24 per cent of Mitchell shire residents are smokers – above the Victorian average of 17 per cent.

A new health and wellbeing plan by Mitchell Shire Council has identified low nutrition, high tobacco and alcohol consumption, and climate change as some of the municipality’s greatest challenges for the next four years.

At last week’s council meeting, Mitchell Shire councillors voted unanimously to endorse the Health and Wellbeing Plan 2021-2025, which was designed using gathered data as well as feedback from consultation with residents and community health organisations in April and May.

Organisations who submitted feedback to the plan include Goranwarrabul House, Mitchell Multicultural Community Association Incorporated, and the Youth Advisory Network.

Under four key goals and strategies in the plan – active and healthy; informed and connected; safe and respectful; and liveable and thriving – respondents online and at community consultation sessions highlighted gaps in access to healthcare services, healthy food and exercise infrastructure.

Active and healthy

A Mitchell Shire report found that 4.8 per cent of the Mitchell population consumed the daily recommended intake of fruit and vegetables, and 62.7 per cent were considered overweight or obese, while 61 per cent of residents were interested in improving their dietary habits.

“Seymour does not have a green grocer. My experience is that the big corporations have pushed everyone who has tried out,” one respondent wrote.

“Our public institutions, schools, events shopping centres, fuel stops should all be rewarded for offering sugar-free, vegetable-leaning offerings and removing heavily processed foods,” wrote another.

Drug related offences in the municipality also increased in the past financial year, while 67 per cent of residents consume alcohol at a rate that risks harm, and 24 per cent are smokers – above the Victorian average of 17 per cent.

For residents who increased their alcohol or tobacco consumption in the past financial year, 42 per cent said it was due to anxiety, stress or boredom associated with COVID-19 lockdowns.

In the plan, council committed to working to promote healthy eating and reduce barriers to accessing nutritious, low-cost food; improving walkability between townships; and supporting access to alcohol, tobacco and drug assistance services, among another other initiatives.

Informed and connected

Council will work to improve access to health services and advocate from the expansion of mental health services after data and community consultation revealed barriers to access in the shire.

Respondents reported waiting up to eight weeks to book doctor’s appointments in the past 12 months, and an acute shortage of allied health professionals, emergency department doctors and mental health professionals.

Mitchell Shire residents have some of the poorest mental health in the state, with 46.5 per cent of residents reporting they feel valued by society.

A total of 14.8 per cent report high or very high psychological distress, higher than the state average, while many residents aged 12 to 25 report feelings of loneliness.

Safe and respectful

Over the next four years, council will work to make its services more gender inclusive; deliver education and awareness of sexual and reproductive health; and advocate for more locally based family violence services in response to inequality within the sector.

Mitchell Shire is ranked seventh out of 79 Victorian councils for police callouts for family violence incident, increasing 5.7 per cent between March 2020 and March 2021.

Women in the shire also reported barriers to reproductive health services and a lack of empathy and understanding from healthcare professionals, while LGBTQIA+ women, and women with a disability, are twice as likely to experience discrimination in healthcare.

Liveable and thriving

Council has reported climate change as the biggest threat to liveability in the area as the peri-urban parts of the shire grow.

The health impacts of climate change in the shire include worsening air quality, changes in the spread of infectious diseases, risks to food safety and access to drinking water, and significant mental health impacts like PTSD, anxiety and depression.

Cases of persistent PTSD in Mitchell residents more than doubled in the four years after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

Council plans to deliver more awareness raising activities to help people plan and stay safe during extreme weather events. It will also build awareness and education around the health impacts of climate change, as well as incorporate Environmentally Sustainable Design (ESD) principles into all council planning.

An action plan will be developed from the Health and Wellbeing Plan 2021-25 that will include specific actions, responsibilities, timeframes and resources, and will be evaluated annually.

At the meeting, Cr Fiona Stevens said while the in-person and stakeholder consultation had been extensive and successful, the ‘sad part’ was the lack on online or written submissions.

“I really say to the broader community, keep an eye on what we’re doing because we would absolutely love your input, and if you don’t fit in the areas we’re targeting that doesn’t exclude you from having input,” she said.

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