MENTAL health and the misuse of drugs and alcohol are the top social justice concerns in the New England electorate, according to a new report published this week.
In a bid to shape conversation in the lead-up to the federal election, the Salvation Army has published its first National Social Justice Stocktake Report.
The research included a survey of more than 15,000 people, at a statewide and federal electorate level, on what they believe are the most pressing social justice issues, and what can be done to address them.
In the New England, mental health and drug and alcohol misuse ranked equally as the top concern for respondents at 57.8 per cent.
This was followed by housing affordability at 44.1 per cent, family violence at 37.3 per cent and homelessness at 26.5 per cent.
Centacare New England North West executive manager Josie Hofman said staff at the local support agency are acutely aware of the prominence of all five issues locally, and they're all interconnected.
"Price of living has become very unaffordable for clients who are already within that lower socio economic bracket, are already a very vulnerable client group and are at greater risk of developing mental health issues," she said.
"They are already the same population group that tend to have issues with drug and alcohol use amongst other comorbidities.
"We have been dealing with a very difficult time in the past 12 months. In addition to that, COVID has had significant impacts on people's mental health and functioning, and that's been very evident within the New England North West."
While the electorate's mental health figures are consistent with national responses, alcohol and drug misuse ranked significantly higher in the New England.
"What we know as professionals in this area is that mental health issues are often co-occurring with drug and alcohol issues," Ms Hofman said. The report listed housing affordability as another key concern, and estimated there to be as many as 700 people experiencing homelessness and a shortfall of 3600 social housing properties in the electorate.
Tamworth Family Support Service's (TFSS) Natasha Allan said housing affordability is one of the biggest issues impacting local clients right now.
"We're definitely noticing a massive struggle with it at the moment, and an increase," she said.
"At TFSS we've got specialist housing teams for adults and youth and at the moment we're noticing that some of our programs are picking up the overflow from them because we are having so many families come through needing support."
While TFSS runs a women's and children's refuge, these facilities regularly operate at capacity, so the service links clients with agencies like Homes North and helps them break into the local real estate market.
Ms Allan said the rising cost of living is also having a huge impact locally, with clients struggling to cope with the cost of day-to-day living, something that's been prominent throughout the pandemic.
"I think everyone is just struggling at the moment which has kept us constantly busy," she said.
With family violence also listed as a major concern for respondents, the report attributed this to COVID-19 and responses to the pandemic, which have increased both the frequency and severity of family violence.
"One of the themes that came through the comments from respondents in New England and across Australia was a sense of disempowerment.
"There was a strong sense that these issues need to be addressed, but a certain hopelessness about how that could happen."
With the federal election nearly upon us, professionals like Ms Hofman would like to see more funding directed to early intervention programs to tackle mental health.
"We are aware that we have funding going towards our Headspace programs which is absolutely essential, and very much in line with early intervention and providing support to our young people who are our future," she said.
"But I would of course like to see mental health programs and services expand including drug and alcohol services, for example increase in support provided in counselling and psychosocial services."
The establishment of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre in Tamworth is also essential, she said.
"This is very absent and very necessary because we are the hub of the New England area and to not have a service like that, and for clients to have to travel to Armidale or to Newcastle, isn't appropriate."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.