Farmers and health organisations have spoken out about more support with drought-related mental health issues experienced by farmers at the personal and community levels.
The calls come after a July 2018 study – Drought-related stress among farmers: findings from the Australia rural mental health study – published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
The main finding shows that NSW farmers experience significant stress about the effects of drought on themselves, their families and their communities.
It is particularly worse among farmers younger than 35 years of age who work and live on farms, especially in remote areas and where they experience greater financial hardship.
Junee farmer Steve Honner, 34, who has worked in a corporate environment and now runs a mixed-farm business and the Pasty Farmer website, said the isolation of farming was compounded by external factors such as droughts.
“People sometimes have a hard time understanding the pressure of running a farm – sometimes it’s mostly alone,” Mr Honner said.
“Successes or failures are all on farmers who go at it alone.
“Farmers are slaves to the weather.
“They are not necessarily rewarded for their hard work like in a corporate world – a farmer can put all the hard work in and if the weather turns to custard, their profits are heavily impacted.”
Mr Honner said the stigma associated with mental health issues was still prevalent among farmers, generally.
“It’s about getting farmers with that perception to feel that it’s okay to ask for help – they need to know that support and appropriate outlets are available,” he said.
Self-awareness during crises is important
Merilyn Limbrick, coordinator of the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program at Murrumbidgee Local Health District, said that while RAMHP had been providing education programs and support over the years, the “biggest issue now is that the drought is so widespread”.
“We acknowledge that some farmers are really resilient and they will soldier on, but self-awareness is also important,” Ms Limbrick said.
“If they feel they’re not coping, reach out and get some help – whether from, family, friends or professional services.”
Similarly, Riverina farmer John Higginson, who’s been a farmer since 1972, said one of the best activities farmers could do to help themselves was to socialise and “have a laugh”.
“One of the things is to remain positive about the outcome,” Mr Higginson said.
“I personally tend to try to look at the happier things in life and laughing does help with stress.”
I personally tend to try to look at the happier things in life and laughing does help with stress.John Higginson, Riverina farmer
In advising farmers to stay mentally well, Dr Alison Kennedy at the National Centre for Farmer Health said farmers needed to put their health atop the priority list.
“There’s the connection between physical and mental health – if people are experiencing physical health, it often has a bearing on their mental health as well,” Dr Kennedy said.
“It is an extra layer of difficulty.”
The National Centre for Farmer Health delivered the closing keynote presentation at a recent Grains Research and Development Corporation conference in Wagga, which focused on identifying and managing the triggers of stress during adversity.
“It’s been identified as a particular issue in the farming community at the moment in NSW,” Dr Kennedy said.
“In Wagga and the Riverina, drought is one of a whole range of elements that contribute to people’s stress levels.
“Mechanisation is also getting bigger so opportunities for farmers to connect socially are reduced.
“They are often working on their own, making it more difficult.”
Asked if there needed to be more done to increase services, Dr Kennedy said “we have seemingly fewer and fewer on-the-ground mental health services in rural areas”.
However, she also said self-awareness among farmers was important and that the stigma associated with seeking help was limiting those who need help.
In Wagga and the Riverina, drought is one of a whole range of elements that contribute to people’s stress levels.Dr Alison Kennedy, National Centre for Farmer Health
“We do find that farmers are very good at helping others but not so much themselves,” Dr Kennedy said.
“Even where services are available in some form – including online and via telephone – people sometimes don’t feel comfortable in accessing those.
“Also in small rural communities, everyone know each other so sometimes there is that stigma with seeking help.”
She said there were simple activities farmers may conduct to ensure positive mental health.
“From eating good food to keeping regular physical routines,” Dr Kennedy said.
“Find the time to do things you enjoy and keep socially and community connected.
“They’re all simple but important for keeping our well-being going, especially in difficult times.”
If you or someone you know is need for crisis support, please contact the organisations below:
Drought-related stress among farmers: findings from the Australian Rural Mental Health Study