Rural counsellor Julie Irwin and her kelpie Sally


Rural counsellor Samara Byrne


​Spanning the pristine South Coast beaches to the majestic Snowy Mountains, the Southern NSW LHD region looks as perfect as a postcard. Within its borders, though, are towns that have endured a string of adversities – drought, fires, floods and COVID-19 restrictions.

Communities here have experienced the physical, financial and emotional toll, so the introduction of the NSW Government’s Enhancement to Rural Counselling program comes at just the right time.

Two counsellors, Julie Irwin and Samara Byrne, are on the ground in the Eurobodalla and Snowy Monaro shires respectively, supporting an increasing number of people with a fully mobile, face-to-face service. Challenging weather and road conditions are taken in their stride on a daily basis.

“There are high levels of stress and a general sense that things aren’t quite settled,” Samara said. “People are wondering ‘what’s going to hit us next?”. There’s also an accommodation shortage here because Snowy 2.0 has started and a lot of the rental housing has been taken up.”

Julie added: “The timing of this initiative is perfect, and referrals are coming thick and fast. We have the capacity to go to where people live, and the fact that we’re a free service is really helpful.”

Julie has lived in the Eurobodalla community for 30 years on a small farm, previously working in an Aboriginal medical service and in the child and adolescent family sector. She is also a person of lived experience – a bereaved mother from suicide – which provides motivation and context for her work.

“The community is aware of my loss and sometimes people will come to me, looking for support – I help them through the process of grieving in the early days,” Julie noted.

Samara, meanwhile, has lived on a 100-acre property for the past four years, giving her a first-hand understanding of the farming community and an overview of the different demographics within the region.

“I run a private business at Berridale as well as being a Rural Counsellor,” she said. “I love working with my clients. They have all the answers themselves, but our job is to help them reach those answers, and to realise how resilient they are. I love to see that.”

Julie typically supports around 20 members of the community at any given time, covering all ages, and she believes the Rural Counselling initiative has enhanced her ability to provide person-centred care over longer periods.

Referrals come from GPs, nursing staff, and groups such as Mission Australia, local youth councils and family support services. There’s also word of mouth from friends of former clients.

“We work with many people who’ve never previously had counselling and probably wouldn’t have even considered calling a mental health line,” Julie added. “They invariably wish they’d done it sooner.”

Julie also chairs the Rural Counsellors Community of Practice, a forum where other Rural Counsellors from around NSW can support each other and get a sense of how each other’s projects are going. “Share the Care” is their philosophy.

“I love coming to work as a person of lived experience,” Julie concluded. “Having an opportunity to make a difference and be part of the Towards Zero Suicides initiative – that’s something very near and dear to me.

“Also, I learn so much from the clients I work with. It’s very rewarding to leave your job at the end of each day, knowing you’ve been able to make a difference in people’s lives. We hear that so often.”

Rural Counsellors have also commenced in the LHDs of:

  • Illawarra Shoalhaven - Nowra, Ulladulla
  • Nepean Blue Mountains
  • Northern NSW
  • Southern NSW - Cooma, Moruya

Enhancement to Rural Counselling is a NSW Heath Towards Zero Suicides initiative.

Current as at: Thursday 9 December 2021
Contact page owner: Mental Health Branch