Rural communities calling out for help

Drought and uncertainty are rocking farmers’ mental health

“If you want to rock someone’s mental health, give them a large dose of uncertainty.”

That statement from UniSA’s Chair of Mental Health Nursing, Professor Nicholas Procter, sums up the situation that many Australian farmers are facing as they cope with the worst drought in living memory.

“The weather patterns are totally out of their control, and along with enormous financial stress, isolation, a sense of failure and a feeling of disconnect between country and city, our rural communities are calling out for help,” he says.

Professor Procter, who leads UniSA’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research Group, has recently been awarded an additional $459,000 by the State Government to further research projects in mental health and suicide prevention. Much of the group’s recent focus has been in rural and regional areas, delivering a suicide prevention program to health professionals, emergency service workers and rural financial counsellors – basically anyone in those communities who has contact with people in mental distress.

In recent months, Professor Procter and his colleagues have designed, delivered and evaluated a training program to more than 240 people in Coober Pedy, Mt Gambier, Whyalla, Port Augusta, the Riverland and Port Lincoln.

“The average age of those who attended the suicide prevention training was 43 years – coincidentally, around the same age as those with increasing rates of suicide in Australia,” he says. “How these health and human service professionals respond to people in crisis can have an enormous influence on the individual and whether they seek help again in future.”

The need for targeted suicide prevention education is borne out by a recent UK inquiry which examined 6000 deaths by suicide among people who had been treated by a health service. A staggering 86 per cent had been assessed “at no, or low, risk” of suicide but within a week of contact had died by suicide.

“We need to ensure we focus on the person’s conceptualisation of distress, their specific troubles and the way the environment plays its part,” he says. “From there, care can be person-centred. We have delivered a program with ‘lived experience’ – including people who have experienced suicide-related distress and can discuss the importance of compassionate engagement with people at increased risk.”

“Personal stories about people who have overcome suicidal thinking promote hope and encourage others to seek help,” Professor Procter says.

Suicide rates in rural areas are around 40 per cent higher than in metropolitan areas, but – inexplicably – they receive half the amount of mental health funding.

Compounding this is the distance that people travel in rural and remote areas to access help and the stigma around mental illness in smaller communities.

“When things are going well in farming, life is relatively settled, but when things are not going well, people may withdraw and become isolated. That’s the very time to talk about feelings, seek support and social contact,” Professor Procter says.

“In extreme cases, some may feel they need to “ride it out” – to ‘white-knuckle it”-  an approach that can bring its own difficulties and troubles. However, we actively encourage people to reach out for help and find the right tools to navigate the situation.”