Picturesque but not perfect: Rural towns facing wellbeing hurdles

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Growing up in north-east Victoria’s picturesque Towong Shire has its benefits — just ask some of the local school students.

A brimming lake at their doorstep, a thriving country sports scene, and learning in a close-knit community are just a few.

“We are so much closer together because it’s a small school, everyone knows each other, we can always ask for help,” Tallangatta Secondary College student, Liam Brookes, says.

It’s almost picture-perfect, but behind the lush pastures and rolling mountains that tree changers are seeking out amid the pandemic, Towong faces health and wellbeing hurdles.

Bethanga Bridge and Hume DamBethanga Bridge and Hume Dam
The Hume Dam is a feature of the Towong Local Government Area. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Gaye Pattison)

According to the latest Towong Shire Health and Wellbeing Plan, 30 per cent of residents have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, 58 per cent are obese, 27 per cent of family households are not working, and 33 per cent have a household income less than $650 a week.

Some figures like 71 per cent of residents being at an increased risk of alcohol-related harm shock the students.

“I feel like that’s a really big number,” student Leon Furze says.

Man looks over a young crop.Man looks over a young crop.
Rural communities may be postcard pretty, but many have health and wellbeing hurdles that aren’t evident to those looking for a tree change.(ABC: Chris Lewis)

Retaining and growing the future

Towong has a projected population growth of just 0.2 per cent by 2036.

Many young people who have grown up cradled by rolling hills on properties that have been in their families for generations will likely leave to pursue further education, which would make them among the 14 per cent of Towong residents who have a diploma qualification or higher — less than half the Victorian average.

But despite Towong’s challenges, the students don’t rule out returning home.

“When I finish Year 12, I would like to go to uni and get a degree, but then I would always want to come back, too,” Tayla Ellis says.

A double rainbow over a picturesque country landscape.A double rainbow over a picturesque country landscape.
Rainbows create a pretty picture over the Upper Murray River at Towong in Victoria.(Audience submitted: Ron Vise)

The students say a few small little changes could help lure them home after studying.

For Tayla, it’s footpaths, skate parks and picnic areas, and for Leon, better public transport.

Liam worries about the poor internet connection and its potential professional hindrance. 

“Even homeschooling, even at my house, I don’t have the best internet, so that could make when you are doing your Webex calls quite difficult,” he says.

Data also shows 30 per cent of residents don’t have internet access at home.

Mental health is also a huge focus in the community that’s clawing back from bushfires and a pandemic.

Students walk down a hallway with RU Ok Day banners strung above them. Students walk down a hallway with RU Ok Day banners strung above them.
Tallangatta students say rural youth are happier to speak freely about their mental health than previous generations.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

“I definitely think that people are starting to open up a lot more about their issues because we do have a lot of activities at our school like RU OK? Day, so it has been normalised for kids our age,” Tayla says.

Small services, big demands

The plan’s a snapshot of the juggle Towong’s multi-purpose health services performs daily to meet local needs with limited funding and resources.

Corryong Health’s chief executive Dominic Sandilands says the plan is a good start to address the issues facing rural communities.

A Federals footballer stands on a football field on his own waiting for the play to come.A Federals footballer stands on a football field on his own waiting for the play to come.
Sport plays a major role in boosting health and wellbeing in places like Corryong. (ABC News: Marc Eiden)

“The question that we always need to ask ourselves is who is not accessing services … geographical remoteness is our big challenge,” he says.

When the funding flows, addressing social, wellbeing and health problems and attracting staff is easier, but the cash isn’t always available.

“Short-term contracts mean you can provide certainty to a mental health professional for that period of time, and then after the contract finished it can get pretty tight, and everybody wants certainty in their life, and so we can easily lose mental health professionals because we don’t have funding certainty.

Brighter days ahead

Towong Mayor David Wortmann wants to see recurrent state and federal funding to help improve the health and wellbeing of his community and support decentralisation.

A man sits on a park bench and smiles at the camera. A man sits on a park bench and smiles at the camera.
David Wortmann says he can see his shire’s population growing in the future as more people look to escape metropolitan life. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Erin Somerville)

He also supports a move away competitive grant funding, which he said disadvantages smaller councils.

“There are people from Melbourne and Sydney looking for seachange and they’re coming to our shire, and we welcome them with open arms,” he says.

“We’d love our population to grow, but then they require services, and that’s where we need to lobby our federal and state governments.”

Despite Towong’s hurdles, he’s optimistic about its future.

Crowds of people, many with cowboy hats, look on at an arenaCrowds of people, many with cowboy hats, look on at an arena
Towong hosts the Man from Snowy River festival in Corryong. (ABC Goulburn Murray: Greg Ryan )

The Great River Road project is being developed to lure in tourists, renewable energy and resilience projects are springing up after the bushfires, and planning amendments are being put in place to attract development.

“People are genuinely looking outside of the capital cities to live, and the land sales in our shire are booming, and we can see families moving to our shire.

“I can see our population growing.”