Child abuse survivor and activist Jenny Szymanski is calling for both federal and state governments to do much more to improve services for women and children affected by family violence in rural areas, with an urgent need for access to psychological help.
Szymanski, who is on the panel of suicide prevention organisation Beyond Now, says the Federal Government needs to quadruple the number of sessions with a psychologist it funds for individuals each year under the Medicare GP Mental Health Treatment Plan.
At present a GP can refer a person to a psychologist for six to 10 Medicare-funded sessions, but Szymanski says it took her 11 years of twice-weekly sessions to deal with her childhood abuse.
“Most people can’t afford to pay $180 to $200 an hour for a psychologist but they need more than 10 sessions to unpack what happened to them, to deal with trauma,’’ she says.
Szymanski, who lives in Melbourne but grew up in country New South Wales, says the shortage of mental health professionals in rural areas must also be addressed as a national issue. She says psychologists and social workers burn out in rural areas because they don’t have enough support.
The Federal Government needs to improve the communication between rural and urban services, she says, so that country people can access city services if required.
Her views were supported by the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, which in March outlined several new initiatives regarding child abuse in country areas.
Social worker Nadia Mellor, who works with families once they have left domestic violence situations in country areas, says counseling is imperative for children who have experienced abuse.
“Once out of the violence, it is important to address the poor coping behaviours they have learnt, such as aggression, constantly feeling scared and lack of sleep,” she says.
Szymanski strives to stop the silence around the abuse, particularly for children.
“Often the stories of children go unheard because of their age and the fact that they feel it must be their fault.
“A fundamental thing I learnt is that a lot of questions surround children making things up. Children don’t make up abuse because it’s not in their mindset, it’s not in their brain development.”
Mellor agrees that listening to children talk about their experiences is important to their recovery.
“Once the abuse is spoken about, children are keen to tell their story and then get on with their life,” she says.
Senior Sergeant Kate Chamberlain, who works in the Victorian country town of Wodonga, says doing so is not always easy.
“Abuse is a cycle and victims can gravitate towards like people later in life. The challenge is, how do we protect children from that environment to stop the violence?” she says.
Mellor says there’s also the risk of abused children becoming violent as adults after what they were exposed to as children.
“Children often mimic what is happening to them and adolescents in violent homes are often violent themselves,” she says.
Chamberlain says abused children would benefit more from family support rather than segregation once the abuse has been reported.
“We seem to have a one size fits all approach, but family violence is an emotional issue, it’s not a one-size-fits-all matter.”
Szymanski says domestic violence is not discussed, especially in small communities. “What happens in families behind closed doors is accepted,” she says. “It’s so isolating. People know each other and there is a lot of shame at admitting to being abused.”
But she says there are high costs if people “internalise the violence”.
“This often leads to mental, physical and emotional issues in later life for them,” she says.
Szymanski says more rural government services would save lives. “The government needs to look at this. It’s very hard to even tell a counsellor about family violence in a rural area as there is concern it won’t remain confidential.”
If you are a victim or know of victims of family violence contact Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre on 03 99289600.