Mental health goes virtual

By Paul Hemsley

Online counseling therapy will be available to Australians through federal health services following an open tender for qualified organisations to deliver the Virtual Clinic service.

The Department of Health and Ageing will be searching for qualified organizations to develop and deliver the program, which will provide online counseling with the assistance of a therapist, for those with low to moderate levels of mental disorders.

An investment of $20 million over three years will be provided for the Virtual clinic, which will be accessible through the government’s mental health portal, due to go live in July.

According to the department, it would complement existing face-to-face mental health therapies.

Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler said the Virtual Clinic is expected to assist up to 30000 people over three years, particularly those living in rural and remote areas.

“Therapists will use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to deliver online counseling and will also be able to refer to clients to self-guided online therapies, or other services, according to the client’s needs,” Mr Butler said.

The Virtual Clinic services will complement face-to-face mental health support and the existing automated online ‘teleweb’ programs which will be available through the e-mental health portal.

A Department of Health and Ageing spokeswoman said the focus is on telephone and online services, however video services may be considered in the future if security of information and privacy is assured.

“It is expected that anyone with internet access will be able to use the virtual clinic to obtain assistance, including counselors and patients,” the spokeswoman said.

“The therapists delivering the online counseling will be trained in online service delivery as part of the requirements of the funding process.”

According to the spokeswoman, there has been no discussion or liaison with local government regarding the Virtual Clinic.

“This project will deliver online mental health services to all Australians including those in rural and remote regions,” the spokeswoman said.

She said links with primary health care services and the establishment of referral pathways to traditional services will be an important feature of the service.

“Barriers to treatment have been reported as financial costs; shortage of skilled workers, especially in rural and remote communities; long waiting lists; stigma; reluctance to attend treatment; and the difficulty of accessing services out of work hours,” she said.

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