cartoon of rural & isolated young people

Working with rural & geographically isolated young people

Overview of the needs & issues

There are many advantages to life in a rural area. These advantages may include a close-knit community, a slower and less stressed pace of life, more opportunity for family time, a feeling of increased safety, access to open spaces and nature, cheaper rent and property prices.

Around 70% of young people in rural areas say they are pleased or mostly satisfied with their quality of life. 1

Rural young people face many of the same issues as other young people. They also face a number of additional challenges.

Rural areas face a considerable lack of public transport. Transport that is available is often extremely limited in terms of routes travelled, running times, availability, affordability and accessibility.

In many areas the only public bus may be the local school bus which runs on weekdays and only twice a day. Nearby towns may have an adequate bus system but not outreach to rural areas. Rail services are often non-existent. Community transport buses (a government funded transport scheme for the frail aged and people with disabilities) generally do not provide transport for young people.

When public transport is available, concession fares for young people can be limited. Young people employed under junior rates of pay, trainees and apprentices, and young job seekers not receiving the maximum rate of the Youth Allowance are not eligible for any concession fare on private buses. 21

Rural areas are therefore very car-oriented with most essential services located some distance away. There is a higher level of multiple car ownership in rural families than their city counterparts.

Young people who do not have a licence and access to a car are heavily reliant on someone else, such as friends or family, for transport. 16, 18  

Alternative transport options are few and far between. The distances required to travel are often too great for walking or cycling, and taxis are often not readily available, or extremely expensive when they are.

Young people may resort to risky practices in order to meet their transport needs, such as hitchhiking, riding bikes on major roads, drink driving, or carrying too many passengers in a car. 14, 20, 22

Rural young people face a higher risk of motor vehicle accidents due to increased driving distances, and more dangerous driving conditions, such as lower grade roads. Country road accidents account for 60% of all motor vehicle accident deaths 19

Recreational opportunities, particularly at night, can be extremely limited and parents may be unwilling to transport their children long distances. For example, a family living in a geographically isolated area in the Hawkesbury or Blue Mountains area may need to drive over one hour each way to access night time recreational opportunities in Penrith.  

Young people who wish to access a service confidentially for issues such as sexual or mental health, face a great deal of difficulty because if they ask a friend or family member for a lift they may need to disclose where they are going and why.

Overall the lack of transport makes it very difficult for young people to access essential services and life opportunities.

Recreational opportunities
There are a lack of safe, supervised, affordable and accessible recreational opportunities for young people in rural areas. 14, 20, 22

Adults in rural communities usually have some options for night time recreational activities such as restaurants, the club, the pub or the movies. These options are usually closed to young people because of age restrictions, lack of transport or lack of finances.

Sport plays a major role in many communities, in particular young men's sport is celebrated and plays a significant role in community life. 8 However the high cost of participating in structured sport, often amounting to several hundreds of dollars per year, means that young people on low incomes miss out.

Recreational facilities such as bike tracks, skate parks and basketball courts are often unavailable in small communities.

Rural young people frequently cite 'somewhere to go' and 'something to do' as a priority need in their lives. 20

Surveillance and scrutiny
Due to a lack of recreational opportunities and services, young people in rural areas face constant surveillance and scrutiny from other members in the community.

In a nationwide survey of over 1000 young people in rural towns, the majority of young people reported that they felt under constant surveillance by other people in the community. This perception of surveillance was significantly stronger for young women than young men. 11

Young people frequently choose to 'hang out' with their friends in a town centre, main street or park where they are subjected to a large amount of scrutiny and reproach from other community members. Young people may then come into contact with police and be moved on, often to a more isolated and unsupervised area. 11, 22

As a result rural young people often have a negative public image, are branded as a problem, and face ongoing criticism in local media outlets. 5, 22

Lack of confidentiality
Lack of confidentiality is a major barrier for young people in small communities.

Young people are often concerned that they will be 'seen' and judged by others. This prevents many young people from accessing appropriate support and services, particularly from health, counselling and community services. 5, 8, 22

In smaller communities it is highly likely that young people will be seen by people they know everywhere they go. It can be difficult to access a GP for example, because others will see them entering or leaving the premises, and they will probably know other people in the waiting room or the receptionist or administration staff. Accessing contraception can be just as difficult, as young people will also be seen by others they know in a chemist or in the local supermarket where many of their peers work. Young people can fear that their behaviour will be reported to their parents. 5, 8, 11, 14, 22

In the nationwide study previously mentioned, half of the young women surveyed believed they could not see a doctor without everyone knowing. 11

Young people often prefer to travel to a larger town to ensure confidentiality.   Geographically isolated young people in the Hawkesbury or Blue Mountains area may travel to Penrith, Blacktown or the city to access services.

Young people who want to access a GP may not realise that they are eligible for their own Medicare card from the age of 15. Young people feel that they have to ask their parents to use the Medicare card and fear facing questions as to why they want to access a doctor. There are lower rates of bulk-billing services in rural areas so young people may be required to pay the full cost of accessing a GP upfront. 2, 5

Specialists and hospital services are very limited in rural areas making it difficult for young people and their families to access appropriate health care. 5

Many young people are reluctant to seek help for mental health issues. Young people may not want to admit that something is wrong, they may be fearful of the unknown, may not understand the nature of a mental illness or fear being labelled. These pressures mean that young people may not seek help as early as they should. 12

Gay and lesbian young people often face negative attitudes and discrimination from the local community. This can make it very difficult to access support services such as counselling, support groups and sexual health services. 5

Regional services
State and Commonwealth governments fund many services on a regional basis and expect that these services will effectively outreach to smaller communities across the region.

In the Nepean area, regional services are frequently located in the Penrith local government area. It can be extremely difficult for young people in the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains area to access these services.

Some of these regional services provide a level of outreach to the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains areas. However the level of service is rarely equivalent to that provided in the Penrith area. Services can also be infrequent, making it difficult for young people to know when they can access the service.

Regional outreach is usually to the major towns in each council area and smaller and geographically isolated areas do not receive any service.

Some services, particularly educational and employment assistance programs, are funded to cover a large region, however they may only accept referrals from the local area. Rural communities that seek funding for additional services are told that their area is already covered by these regional services.

Regional services experience difficulty in providing a service to young people in outlying areas due to limited resources, limited staffing, and not enough time to cover the long distances they are expected to travel to reach outlying areas.

Lack of knowledge about services
A major barrier for rural and regional young people is lack of information about available services. 12

Rural areas are usually not targeted in information campaigns and rural young people may not access the places that display service information within the main township, such as shops, street outreach, neighbourhood centres, library etc.

Limited services
In many rural and geographically isolated areas there are no youth services at all. Where such services exist they may only be funded for one or two days a week, making it difficult for young people to know when and where they can see the worker.

Youth services located in rural areas often face difficulty recruiting and retaining trained and professional staff. These staff frequently experience high workloads, a limited number of services to refer to, and a lack of opportunities to talk to other professionals about their experiences. Services, like the young people they work with, can face a high level of scrutiny and criticism from the general community. 3

Education and employment opportunities
The Year 12 retention rate is much lower in rural areas. Boys in rural areas have a retention rate of 54%, compared to 63% in capital cities. For girls the rate is 66%, compared to 74% for their city counterparts. 5

Young people face a higher unemployment rate. For example, young people living in geographically isolated areas in the Blue Mountains face a higher unemployment rate than young people living in the lower Blue Mountains. 3, 5

Young people in rural areas are more likely to combine paid and unpaid work with their school education, with 66.5% of 12 to 16 year olds being engaged in work, compared to 50.4% in metropolitan Sydney. Large numbers of these young people are involved with farm work. 7

Local educational opportunities may not be linked to local employment needs. For example, some rural towns which are tourist attractions have no opportunity to study hospitality or tourism. 22

Career opportunities that do exist may be extremely limited and reinforce traditional gender roles. 8, 18

Frequently young people in smaller towns move to regional or city centres after high school in order to access further education and employment. 3, 5

75-90% of young people intend to leave small towns. 1

Sense of independence
Rural families often have a strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency. In another nationwide survey of almost 1,800 young people, the desire for self-sufficiency was identified as the biggest barrier to seeking help. The survey identified that young people identified with an image of 'practical people who just get things done rather than talking about it.' Consequently rural young people may wait until a situation of crisis or desperation arises before seeking help. 12