Drought-affected farmers are calling for a move away from “city-based” mental health support, backing a new initiative by Beyond Blue that aims to cut through the hopelessness and isolation that can prevent the more than a million suffering rural Australians from reaching out.
Fourth-generation cattle farmer Tim Carr, who has watched the drought hurt his community near Dubbo in western NSW, welcomed the charity’s new initiative, which gives stressed-out farmers support by locally trained mental health coaches.
“The critical issue is that people have to understand the local circumstances and rural people,” Mr Carr said.
“When you live and work on a farm and don’t have time to go somewhere and be with friends and get out of that headspace of drought … It’s like the tightening of a vice.”
Beyond Blue will launch its Dubbo-based NewAccess program this week, with $2.5 million provided by the federal government through the local Primary Health Network to offer a six-week program delivered to residents of western NSW, either in person or online.
It comes as Health Minister Greg Hunt reviews the process under which $1.45 billion worth of mental health services are administered by PHNs across the nation, after an advisory panel he set up recommended changes to improve national oversight of locally delivered services.
Gippsland dairy farmer Sallie Jones, who lost her dad Michael Bowen to suicide in 2016, said rural Australians – particularly men – struggled to connect with traditional mental health services.
“The biggest thing with farmers is, they don’t want to talk to a city slicker or someone with a social work degree,” Ms Jones said.
“Certainly with my father, I’d wished there was someone who could speak to him as a farmer, in farmer talk … We often talk about, what if we could have got him the right support?”
Research by the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health suggests one in three Australians living in rural and remote areas who suffer mental health symptoms don’t think they have a problem, yet are significantly more likely to die by suicide than urban dwellers.
A culture of “getting on with it” makes reaching out for help that much harder, particularly for people who live hours away from a psychologist.
“One thing that rural people are pretty cluey on is if people understand their sorts of situations and experiences – or whether, put bluntly, they’re sitting in a call centre in a major city, ringing up as a clinical professional,” the centre’s director David Perkins said.
“It’s really important to have local people who are part of the solution.”
Major General Stephen Day, appointed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison last year to lead his office’s drought response, said mental health had come up as a critical issue in each of the affected towns he had visited, from Orange to Moree to Swan Hill.
“The communities doing best are banding together to help and support each other through drought,” he said, citing the grassroots Mate Helping Mate program started by farmer John Harper in Temora – helping people “identify mates who are struggling and refer them to the help they need”.
Beyond Blue launched a local mental health coaching service in Gippsland last year, in addition to services in the Riverina, the NSW North Coast and Queensland, with plans to expand the program in other rural locations if funding can be secured.
Chief executive Georgie Harman said access to mental health services was “crucial in rural and remote areas, especially amid relentless drought conditions that have placed enormous pressure on local families and communities”.
“We know country people are resilient, but no one is immune to the kind of stress that comes with life changing events like this drought,” she said.
The government has committed $24.4 million in drought mental health funding over two years, with projects approved by nine PHNs.