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As vast swaths of Australia dry out, a mental health crisis takes shape

Australia — In a community of only about 100 people, Louise Hennessy says, neighbors need to look out for each other. Whenever someone goes quiet for too long, she picks up the phone to check that everything is all right. In recent months, more often than not, the answer has been no.

“The stress of not knowing when it’s going to rain creates a lot of anxiety,” Hennessy said. More than two years of extreme drought has hit tiny Elong Elong — about 225 miles from Sydney — and other places across Australia hard.

On a record-hot summer day in January, Hennessy, 59, didn’t have to call neighbors. This time, they were lining up to speak to her as she stood in the local gas station and handed out application forms for government assistance on behalf of a Catholic organization, the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Outside, a poster announced, “You’re not alone.”

Among the people in line were Sandra and Gary Weavers. Hennessy had called Sandra the day before, worried that she hadn’t seen 64-year-old Gary in some time and concerned about his state of mind.

Standing next to her husband, Sandra Weavers, 56, acknowledged that the drought had taken a toll on him: “It affects him badly,” she said. Whatever happens, she has urged him, don’t “do anything stupid.”

“It’s devastating if you lose someone,” she said, a grim reference to the mounting number of suicides in the region.

The Weavers have so far dealt with the drought better than some others. “You just gotta grab a beer and have it,” Gary Weavers said, sparking a smile on his wife’s face. The liquor store is beyond their means now, so they are brewing their own beer to pass the time until it rains again. Sometimes they have neighbors over to fend off the isolation that drought brings.


Australia’s farmers are known for their resilience and business savvy, and many are still turning a profit. But thousands of others face the same issues as Elong Elong’s tightknit populace. Some here have talked about moving away. But the ones Hennessy worries about most, she said, are those who have completely withdrawn from community life. Local health authorities, meanwhile, say they have recorded a surge in depression and other mental health problems, as well as an uptick in alcoholism — trends observed in drought-stricken regions across Australia and elsewhere.

A University of California at Berkeley study two years ago claimed that droughts drove about 60,000 Indian farmers to suicide over a period of 30 years. Now, Australia’s predicament suggests that drought-related mental health problems can also beset a country whose universal health-care system is widely hailed as one of the world’s best.

 
Increasingly, those seeking help for such problems in drought-hit communities here are not just the farmers, but the local shop owners, truck drivers, chefs and others who are also eventually hurt by the slowing of regional economies.


Farmers don’t usually need to feed sheep that graze in fields, but with the severe drought plaguing parts of Australia, some have been forced to do so. The cost of feed adds to the farmers’ financial burdens. (Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
“Crisis isn’t the word we use,” said Camilla Kenny, a government mental health worker based in the city of Dubbo, about 20 miles from Elong Elong. “We keep saying it’s a marathon.”

The conservative Australian government has resisted calls to reduce emissions to meet future targets, even as its own research institutes warn that Australia will be among the nations most severely affected by climate change. So far, droughts and floods are only two of many reasons some Australian farmers struggle: The others include tariffs and currency fluctuations. But the impact of global warming is expected to intensify in coming decades.


The continent has warmed about one degree Celsius over the past 100 years, and unless emissions are drastically reduced, scientists say, extreme temperature events that now occur about every 20 years could strike almost annually by the end of the century. More devastating floods combined with longer droughts will turn yet more fertile land barren. For Australia’s rural mental health professionals, that makes their work a marathon that may never end.

“What’s frightening is that the things people have been doing for centuries in times of drought, including cutting spending — those solutions are starting to crack after a certain period of time,” said Lauren Rickards, a climate-change resilience researcher with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

In some parts of the southeastern state of New South Wales, where Elong Elong lies, statistics that are seen as future worst-case scenarios elsewhere are already a reality. A long-term Australian study published last year found that droughts between 2007 and 2013 had a far more severe mental health impact in the state than previously acknowledged, especially on young farmers under 35 who lost their jobs or incomes. Those affected were 12 times as likely as their employed peers to experience mental distress, according to a separate study. The group most affected by depression and anxiety was also the least likeliest to seek treatment, however. Many drought-hit farmers live hours from a doctor.

To provide some relief, New South Wales has in recent months hired more than a dozen mental health workers who crisscross the state to identify farmers in need of urgent medical support.

A major challenge they face is the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues. “When a mental health team shows up,” said Jason Crisp, mental health director of Dubbo’s local health district and a driving force behind the new program, “the farm gate is locked.”

To address that, the state health agency hired people who have themselves experienced drought, either as farmworkers or as relatives of farmers. Although these peer workers are not psychologists and have to refer severe cases to specialists, the agency hopes they will be able to get past the stigma and persuade farmers in distress to seek treatment.

The project also seeks to prevent mental health issues early on. Some of the agency’s two-year-long funding will be dedicated to organizing community events — the approach Hennessy was already taking in Elong Elong and its vicinity. She has noticed how monthly community barbecues have become a way of identifying at-risk farmers.

“Sometimes, it’s really hard for people to ask for help and to ask for support, so it’s really important today to make them feel welcome, and to know that it’s okay to ask for help,” she said — a point emphasized by Britain’s Prince Harry when he visited Dubbo with Meghan Markle in October to draw attention to the farmers’ plight.

But some farmers say far more radical efforts are needed to help them, given their particular vulnerability to the effects of climate change. “Financial assistance and farm-gate counselors are only a Band-Aid solution,” said 62-year old Charlie Prell, who said he and his wife suffered severe mental health issues after being forced to sell much of their livestock during a drought about a decade ago.

Since then, Prell has been able to regrow his business, hiring two part-time employees and paying off some of his debts. But the sudden turnaround was in large part due to luck: His farm sits on an expanding wind farm, and he now draws a steady income from hosting turbines.

Even so, Prell said, he and his wife still occasionally suffer from anxiety, almost a decade on.

Mark Gardner, who advises farmers on how to adapt their businesses to climate change, warned that mental health problems often create a vicious cycle, leading to even less revenue, which further exacerbates stress. Once that happens, he said, people “become very reactive, and their decision-making is not very rational. It’s a downward spiral.”

Gardner advises farmers to be braver about abandoning costly farming methods, such as spray watering systems, before it is too late. “Simply praying for rain is incredibly risky,” he said.

Studies that Gardner’s company, Vanguard Business Services, has conducted in collaboration with Australian researchers suggest that farmers who focus on crops that need less water, for instance, are less likely to suffer from mental health issues.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to change, however, is political, according to Gardner.

“There’s a lot of denial about climate change,” he said.

In Elong Elong, many farmers said they do not blame climate change for the current drought. They remain hopeful that drought-breaking rain will one day return, as it always has after prolonged dry periods over the past century.

At her farm, a short drive from the local gas station, Sandra Weaver was celebrating the government assistance she had just received, money that would keep the “wolves at bay” for some time, she said.

But the question nobody here can answer is: for how much longer?


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