Health services in Broken Hill say that an initiative combating loneliness is keeping people out of hospital - but are worried for its future.
A joint pilot program between Mission Australia and New South Wales health could be wound back as early as June without more funding, organisers warn.
'Connections' is an Australian-first partnership that provides free social programs for locals around Broken Hill, in far west New South Wales.
So far 95 people have signed up for a range of activities - these include lunches, visits to the art gallery, art lessons, poetry nights and even karaoke.
"Some people [from the program] are suffering with mental health issues," says Jenna Bottrell, manager of local mental health programs for Mission Australia, "but we've found that some people are just lonely."
The program started 18 months ago with a one-off funding grant from the NSW government. Now, organisers say without a longer term solution, the future of the program is under threat.
"We'll be able to run until June this year," Bottrell warns.
If we can't get long term funding by then we may have to look at decreasing the Connections program, which I think would be a shame.
'LONELINESS' APPEARING IN THE EMERGENCY WARD:
Several years ago Susan Daly, Director of mental health services for Broken Hill and surrounding areas, noticed that visits from an emergency department regular suddenly dropped off. They had recently reconnected with an old friend.
She wondered: how many of the patients were genuinely seeking treatment, and how many were just lonely?
"Loneliness is not a routine question that's asked at hospitals, so we have no data on how many people are isolated," says Susan.
Mission Australia also noticed that lonely people were falling through the cracks, partly due to the town's geographical isolation.
Connections now operates during times the hospital had been seeing spikes in presentations - at nights and on weekends.
"I FELT I'VE HAD NOTHING, I'VE HAD NO-ONE"
For 48-year-old Jason, a hospital visit not only helped him manage his bipolar disorder, but also his own growing feelings of isolation.
"When I was really lonely I'd go to the hospital and I would you know stay there for 6 weeks," he says.
Jason's divorce a decade ago sent him into a mental and emotional breakdown. He moved to Broken Hill from Adelaide for a fresh start, but instead found himself completely alone - sometimes spending a whole week alone at home.
Since joining Connections Jason's been at the hospital less... and is smiling more.
"To me these guys are family, and I love that about them."
Susan Daly says some Connections clients have dramatically cut down their time at the hospital, with the impact most clearly seen in the 5 most frequent users of the program.
After just 6 months of attending the program, they spend 65% less time at the hospital, and their presentations to the emergency department fell by 80%.
"It's not enough to prove that it cures loneliness, but I think it does show that when people are engaged in meaningful activity and connections with other people that it is really good for their own mental health," says Susan.
Facing uncertainty, Jason hopes Connections will find the funding it needs.
"If this service wasn't going we would all isolate again," says Jason. "Hopefully there is...a way to get funding out there to be able to run this, not only in Broken Hill but everywhere else."
2:38 AM: THE LONELIEST HOUR