State of mind - The hidden dilemma of a once in a generation drought

By Rhys Williams

As a once in a generation drought, economic hardship and isolation take their toll on rural and remote communities, providing mental health support for farmers has never been more pertinent.

Suicide rates – particularly of men – in rural and remote areas of Australia are significantly higher than the national average, and very remote regions have suicide rates more than double that of major capital cities. 

Additionally, while national suicide rates have declined (since a peak in 1997), rates among Australia’s remote communities is increasing, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics.

Senior Manager of Mental Health at Murrumbidgee Primary Health Network (MPHN), Anita McRae, said that MPHN has been working hard to provide support to farmers in light of what is being widely described as one of the worst droughts in living memory.

“The prolonged drought that is being experienced at the moment is having a significant impact on the farming community,” she said.

“We’ve been developing and evolving our services so we can meet the demands for mental health support in these communities.”

Ms McRae said that talking about mental health doesn’t come easy to a lot of farmers and a lot of the work that is currently being conducted by MPHN is around providing workshops and information sessions on awareness, suicide prevention and arming communities with the knowledge on how to connect people to support when somebody says they aren’t okay.

“I think farmers are generally stoic people so reaching out for help isn’t something that comes naturally to them,” she said.

“Normalising help seeking behaviour is a real key.

“So, we do a lot of mental health well-being, up skilling, suicide prevention activities and are working to reduce the stigma around seeking help which is really important in that space.

Ms McRae said “Another challenge with providing support in the country where there’s less health professionals, is ensuring that access is reachable to farmers in even the most remote communities of NSW.

“One of the challenges is giving farmers access to support when they don’t have the time to go leave the farm – which is always at front of mind for us.

“Farming and rural areas are very community based, so upskilling the community to support people is so important because I think it is often the type of help that people are looking for.

“We also try to engage them through telehealth and digital support when that type of support fits their need.”

Last year the NSW State Government announced $6.3 million in funding to boost support for mental health services, largely in response to the hardships being experienced by farmers.

Drought-affected communities across NSW were provided access to 20 new farmgate counsellors and frontline mental health workers as part of a $6.3 million package, which MPHN was a recipient of.

As part of providing more workshops to farming communities, Australian Red Cross has received funding from MPHN to deliver a free half a day course ‘Mental Health Matters for Farming Communities’ in Berrigan. 

Mental Health Matters is a four-hour free face-to-face workshop available to all Berrigan and Riverina residents. The program covers things like: how mental health affects everyone, personal resilience, recovery after a setback and recognising the signs to get the right support.

Red Cross regional manager Maree Grant said that farming families and communities have shown enormous resilience in the face of an ongoing drought.

 “People across NSW are in the middle of a once in a generation drought, and it’s important that we all support each other to keep our spirits up.

 “Ongoing hardship can be difficult, and these free Red Cross courses are about giving each of us the skills to keep on top of our mental health, and to know the signs when friends and family need a bit of extra support,” she said.  

The workshop will run today Wednesday, August 14, 5pm – 9pm at CWA Berrigan Branch.

To book your free place by emailing [email protected]