I recently read a comment from an Australian farmer who said he found droughts to be “a little like cancer, it sort of eats away at you”.
It’s a description that goes to the heart of this “slow burn” emergency, which eats away not just at our landscape, livestock and food production capacity, but at those who have to endure it up close and very personal.
Our new Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared the current drought across south-eastern Australia his top priority, “our most urgent and pressing need right now”.
It is a huge need that goes way beyond financial support for transporting stock or getting access to feed.
Not surprisingly, it’s the enduring effects of natural disasters on mental health that worries organisations like Mental Health Victoria, as climate change tells us to expect more droughts, as well as more frequent and intense bushfires and floods.
As the National Farmers Federation said recently, farmers and their families are confronted with many stressors which may place strain on their mental health.
We know they also impact others living in areas that depend on farming for their livelihood – the farm workers who are laid off, the local businesses that supply farms or rely on a flourishing local economy.
It’s the enduring effects of natural disasters on mental health that worries organisations like Mental Health Victoria.
As well as natural disasters, these stressors include general financial insecurity and vulnerability from changing economic conditions. The social isolation in small communities that may discourage people from seeking help for mental illness. A high incidence of injury in the agricultural industry which can lead to disability and untreated pain. And, of course, stoic attitudes in the bush that might stop people from admitting they need help. All of this is compounded by much lower levels of access to specialist health care.
As the NFF says, when specific clinical mental health services are provided in rural and remote Australia, they are often done so by NGOs, volunteers and community groups. “Professional clinicians are very rare in most rural and regional areas, and when they do exist, they are often overwhelmed by the demand for their services,” it said in a recent submission to the Senate inquiry into accessibility and quality of mental health services in rural and remote Australia.
What that means on the ground, in everyday rural lives, is that mental illness is not often not diagnosed early, therefore not treated and escalates to suicide at a much higher rate than in urban areas. These are issues that need to be high on the agenda in the upcoming state and federal elections.
Some important insights into the impact of drought in particular were published recently in the Medical Journal of Australia by University of Newcastle researchers.
They have dug into data from the Australian Rural Mental Health Study and rainfall conditions in the months before farmers completed the survey, allowing comparisons between farmers’ mental health under different climate conditions.
They found that a range of social, demographic and community factors influenced the personal impact of drought for farmers. Isolation played a big role, with farmers in outer regional and remote regions experiencing higher levels of concerns.
Unsurprisingly financial hardship was also important, but age also proved to matter, with farmers under the age of 35 experiencing higher personal drought-related stress.
The lessons from this work and that of mental health organisations working on the ground in rural and regional Australia is that we need to better understand and prepare for these impacts, because in Australia drought is something we can expect but are so often still surprised by.
This will involve a whole of community approach – as the research pointed out, GPs will be key to the best mental health care for drought-affected communities. Other trusted people, such as rural financial counsellors and vets, will also play important first responder roles. It is vital all health services, and other crucial non-medical rural professionals, are given the resources and training they need to be able to identify and address the effects of drought-related stress.
And we need to work harder in rural and regional areas to reduce stigma about mental health problems so that those who are hurting feel all right about seeking support, and that those around them are alert to that.
It is time for us to act on this “cancer” in our midst.
Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria.