The bushfires are of great concern to all of us. Some of the fire zones have been fortunate to receive some recent rain. But much of rural Australia is still ravaged by drought. And it’s taking a devastating toll on the mental health of Australia’s farming communities, some of whom have been almost continuously parched since the turn of the century.
As farmers watch their animals die; their crops wither; and their debts mount; the strain is showing on individuals and families.
Right now New South Wales is almost entirely affected by drought, and large areas of the state’s north and southern Queensland are in intense drought.
On struggling farms, more families are now splitting up for financial reasons, says Tessa Caton, a program manager with the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program.
“Often the father has to leave and find off-farm income, which may be interstate, while the mother stays behind to look after the children,’’ says Tessa. “They then have to manage the farm, which places increasing demands on them.’’
RAMHP was set up in 2007 to address drought-related mental health needs among farmers during the Millennium Drought. While that natural disaster officially ended in 2009, for some parts of the country the rains never really returned.
For others, the cruel re-emergence of dry conditions in 2017 has been a difficult shock to bear.
“A lot of places had good rains in 2016, and farmers were just gearing up to increase production again the next year,’’ says Tessa. “So to then fall back into drought again, you can imagine the impact that has.’’
A strain on mental health
Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are the most common reason for Australians living anywhere to seek medical attention. But in the bush, where help is so much harder to find, the problem is particularly acute.
As a result, suicide rates are much higher in Australia’s rural areas than in the big cities, and almost double in very remote rural areas.
“Whenever we meet with farmers in difficulty we go back to the basics and really try and encourage people to stay socially connected, be it with their family, their neighbours or their community,’’ says Tessa.
As the farmers suffer, so do the rural communities around them. Tessa says RAHMP’s on-the-ground coordinators are increasingly being called on to assist rural businesses feeling the effects of the drought.
“For example, our coordinator who covers Casino (in northern NSW) is working with the meat processors based there whose business is now starting to be impacted by low stock numbers. We are helping to make sure their employees are supported.’’
The endless procession of heart-breaking stories eventually begins to affect those people working on the frontline supporting rural communities.
“The vets, the (Department of Primary Industries officers, financial counsellors, the accountants: these people are constantly having challenging conversations with people who are going through really, really difficult situations. And it’s having an impact on their own wellbeing,’’ says Tessa.
Tessa says it’s important for urban Australians to understand that even if it rains tomorrow, shattered rural communities will take many years to get back on their feet.
“So even when the rains do return, it’ll be another three years, four years or more before these communities actually recover. We really need to be thinking and planning long term in terms of how we support our communities.”