VirtualPsychologist providing rural people with free counselling support through text message

SAVING LIVES: VirtualPsychologist founder, CEO and senior psychologist Dervla Loughnane.
SAVING LIVES: VirtualPsychologist founder, CEO and senior psychologist Dervla Loughnane.

As the drought continues to take its toll on regional communities, one innovative Aussie start-up is doing its bit to save lives by encouraging rural people to reach out for help through a simple text message.

VirtualPsychologist is Australia's first text counselling service, which provides free 24/7 support to anyone living in rural and remote areas.

What makes the service unique is that people can get help at their fingertips immediately, through text SMS, Facebook messenger, Twitter or WhatsApp, eliminating many of the hurdles people, particularly those living in rural areas, face when trying to access support.

"I've been a psychologist for 20 years, and more and more people are struggling to engage with psychologists over the phone or face-to-face," VirtualPsychologist founder, CEO and senior psychologist Dervla Loughnane said.

"Unless we change the way we engage with people, we're going to miss a whole generation. We have to change."

In 2016, Ms Loughnane was working as a psychologist in government mental health services and was called to a scene where a young man had taken his own life.

"We checked his mobile phone and saw he didn't reach out for help," she said.

"I wondered, would a text message have saved his life? So, I went home that very day and quit my job and started VirtualPsychologist. Something had to be done to prevent this from happening to others.

"I thought if we can save just one life, then it's worth it."

VirtualPsychologist started out with Ms Loughnane and her mobile phone, but through government grants and award wins, it has since expanded to eight qualified psychologists on call 24/7, with a triage manager, operations manager, trainer, counsellor, and access to 250 contractors.

The concept has proven to work and lives are being saved - just last week Ms Loughnane was involved in an active suicide rescue.

"Even last Saturday, I had a 27-year-old male, who had a four-year-old daughter, who sent a text to say he'd [attempted suicide] and had written a suicide note," she said.

"We liaised with him until the police and ambulance arrived and followed up with him the next day."

Ms Loughnane said text is proving to be an easier way for people to reach out, particularly for men and young people, with a survey showing 61 per cent of people living in rural and remote locations wouldn't have used the service without the option to text.

"It's non-confronting, it's less embarrassing," she said.

"The speed is a lot slower, it's like journalling, people have to write down their thoughts and think 'what is my issue?'.

"People say they felt like they had more control over it.

"I've also had people say that the fact that the whole session was through text provided them the opportunity to go back and read those comments and reflect and realise 'I do have a problem and I do need to seek help'. The whole conversation is on your phone, and any links we send, it's all there. The number is also always on your phone."

For men in particular, many of whom don't like to talk about their feelings or admit they need help, Ms Loughnane said texting is totally discreet and non-confrontational.

"There's such a stigma of men reaching out for help, even more so in rural and regional communities," she said.

"There's this attitude of 'pull your socks up, harden up'. Through text, no-one will see them reach out, no-one will judge.

"I've had a few men now saying 'I'm crying at the moment, I'm glad you can't hear me crying'."

For those living in rural and regional communities, the anonymity of texting, and the fact that the service is available 24/7, makes VirtualPsychologist a more appealing option than having to go and see a GP for a referral, long waiting lists to see a psychologist in town and the thought of having to talk face-to-face with someone local.

"People say 'if I park outside a psychologist, everyone's going to know. There's a big stigma in small communities," she said.

"We're 24/7 so if you need help, we're available now. There's no waiting; when you need us, we're here."

Ms Loughnane's biggest message to people suffering is to reach out before the situation reaches crisis level.

"Don't wait for breaking point, reach out before the wheels fall off," she said.

"We're not just there for a crisis, we're there for the little things, so if you've got money or relationship problems or maybe you're just not feeling great that day, just reach out and say hi."

If you need someone to talk to, simply text 0488 807 266 at any time to connect with a qualified psychologist. Alternatively, visit www.virtualpsychologist.com.au for links to their Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp accounts, or for more information.