo Island.

 

The support team was equally pleased with the outcome and could observe the participants sharing their expertise and learning from each other. Overall, while there were some obvious limits to the online environment, such as the fact that the usual interpersonal cues were missing, the retreat was deemed a resounding success.

As we continue through these uncertain times, we really want to applaud our towns and regions for being so flexible and willing to move with the changes. We look forward to a time – hopefully in the not-too-distant future – when we can all stand shoulder to shoulder, shake hands and finally drink that coffee!

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.

 

 

Applications are open for up to 10 years of mental health funding and support for towns in rural and regional South Australia.

Our new, multi-million dollar funding initiative – Our Town – will see us partner with SA towns for up to a decade to tackle their mental health challenges.

Our Town funding is for towns with populations of approximately 10,000 people or less, or clusters of towns with combined populations of less than 10,000 people.

Initially, six towns will be chosen for 6-12 months of mentoring and support to further explore their issues and look at possible solutions to make the changes they hope to see.

From the shortlisted six towns, two towns will be selected for 10 years of large-scale funding support and assistance.

The actual amount of funding will depend on what the towns decide to do, however, the final two towns could receive several million dollars each in funding over the 10 years.

This funding differs from other approaches as it is not bound by an election cycle and the individual towns involved will identify the mental health challenges they wish to address.

We are also not flying in with our own solutions as we want towns to tell us what mental health means for them and the changes they want to see.

Our Town funding is not to simply replace or expand services but it’s about building the capability within communities – or skills, processes and structures – to enable them to work towards long-term and sustainable change.

We believe that towns have all the answers, we will just be helping them to build on what is already there and maybe uncover some hidden talents.

The idea for Our Town came from a research report we commissioned which showed how major the issue of mental health is in regional SA. We have chosen smaller rural and regional towns as we felt that they may not have the resources or influence to attract the funding required to make significant change.

Read more about Our Town funding, the guidelines for applications and find the online application form. Applications for Our Town close at 5pm ACST on 5 August, 2019.