Investment in country sporting organisations and infrastructure to encourage participation can be a powerful tool to help communities with their mental health focus.
Given the many challenges facing people living in rural farming communities, the time has perhaps never been more ripe for extra effort and funds to be dedicated to this area.
Acknowledging the significance of participation in sport and recreational activities in the regions and the flow-on benefits for mental health in these communities, the Western Australian Local Government Association (WALGA) recently advocated for the State government's Community Sporting and Recreation Facilities Fund (CSRFF) to be increased from $12.5 million per year to $25m.
Despite not quite reaching its target, with the State government announcing last April that the funding bucket would instead be increased to $20m per year, WALGA president Karen Chappel said the group would continue to advocate for the CSRFF to not only remain, but for the fund to continually be increased.
"Sporting infrastructure is one of the greatest tools that you can offer to keep the spirit of a community alive and to assist in any mental health crisis that is taking place, so this is a critical funding bucket for regional communities across the State," Ms Chappel said.
Through CSRFF, local governments partner with the State government and sporting clubs to establish or rebuild new sporting infrastructure, with the project costs typically split into thirds.
To receive funding, sporting clubs are required to develop a plan and get costings for their desired infrastructure in partnership with their local shire.
"When you apply to the local government for those funds, you apply about 12 months out from when it actually takes place, so the sporting clubs need to have their own third of funds ready as well," Ms Chappel said.
"It tends to be a very planned process, as there is generally a lot of fundraising the sporting clubs need to undertake to raise their component of the funds for a project, and the local government also needs to have that project built into their own long-term funding plans."
CSRFF guidelines also highlight the opportunity for sporting clubs and their respective local governments to have the government's funding share increased to 50 per cent for bigger projects.
Despite the CSRFF being well-subscribed, Ms Chappel, who is also Shire of Morawa president, said it had become increasingly challenging for regional and rural local governments to source enough funding to get some of their larger sporting infrastructure projects off the ground, due to a rapid rise in costs since the pandemic, in combination with their smaller rates bases.
"In recent years the cost of a swimming pool replacement, for example, has blown out of the water," Ms Chappel said.
"I can remember when we upgraded our swimming pool in Morawa and it cost about $2m, but I've heard more recently the cost for some pools being upgraded is up to $8m... that type of infrastructure improvement is becoming exorbitant and beyond the reach of any local government."
WA Sport and Recreation Minister David Templeman said the CSRFF, in combination with the government's Club Night Lights Program (CNLP), which provides financial assistance to community groups and local governments to develop sports floodlighting infrastructure, had distributed $38.3m to 261 projects in regional WA over the past five years.
He said government funding had also increased for the Regional Athlete Support Program and highlighted other sporting initiatives in the regions supported by the State, including Active Farmers, which is an active recreation program within farming communities throughout the Great Southern and Wheatbelt regions as well as the Inclusive Participation Program funding.
"For the Inclusive Participation Program funding, 18 projects were funded in 2022-23 and 15 of these projects had elements that saw delivery in regional WA," Mr Templeman said.
"Total investment through this project was $4.2m over three years."
Despite stating he had no specific data available to highlight the return on investment of these projects for regional mental health, Mr Templeman said sport and recreation was scientifically proven to improve physical and mental health, and programs such as Active Farmers had been designed to improve mental health.
A spokesperson for WA's Mental Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said through the Mental Health Commission, the State had funded SportWest to develop a range of mental health and wellbeing resources to support WA State sporting associations to respond to mental health and wellbeing issues and build on sport's preventative and protective benefits.
"The State government also works with Healthway to fund organisations working to strengthen mental health and wellbeing and encourage participation in sport in regional communities across the State," the spokesperson said.
"For example, our partnership with the WA Country Football League is building the mental health and wellbeing of regional communities by creating supportive clubs and enhancing club access to relevant information, education and training.
"Activities like the Think Mental Health Round and Talk to a Mate barbecues are also great ways to support social connections, promote the Think Mental Health campaign and open up conversations around how to look after your mental health and wellbeing and how to seek support."
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