Virtual Psychologist providing free text-based counselling services to rural areas

HELP IS NEAR: Virtual Psychologist founder and CEO Dervla Loughnane says help is a simple text message away. Photo: CONTRIBUTED
HELP IS NEAR: Virtual Psychologist founder and CEO Dervla Loughnane says help is a simple text message away. Photo: CONTRIBUTED

People in rural and remote areas now have access to mental health counselling via a simple text.

Virtual Psychologist is Australia's first text counselling service delivered by mental health professionals to people in rural and remote settings, irrespective of their mobile carrier.

Founder and CEO of Virtual Psychologist, Dervla Loughnane said she developed the service for people who may find phone and face-to-face services either confronting, embarrassing, inconvenient or not available.

"Two years ago I got called in to attend a suicide of a young man," she said.

"Next to him was his mobile phone, and with the help of police we checked his phone records he made no attempt to call out for help.

"I asked myself what was so confronting that this boy never reached out for help, and I wanted to know could a simple text message helped save his life."

While developing the platform, Ms Loughnane was accepted into the Optus Future Makers program who provided coaching and funding to build the global IT platform, which allowed her to deliver mental health services via text to the nation.

Ms Loughnane, who has been a psychologist for 20 years, has been touring the region, with Optus as part of a roadshow to promote the service, which is free for those who live in rural and remote areas.

On Wednesday she was in Narromine.

The number to text is: 0488 807 266

Virtual Psychologist CEO and founder, Dervla Loughnane

"We just feel that [people out here] have really been hit by drought for such a long period of time, and a lot of people are just weary," she said.

"The stigma out here is so great, that some people are scared to be seen outside of a doctors surgery or outside the psychologists office, so this allows people to get support without having to actually go somewhere."

Data collected by the service over the last three years has found 62 per cent of those from rural and remote communities who access the program say they would never have picked up the phone or seen anyone face-to-face if text counselling had not been available.

Virtual Psychologist has 12 medical practitioners who work around the clock. Ms Loughnane said once a person connects with a health practitioner, they stay with the same client to help develop a relationship.

"It's the same as seeing a psychologist for an hour, in real time you sit there and text for one hour to your psychologist back and forth, and we average about 72 text message exchanges within that hour," she said.

While some people may seemskeptical to the idea of virtual therapy, MsLoughnane said in her experience people reveal more over text than in person.

"People tell me more, and say it quicker," she said.

"If someone was going to take their life it would take 20-30 minutes for them to say that, but if they text it it's within the first five minutes."

Ms Loughnane said to use the service people should text 0488 807 266, and it could be as simple as saying "hi".

"We all get our car serviced so that it doesn't fall apart, so why as humans do we wait for our mental health to fall apart before we get ourselves serviced," she said.

"Just when you start to feel like you're falling below the line, maybe you're not sleeping well, not eating well, maybe your mood is low, your energy is low, maybe you've got poor focus and concentration.

"Any of those things, those tell tale signs that's when you should just send a message."

The Virtual Psychologist CEO said that she is not discouraging people from using phone or face-to-face services such as Lifeline, this is simply another option for those to seek help.

"I say to people, don't do it alone, don't be so hard on yourself, the help is out there," she said.

For more information people can visit: www.virtualpsychologist.com.au