Drought assistance not a sufficient prescription for rural mental health
14 November 2019 at 7:45 am
One-off measures that only address financial implications will hardly be a long-term solution for the growing intensity and range of challenges facing rural communities, writes Andrew Cairns.
Drought has never been a foreign concept to those who work the land on our sunburnt country. The potential for long dries and flooding rains has always been a reality for Australian farmers, yet it would be a mistake to pretend the current challenges are normal. Droughts are lasting longer, and extreme weather events have become more frequent as a result of our changing climate. The impacts of climate change can be seen in the crops and livestock but less visible is the immense toll it takes on the mental health of rural Australians.
Climate change is an existential threat to the livelihoods of many Australians living in rural and regional areas. Longer droughts means extended periods of financial hardship and stress. Heatwaves can destroy crops and threaten the welfare of livestock, putting a farmer’s assets at constant risk. Changes to seasonal patterns have resulted in shorter or more sudden windows for harvesting or sowing, making it difficult to secure the necessary labour when it’s needed. Rural Queensland for example has been ravaged by fires this year only weeks after the end of winter. Many families have lost their homes to fires and the thought of it is a constant and rising fear for many others.
Financial hardship is only one of the stresses caused by climate change. It is incredibly distressing for farmers who care for their animals and livestock to see them going hungry or suffering in extreme weather. There is also emerging research indicating that one of the deepest mental health impacts on farmers is the loss or feared loss of identity and attachment to the land, as they consider giving up their farm. Similarly, the anxiety felt by many parents about the deteriorating state of our environment is likely to be felt more strongly by families in rural areas, whose lives are often tied more closely to the natural world and who plan to pass on the family farm to their children.
As you might expect, these stresses contribute to higher rates of poor mental health and suicide in regional or rural areas. According to the National Rural Health Alliance, “this is expected to surface in the form of depression and anxiety, psychological trauma and post traumatic stress, drug and alcohol abuse, social withdrawal, relationship disharmony and, in extreme cases, self-harm and suicide.” One long-term study of 30 to 49 year old males in rural NSW found that there was a 15 per cent increase in suicide during drought years. Making matters worse, mental health services are far less available in rural areas, in clear contrast to the need.
Struggles with mental health are often invisible but as a society we have started to recognise that they cannot be ignored. Particularly when we can clearly identify a clear driver of poor mental health, such as climate change. Rural communities are in desperate need so I welcome the government’s recent announcement of drought assistance – a one-off payment to come when a household is no longer eligible for support payments. I’m sure many rural families will welcome anything that eases the financial pressures, even just a little. However, one-off measures that only address financial implications will hardly be a long-term solution for the growing intensity and range of challenges facing rural communities.
The federal opposition has gone further in calling for a “war-cabinet” to tackle the drought, which may address a broader range of issues. However, much like the government response, it fails to acknowledge the role of climate change in exacerbating drought conditions.
There is simply no long-term solution to this problem without a national policy framework that adequately responds to the challenge of climate change, including its many impacts on health and mental health. As part of that, government must support civil society to make mental health services more readily available to rural communities – particularly now that technology can help overcome the tyranny of distance. The business community can also step up to support rural communities through tough times by considering where they source food and farmed materials, how much they are willing to pay, favourable credit conditions and their capacity to offer rural job opportunities.
Australians have thrived in this country’s sometimes-harsh environment through a collective sense of mateship. Now, as climate change makes it even harder for those who work the land, we need to care for each other more than ever.
About the author: Andrew Cairns is the CEO of Community Sector Banking, Australia’s banking specialists for not-for-profit organisations.