When talking about farm safety, it’s easy to focus on the physical rather than the mental. But when it comes to the safety, health and wellbeing of Australia’s farmers, mental health needs to be at the forefront of our minds.
Around 20 percent of Australians face mental illness, and rates do not vary greatly between urban, regional and remote areas. However, rates of self-harm and suicide increase with remoteness, highlighting a need to address the unique problems facing people living in rural and remote Australia.
According to the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH), the number of suicides per 100,000 people in 2016 was 50 percent higher in rural and remote Australia than in the cities. This rate gets higher with remoteness, and the rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is twice that for non-Indigenous people.
There’s not one clear reason behind this correlation, but certain factors might help explain it. According to Tessa Caton, Program Manager of the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program at the CRRMH, there are certain behaviours and issues around mental health that arise predominantly in rural and remote areas. For example, people in rural and remote areas are less likely to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental illness than people in city areas.
Distance from services and resources also creates a major barrier to people accessing help in rural and remote areas. Ms Caton says that despite developments in e-resources and virtual forms of psychology assistance, issues of distance and privacy still arise when seeking face-to-face support.
Physical isolation can also lead to a lack of social contact, which may mean that a person’s decline in mental health goes unnoticed by friends and acquaintances.
Another factor signposted by Ms Caton is there can be a lack of diversity in some rural economies, which poses challenges to the resilience of these communities.
Farmers might be heavily dependent on one commodity, for instance, so if financial problems arise around that commodity there can be limited options for income diversification or alternative employment.
Adding to this is the pressures imposed by natural disasters and adverse weather events such as drought. Ms Caton says that the current drought is definitely having an impact on the mental health of people living in rural and remote Australia. She says that drought is particularly problematic due to its prolonged nature.
“People under prolonged stress are more likely to develop anxiety and depression. This is as opposed to acute periods of stress that might be brought on by other forms of natural disaster.”
While these trends help explain higher rates of suicide and self-harm in rural and remote areas, it is important to note that rural and remote communities are not all the same, and do not face identical issues.
They vary greatly, whether it be in size, culture, industry, or weather patterns. Similarly, not every rural or remote community has high rates of mental illness and suicide. As an anonymous commentator once said, “When you’ve seen one rural town… you’ve seen one rural town”.
This Farm Safety Week, it’s important to consider mental health, and treat it with the same importance as physical health.
More information can be accessed via the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP) here. The RAMHP are set to launch another podcast series soon, including an episode on coping with drought.