Alarming men’s health figures for Ballarat back up the concerns of health professionals and emphasise an urgent need for action.
Ballarat’s male suicide rate is substantially higher than Bendigo and Geelong, almost twice the suicide rate of Melbourne and 65 per cent greater than the state average per 100,000 men, according to statistics from Australian Catholic University.
But the rate of male mental health-related admissions to hospitals in Ballarat is lower than Bendigo, Geelong, Melbourne and the state average.
Ballarat had a higher rate of family violence compared to other regional areas and the state average, and a higher rate of illicit drug-related hospital admissions to Greater Bendigo and Geelong.
Urologist Lachlan Dodds said the figures echoed the sentiments of many health professionals, including his own experiences in the field.
“It became clear as I was doing my work and just chatting to men that there really was a significant problem,” he said.
“We were thinking about things like mental health, cardiovascular disease and the apparent high rate of suicide in our region.”
Dr Dodds set up a meeting four years ago with a number of influential people in the community. They each walked away with the consensus something needed to be done, and urgently.
Andrew McPherson, whose experience includes chief executive positions with the Division of General Practice and Grampians Medicare Local as well as helping to set up headspace Ballarat, was approached to guide the committee.
The group is looking to set up a facility for men’s health with a focus on making better use of existing services through accessibility and knowledge.
Dr Dodds said the ACU data confirmed what health practitioners had been seeing and experiencing in their work and the need for action.
“These aren’t just impressions, these are facts that there is a problem,” Dr Dodds said. “They are robust figures from a university setting done by epidemiologists who aren’t influenced by what we are thinking.”
Mr McPherson said Ballarat’s suicide rate could be even higher than what the statistics suggest, especially if the circumstances surrounding a death are ambiguous.
The committee envisages a stand-alone centre that follows a triage system.
The hope is to make the service free and accessible for people who work within business hours. It would be staffed by a nurse or medical professional with an interest in men’s health and knowledge of existing services.
The centre would be based around early intervention, engagement and linking people into services quickly. The group is also considering a website to help people access information without having to confront someone.
“The key is intervening before someone actually successfully takes their life,” Mr McPherson said.
“Help people believe they have someone and somewhere to go to start to address some of these issues.
“The other thing is to make sure that you give them something straight away… that we can make that appointment while the person is on the phone or sitting in front of us to get them in relatively quickly to what they need. If you can’t do it quickly, your opportunity is lost.”
The idea has the support of Ballarat Base and St John of God Ballarat hospitals.
“The most important thing we think needs to change is the integration and networking around men’s health and mental health,” Mr McPherson said.
“There are a number of existing services out there and what we want to try and do is provide that conduit to make sure there is an access point that is non-threatening to men.”
He said men tended not to be as proactive as women when it came to their health.
“The healthcare system is a strange and often unwelcoming place for them,” he said.
“They tend to only seek help, whether it be mental health or other health care issues, when it is more serious. And then of course, the more serious it is the harder it is to treat effectively or the more costly or the longer the treatment.”
The next step is to secure initial funding for project management and then make the initiative financially sustainable. Mr McPherson said the federal and state governments could be opportunities for funding down the track, especially if there was a mental health review or royal commission.
Committee for Ballarat is considering supporting the initiative, while the Catholic Church has been contacted in regards to funding.
“We just need a final little push to get this project up and going,” Dr Dodds said.
“If we just opened up a clinic ourselves, we would just be inundated.
“There are times on this journey both Andrew and I walked away thinking this is virtually impossible, it’s too big, how do we do something useful in this sphere?
“But we have a group of very committed people who are heavily involved in this already. There is no question we would learn a lot as time goes by and continue to improve what this service might offer.”
Ballarat sexual abuse survivor Peter Blenkiron has worked closely with the committee after realising there was an overlap in what he had witnessed within the survivor community and his vision for a way forward.
“It’s this moment of critical mass, it’s time to get the resources to make those changes,” he said. “This is about the ripple effect - how do we stop the damage? It’s a reality that everybody in Ballarat has experienced in some way, shape or form. One suicide is too many.
“Rather than just having a healing centre in Ballarat, Ballarat becomes a place of healing and not just being known as ground zero but a place where a new way of doing things has been started.”
It has been two and a half years since Vatican representatives pledged to make Ballarat a healing centre.
The Courier has requested an update on the status of this pledge, but is yet to receive a response.
Ballarat Community Responds is a new group set up to help instigate action that goes beyond awareness at a grassroots level.
Founding member Maxine Troon described the confronting statistics from ACU research for Ballarat as a call to arms.
The group supports the idea of the health centre and is generating funds to help initiatives responding to the men’s health crisis.
“From my perspective, it is about not wanting to live in a community that is complacent about those statistics,” Ms Troon said.
“There is a groundswell there, you’ve got people with funding sources, but I also believe there are people out there who want to do something more to have an impact on this. This is crisis mode stuff and we are not getting any resources into the community that is desperately needing support.”
The group has set up a Facebook page under the name Ballarat Community Responds where people can stay up to date on how to get involved.
“One thing we wanted to do is put up on that page a forum so people could contribute where they think there are huge gaps in the system,” Ms Troon said.
“Because it is in those gaps that we lose lives and we really need to get in and work out our best plan around how do we action this as a community to change those statistics.”
To contact CASA call 5320 3933 or free call 24 hours 1800 806 292. Lifeline can be accessed on 13 11 14.