Staff Highlight with Joe Hooper  – Joe is our incredibly dedicated CEO here at Rural and Remote Mental Health. His passion to help those living in rural and remote areas across Australia and to create equity in mental health care is evident in his advocacy, career history and knowledge of the issues faced in these communities. We wanted you to get to know Joe a bit more, so he sat down with us to dive deeper into who he is and what his goals are as a CEO for RRMH.

Can you tell us a bit about your role with RRMH and how long you’ve been with the organisation?

I joined as Chief Executive of RRMH in early March 2020 which was just when the Covid pandemic locked down travel and most of our program operations, so an interesting time. I see my role in three parts. Promoting the vision and work of RRMH; leading the organisation and supporting our great staff as best I can to make RRMH become a leader in our sector and lastly, contributing to the rural voice by advocating for better mental health services and access to care for those who live and work in rural and remote Australia.

What was your path before RRMH? Has the mental health sector always been a part of your journey in some way?

I studied general nursing and was intending a career in Intensive Care or Emergency but then I did a psychiatric placement and fell in love with the area. After completing further training in Adelaide I worked in several roles in acute mental health, forensic health and some community work. I had a special interest in acute mental health and in particular eating disorders. I worked for a while in the private sector in Brisbane establishing a new hospital which was a good learning curve. When I returned to Adelaide, I had various roles which took me down different paths but always involved in health in some way. Clinical Risk Management, Registrar of the Medical Board of SA, CEO of the Australian Medical Association of SA and, CEO of a medical education charity. I enjoyed and learnt a great deal from all these roles and that’s what I am wanting to bring to my current role.

Mental Illness has played a big part in most people’s lives, what does it mean to you?

Mental Illness affects people across all cultures and all social levels. It doesn’t matter where you are in society, you are not immune. Most of us either know someone or have ourselves had thoughts and feelings we find hard to manage. At a personal level, I lost a son to suicide in 2018. He was very smart and very caring but found it hard to connect and find peace in himself. He died in a rural town following a relationship breakup. He had conquered so much and achieved a lot including working as a social worker helping the homeless and lost in the region. Naturally this has had a big impact on all my family and for me, I decided that I want to return to work in this area and devote the rest of my career to helping those who are feeling alone or depressed or just wanting to reach out. I know that RRMH programs can help, and they reach across a broad spectrum of society with our rural, resource and indigenous programs.

That’s what attracts me to this role and what I want to do every day, make a difference that might save another person from taking that final act. So, there you are, that’s my lived experience that I am happy to share. We need to get rid of the stigma, open up honest conversations and help each other. To do this we need confidence to share, confidence to raise the issue of mental health and talk with those who may need help and build supports for when we need them. If my story helps others share theirs, well, that’s good isn’t it?

How do you practice self-care and ensure that you are always checking in on your own mental health?

I am lucky to have a wonderful and supporting wife who is always there for me to share my feelings with and a loving family, so I am blessed in that way as I appreciate not everybody has that. I enjoy music, I like to take road trips and enjoy nature, photography, my dogs and the company of good friends so nothing extraordinary but as I have got older and wiser, I see the truth in finding that the work life balance I heard so much about and ignored when I was younger is good advice.

What are your ties to remote Australia, and why did you choose to be an advocate for those living in these areas?

Being from the UK I can’t claim to be a rural son. But I have travelled across most states and territories. Through my career I have visited and talked with many rural GPs, specialists and other health workers and seen the stress and challenges facing smaller towns. My wife is a renal dialysis nurse and has travelled in the dialysis bus treating our indigenous folk in remote parts of South Australia and has shared her love for that work. I have been involved in the discussions around medical workforce in the bush and only yesterday saw a story how the Angel Flight service was told it could not land in Mallacoota using instruments due to new standards developed in the city. How can a town with 10,000 in tourist season manage that?

I remember one GP telling me how his training involved how to light hurricane lamps and set up a landing strip for the RFDS. Imagine that.

I just admire those who provide care in rural and remote Australia with limited support themselves. I have seen the lack of resources and access rural communities experience compared to what exists in the larger regions and major cities. We should ensure every Australian, no matter where they live, have access to early intervention and care for their mental health and their physical health.

How do you feel that rural and remote areas are neglected in terms of support and professional help?

Medical workforce is the biggest issue. We don’t have a lack of Psychiatrists in this country, we have a maldistribution of Psychiatrists. This is true across all health professional groups. It’s hard to attract a medical workforce away from the cities. Considerations like housing, career development and peer support, children’s schooling, career opportunities and further professional education all play a part. I have been involved in programs trying to incentivise the doctors and nurses and others, but this usually involves increased financial return, but there is much more than money that is needed.

Telemedicine is a big help, but it is not a panacea solution, and nothing beats a face-to-face clinical meeting, whether physical or mental issues are being assessed. We need to not lose sight of this.

Covid was a big eye opener. With border restrictions and flights closing down, how does a pregnant woman living remotely receive her obstetric care which includes a physical exam if the Obstetrician can’t fly in? How can a person with a positive bowel blood test, one of our biggest causes of death, get into hospital for a colonoscopy in a proper timeframe. Imagine the stress these things have on a person living remotely. I know it happens in the big cities as well, but it is harder when this uncertainty is compounded by isolation and the issues that brings on top of the medical issue itself. This is when rural communities feel they are left behind or forgotten and we need to make sure politicians and large state-run government services have more understanding and empathy for those living and travelling from rural and more remote areas to services.

You are clearly passionate about being a voice for those who aren’t always heard?

Yes, I am a supporter of the underdog. When I worked in liaison psychiatry, I saw how staff misunderstood patients who presented with genuine physical problems and sometimes passed them off as having imagined symptoms. I remember talking with a senior nurse in an ED department one day letting her know that just because someone has a mental illness, doesn’t mean they can’t have chest pain and a cardiac event!

How important are sponsorships and partnerships to RRMH? And how can we work towards a common goal with other organisations?

Public support, corporate sponsors and grants is how we survive. As a charity with a large community need and a small financial base, we are very careful to make use of every dollar we receive. It’s hard as there are so many charities all doing good work. So, there is a big need and only so much people can donate. We need corporations to invest through their corporate social impact ethos and be responsible corporate citizens, returning profits in part back into community. Many do this of course, and we are so grateful we have received the support of Newscorp, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, and some smaller donations but this will be time limited funding, so we are always looking for more funds to sustain what we do. It’s hard but what else are we to do.