Large-scale study of mental health in rural areas under way

Published 08 November 2012

headA large-scale biological, medical and social study of mental health in rural and regional Australia has just begun at the University of New England.

The study is being conducted through the Collaborative Research Network (CRN) for Mental Health and Well-being in Rural and Regional Communities, funded with the help of a $4.8 million grant from the Australian Government and launched at UNE earlier this year.

Known as ROMHAR (“Rural Outreach Mental Health and Resilience”), the interdisciplinary study will collect data on a wide range of variable factors associated with mental health in the general community.

The project leaders, Professor Chris Sharpley and Associate Professor Myfanwy Maple, said that the incidence of depression and suicide was higher in rural than in urban communities, highlighting the importance of this kind of research.

The UNE researchers will ask voluntary participants in the project to answer a detailed questionnaire, and to donate samples of saliva and blood for laboratory analysis. “We’ll be trying to identify molecules that might be reliable indicators of depression,” said Dr Linda Agnew, a cellular immunologist working at UNE. “This will enable us to test several current hypotheses linking genetic, immunological and endocrinal data with some of the medical, psychological and social factors involved in mental illness.”

The researchers need to collect information from people who are very healthy through to those who have experienced mental health difficulties. “Therefore, anyone in the community who is over 18 years of age is welcome to participate,” Dr Maple said. “It is particularly important that we include people with good mental health as well as those who have had difficulties.”

The project is being launched in New England, but there are plans to extend it to rural sites in Victoria,
Queensland and Western Australia.

The Government funding has enabled the recruitment of a number of researchers and the purchase of new equipment at UNE, and the development of collaborative links with other universities. Professor Sharpley said that the multidisciplinary nature of the data to be collected would make the ROMHAR study unique in Australia.

People interested in participating, or in obtaining more information on the study, can contact the Project Administrator, Kerri Fitzpatrick, on (02) 6773 3700 and leave a message, or e-mail ROMHAR@une.edu.au.